Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elysium (2013) – Review

Review: Elysium is politically relevant sure (in a simplistic general way), but more so it is a fun sci-fi action film. The film is about Max, a former car thief who struggles through life as a factory worker. Earth has plunged into rampant overpopulation, unbridled pollution, and a wanton lack of resources. The rich have left to live on a luxurious space station called Elysium, free from disease, crime, and other social disorders, leaving the poor to waste away on a dying planet. However, after Max is exposed to a deadly amount of radiation caused by an accident at work, he has an exoskeleton attached to himself so he can breach the security of Elysium to cure himself.  His mission takes on even great stakes when he acquires information that could help all of humanity.

At face value, Elysium presents itself as a timely social drama that attracts viewers with its big sci-fi action sequences. The film seems to be forwarding the protest of the 99%, complaining about the greed of the wealthiest 1% (which holds about 39% of the world’s total wealth a present), which seems to be exaggerated for dramatic effect here – the entire Earth is now essential a third-world ghetto, while the rich live in a pristine utopian garden. And not only that, the wealthy are portrayed as being completely vain, self-centered villains that only care about themselves and their money, while the poor are all good-natured, hard-working everymans just trying to make it day-to-day (personified for the audience through Max). The poor are just trying to survive, while the rich employ despicable tactics and policies to oppress them. Thus, it is easy to get behind Max and his struggle to help humanity and save himself. But, upon closer look, the politics of Elysium just feel too simplified and easy. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s film is just too black and white, when real life mostly exists in the grey. It is true that his presentation of the future is a possibility, as the recent economic crisis, if nothing else, saw the most dramatic transfer of wealth in history away from the lower classes and into the hands of the very wealthy. So, it is not impossible to believe that this trend will continue, the gap widening eventually leading to a disparity comparable to the one in Elysium. The issue with the politics in the film is not so much with that aspect; it is more to do with unilaterally portraying the rich as bad or evil and the poor as good. It just feels dumbed down and thus uninteresting. Plus, I am not even convinced the Earth is better off in the end. I have a feeling undoing the protocols keeping the masses at bay will only exacerbate the problems that have led to Earth’s demise (based on the facts of the film). Really, the only solution is for everyone to move off-world to Elysium-like stations, but that raises the questions of whether or not there are enough resources, and if not who goes and who stays. The film tries to make the connection between today’s economic and social inequality and the exaggerated state of Earth in the future – to raise awareness or incite action or to merely just comment on it? But, its handling of this issue is clumsy and force-fed into clear roles of good and evil, which does not represent real life, and more importantly is not narratively interesting. The simplicity and clear one-sidedness of the politics just leave them feeling preachy, which is not very engaging either. But what do I know, maybe mass audiences need everything to be dumbed down with clear roles (Hollywood certainly seems to think so).

So yeah, that was a tangent. But it is relevant to the overall quality of the film. Social politics play a big role in the narrative. Yet, they are dumbed down and derivative – overly simplified for a film-going audience that the filmmakers clearly do not respect or expect to be able to understand more complex concepts. Thus, the foundation of the film’s narrative, its world, just seems flimsy. And ultimately, Elysium is left feeling just like any other big Hollywood summer blockbuster and not a film that dares to engage its audience socially and intellectually while also entertaining them – it is merely just escapist entertainment (which is fine, but I think fans of Blomkamp expected more).

The logic of the film’s world seems to falter a little as well. It seems like it is too easy for the inhabitants of Earth to breach the airspace of Elysium – why do they not all come in masses making it impossible for the security on the station to control them. But, by the same token, one could ask how is it that the few have controlled the many throughout the history of mankind. Also, the scale of the film feels too small given the context of the narrative, as if Los Angeles is the only city on Earth. Really, the whole film feels like it was set up just to promote the position of how unfair wealth inequality is (and maybe promote universal healthcare), with everything else thrown in so that this message could play to the masses under the guise of a summer blockbuster. Again, the problem is, the ideas expressed in the film are far too simplistic, when in reality the issues are very complex.

In terms of entertainment, the film does work quite well. The action sequences are fantastic and compelling. Blomkamp does a great job managing tension, as the audience is thoroughly enthralled throughout. The characters also work well. Through the use of flashback sequences, showing Max as a young boy with dreams and aspirations, and a crush/friendship with a young girl Frey, Blomkamp endears Max to the audience, even though as an adult he has fallen on rough times and has a criminal background. Max is a strong everyman, which the audience can latch onto – plus, he is facing off against the rich to secure equality for himself (and the masses). It is not fair that they live in such privilege with access to every amenity (particularly healthcare) while he toils away in squalor without the opportunity to better himself or live. The poor are not even citizens. These simple concepts are easy for the audience to connect with as well, especially given today’s economic/political/social climate. Blomkamp also has good villains (though, probably far too one-minded and simple). Delacourt, the defense security tasked with keeping the poor out of Elysium comes across like a wicked witch or evil queen from a fairytale, which again allows the audience to easily accept Max as the hero and root for him to triumph over her. And, her henchman Kruger is just a wonderful amalgamation of universally despicable traits.

While Elysium’s political agenda ends up being its weakness due to the unsophisticated and bluntly preachy manner in which it is presented, the film actually overcomes this shortcoming and succeeds as a very entertaining sci-fi action film. The politics are easy enough to shrug off, as the film feels much more like a fantasy adventure taking place in a storybook world than a gritty look at the future if the world continues down the path it is on. Max is nothing more than storybook hero who goes on a journey to save the kingdom from the evil queen/wicked witch that holds the people down under her tyrannical will. But again, while the film is great fun, it probably will disappoint Blomkamp’s fans.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: With District 9, Neill Blomkamp made an action sci-fi film that was politically interesting and relevant while also being refreshingly engaging and very entertaining. Elysium feels like Blomkamp trying to recapture the magic – this time for a studio – instead of doing something new. While he does do a great job with the action and the characters, this time the film stumbles when it comes to the presentation of its social message. It is a shame really, because the film is otherwise very good. Blomkamp is a director with a lot of talent, and thusly I do look forward to his next project with the same anticipation that I went into this with.

Aesthetically, the film is quite brilliant. Ryan Amon’s score is wonderfully engaging. To some extent, it does sound like it borrows heavily conceptually from the blaring moments of Hans Zimmer’s Inception score, but those big sounds do fit well here too, as they amplify the action and the stakes. Amon also infuses the music with a very electronic/urban sound that fits the chaos of Earth. It is one of the better scores I have heard this year, in terms of it actively assaulting the audience (in a good way). Here is a sample. Trent Opaloch’s cinematography and Philip Ivey’s production design are also both excellent. They do great work, capturing the juxtaposition of the poverty on Earth versus the opulence and cleanness of Elysium.

The cast somewhat plays second fiddle to the big action set pieces and the strong special effects, but they still find their moments to shine. Wagner Moura (who some may know from Elite Squad) plays Los Angeles crime boss Spider who helps Max get to Elysium. Moura has such a great nervous energy that makes what could have been a throwaway character dynamic and interesting. Alice Braga is also good in her small role as Max’s romantic interest. She gives the film heart. Jodie Foster is a lot of fun as Defense Secretary Delacourt, again playing the role as if she were the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty or the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Sharlto Copley plays her henchman on Earth Kruger, a villainous maniac who will stop at nothing to rain terror on whomever he sets as his target. Copley absolutely steals the film. He commands the screen with his presence and the film just seems more enjoyable whenever he is on screen. Matt Damon is good as Max as well. He is charming and completely embodies the everyman persona.

Summary & score: Elysium is a lot of fun, and one of the better summer action films despite the sloppy handling of its political aspirations. 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment