Thursday, 22 August 2013

REVIEW: Elysium

It was at Movie-Con 2 a few years back, sat in NFT1 at the BFI Southbank, when the audience went silent for the mid-morning secret screening. Everyone was hoping for the same film, and that soundless wishing paid off when written across a black screen came 'Peter Jackson presents'. Everyone went mental, with screams and shouts of relief - we were to be the first public audience to view Neil Blomkamp's feature debut, District 9. And boy was it worth the anticipated hype. District 9 smashed through barriers and cliches abundant in so much Hollywood sci-fi, and as a result Blomkamp delivered one of the best ever sci-fi movies, and introduced the world to charismatic Saffa, Sharlto Copley. District 9 was funny, gritty, violent, nuanced, heartfelt and hyper-realistic, and actually carried a message without an American flag or a hero running in the rain. It was an impressive debut, and led to Blomkamp's hype as Jackson's protege, as the older schooled Blomkamp whilst working together on SFX and also in an attempt to create Halo (before the plug was pulled). The sky was the limit for this boy wonder.

His second feature, Elysium, doesn't have the same appeal as District 9, but then no films really do, as the budget shoots north to around $100m and the action gets bigger and louder. In keeping with the current vogue about dystopian visions of Earth (Oblivion, After Earth, Pacific Rim, World War Z, errrr....The World's End), Blomkamp's vision is certainly the most impeccably rendered and plausible: Earth has become overpopulated, essentially forming huge sprawling settlements where everything is haggard and dog-eared due to overuse and wear. Buildings are collapsing, and Earth's surface has a sheen of grime, much like the gadgets, gizmos and weaponry used in the film (there is no denying Blomkamp's eye for detail, the guy is a visionary). Due to Earth's poor conditions and lack of space, the rich have moved onto a space station called Elysium, where they can continue to lead the lives they can afford amongst a picturesque Hamptons/Beverley Hills landscape. However, the main plot device is in the form of a medical chamber which can cure any disease or ailment with a quick lie down. Every home in Elysium has one, and the dying people of Earth are desperate for access, even daring dangerous illegal missions to the space station to try and access these chambers. In this world is Max (Matt Damon), an orphan and ex-con who, due to an unfortunate accident at work, has only days to live. In order to prevent the inevitable he must venture to Elysium and save himself, but in order to pay for safe passage, he must carry out a very dangerous and tricky mission: capture and download the brain data from a prominent Elysium citizen. However, what he unknowingly downloads could be the key to everyone's saviour - cue daring heists, spaceship crashes, brutal knife fights, mecha-suit bonding and some robot decapitation.

The plot is fairly so-so, essentially putting a clever spin on an old yarn - underdog fights the system and against the odds frees the people - but it's not always about plot when summer blockbusters are being considered. The acting is solid, if at times overplayed, and the characters leave quite a lot to be desired, as backstory and depth of character isn't really in play at all here, and the weak love interest should have been dropped all together - Alice Braga seriously needs to change tack. However, the fairly predictable performances are bolstered by Wagner Moura as Spider, an tattooed eccentric kingpin who is the go-to guy for illegal carriage to Elysium, and the brilliant Sharlto Copley as Kruger, a black ops sleeper agent for Elysium's evil Senator Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Kruger is a scene-stealer, and I found myself looking forward to his scenes the most. Copley obviously had fun playing the psychopathic agent, who in the film is described as having numerous human rights violations to his name; Kruger is the most depraved and ruthless of villains, taking pleasure in carnage, and a great opposition for Damon's brooding Max.

Despite some lacking in character development, which was so abundant in District 9, and including a couple of pointless plot threads, Elysium demonstrates that big-budget sci-fi can be much more believable and absorbing than Hollywood would have you think. Blomkamp has built a brilliant vision of the future, and still maintains his position at the forefront of science-fiction. He has claimed that this will probably be his biggest ever budget, not sure if he'll ever return to a film of this size and scale, and if that is the case, you can only applaud his stellar effort at a blockbuster, and look forward to his next, more intimate project, Chappie. No matter the idiosyncrasies and minor quibbles of his blockbuster, the two locations (Earth and Elysium) are so beautifully-rendered, the film completely absorbs you from beginning to end - especially in all it's IMAX glory. Science-fiction on film has a new wave to carry the torch, with Neil Blomkamp, Gareth Edwards and Duncan Jones to blaze the way. Already it's easy to draw parallels with Duncan Jones, who, like Blomkamp, had an amazing debut with Moon and a weaker follow-up in Source Code. I suppose it's inevitable that Edwards' Godzilla won't be as good as Monsters, his beautiful debut tale. I think it's pretty clear (as everyone knows) that with bigger budgets comes bigger egos and studio interference, stifling the vision and creative edge that many of these up-and-coming directors bring to the table so abundantly, and you can't help but wonder if Elysium would have been a five star film if Blomkamp had a lower budget, which comes with increased freedom from producers. [4/5] 

1 comment:

  1. Not as special or thought-provoking as District 9, but definitely just as thrilling. Nice review.