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Elysium movie review: in space, nobody can hear you politicise

Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 is another loud action movie ensconced in political allegory. This time around the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.

Elysium

See itWriter/director Neill Blomkamp fires up the political allegory-o-matic in Elysium, a futuristic sci-fi based in a universe where high society live on a massive Utopian wheel floating in space and plebeians reside below them, bossed around by droids on an impoverished robot-ruled earth.

Max (Matt Damon) will do anything to walk the bright green grass (way) above him, and, more urgently, to take advantage of Elysium’s self-serve healthcare system, which can cure leukemia in, oh, thirty seconds.

Like Vincent (Ethan Hawke), the protagonist of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997) — of which Blomkamp’s louder and brassier movie shares several similarities — Max’s days are numbered, having suffered a good old fashioned burst of fatal radiation poisoning. Also like Niccol’s similarly cautious “how do you measure progress?” space drama, Elysium’s upper class expend considerable effort keeping working folk where they belong.

Blomkamp is skillful at creating big images loaded with social commentary, such as a stop the boats type moment when Jodie Foster’s malevolent Secretary of Defense orders the destruction of vessels approaching Elysium stocked with desperate human cargo.

He should be, given his rather spectacular dry run. Blomkamp’s blistering debut District 9 (2009) was awfully effective at using an aliens-among-us premise to riff on notions of class divide and entrenched racism. His follow-up is less innovative and more “Hollywood” but still lands some impressive blows.

Blomkamp got his hands on Christopher Nolan’s rumble machine, inserting now familiar death-by-Dolby robotic throat clearing noises (VVVVRRRRRRMMMMMM) to inflate already unsubtle moments. He plucks another trick from the Inception play book, breaking up climactic sequences with dreamy flashbacks characterized by outdoors locations and brighter colour palettes.

There is a disconnect between Blomkamp’s snazzy production values, his cartoony script and the seriousness of Elysium’s big ideas and the dramatic moments that power them. At least one of the villains (Jodie Foster) could have been stroking a cat and pulling levers to unlock trap doors in the floor. Emotionally the audience is likely to experience an off-and-on relationship with Max, and the story more broadly. The opening act, which details Max’s down in the ditches life with Dancer in the Dark-like brutality, is the strongest. But the film is genuine throughout.

Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t called 1001 Ways to Destroy Matt Damon, which would have been a more honest title. Damon gets punched, kicked, whacked and hurled around like a piece of meat. He gets shot, stabbed (twice), tasered, has a device inserted into his head and — like Vincent in Gattaca — goes on a date with a bone saw. There’s also the whole radiation poisoning thing.

Like Edmond O’Brienin in D.O.A. (1950) and Jason Statham in Crank (2006) Damon will die if he doesn’t do something about it, so most of the movie is about him trying to do something about it. Briefly Blomkamp plays with the tantalising prospect that Max’s determination to live may cause others irrevocable harm, but it’s one of several ideas ditched in favour of biff and bombast.

The conclusion finds a pretty good way to satisfy mainstream audiences without welching on an ambitious central concept, which is no easy feat. But if a character is able to signify a turning point in the story by deleting the word “illegal” on a command prompt (in the future humankind appears to have gone back to using MS-DOS) and replacing it with “legal”, something has got a bit sloppy in the screenwriting department, and it’s not the script’s only goof-up.

As in District 9, Blomkamp is able to have his cake and eat it too, wrapping meaningful allegory around scenery-detonating multiplex fodder. But this time only just.

Elysium’s Australian theatrical release date: August 15, 2013. 

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  • 1
    peter doyle
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    A decent adaptation of H G Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ would have had more resonance than this.

  • 2
    Altakoi
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Its pretty watchable because Damon and Foster just always are, but it left me with a life resolution to give big blockbusters the flick forever. Its been a journey since Terminator 1, but its time we saw different people. They all start with 15 minutes of beautifully shot exposition but, really, its just a big video game. You can see the evenly paced battles, minor boss levels, leading up to the big boss level, in which resolution of the story can only ever come from defeating the guy with all the guns.

    Its dumb, because it leaves completely alone questions like why do the folk of Elysium hoard all their wealth? Are they just mean, because if you can grow legs in a few minutes you would have to be pretty mean not to let people have some of that or are resources really that short?. Are they greedy? But if you have robot police to oppress people surely you could have robot workers to keep everyone in luxury? Who uses people to build robots? Or is Earth really just so irretrievably stuffed that a decent standard of living is only possible for a minority and Elysium is really an ark fighting for its existence. Because for a movie which is clearly meant to pang the conscience of affluent first worlders like me, by the end of it I was fairly much rooting for the Elysium folk.

    Sure they were elitist but, taken in the movies own terms, it would seem they were the only future for advanced society left. They seemed like decent folk, they had a nicely running government, some pretty cool technology. Given a few hundred years I could see them going places. If they had been a bunch of indolent Gina Rhineharts that would not be the case, but it would have requires something a bit more detailed than “thats not fair” as a plot device. Because really, does anyone think overpopulation, a failing ecology and mutant economics on a heavily armed planet is just a question of being nice to people? This is delusional liberal soft p**n of the worst kind. Give me Gattaca, that movie had heart.

  • 3
    Harry Rogers
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree Altakoi. Didn’t you realise that this is the “new” artform a la Scorcese.

    Chop ‘em up more blood , close up of as much gore as possible and don’t worry it never really affects the young ones just like advertising has no effect on people.

    Never seen pictures of the Holocaust.. no problem.. we have plenty of kid directors these days who’ll give you first hand reproduction with no responsibility taken.

    You see its these twisted victims of the world who can only find solace in violence. Find any of these directors who can write a film about love . Impossible they are just totally insecure little morons looking for attention.

    Hitchcock would have turned in his grave to see what movies have become today.

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