Saturday, August 10, 2013

Damon's Run: ELYSIUM

Set in a pessimistically plausible future, Elysium finds the world’s richest few orbiting the Earth in a space station of the same name. It’s a perfect artificial paradise free of disease and strife. Everyone else is struggling to survive on the planet below, a world that is overpopulated, polluted, and where poverty is pervasive and inescapable. To get sick here is a death sentence. That’s what happens to Max, an ex-con turned factory worker played by the always-likable Matt Damon. He’s caught in an accident on the factory floor and told he has five days to live. Desperate to survive, he begs a man (Wagner Moura) who specializes in getting illegal transports to Elysium to find him passage. The deal is this: if he can make it to the space station, he must agree to help those in need. Pumped full of painkillers and fitted with a robotic exoskeleton that’s been painfully drilled into his body, Max is sent out on a mission to crash Elysium and liberate health care for the masses.

The film is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who made his feature debut in 2009 with the phenomenally successful District 9, a movie that used aliens that land and are promptly subjugated in South Africa as a metaphor for apartheid. I wasn’t the biggest fan, but it’s certainly an enjoyable movie for the most part. Now, with Elysium, he’s made a film that’s even more overt and heavy-handed about its allegorical intent. It’s loud and simple, but powered by so much contagious anger towards a super-rich minority who here not only keep to themselves enjoying total worry-free luxury while the majority barely gets by, but horde clean air, clean water, and the best medical care available. It is an unjust situation, plain and simple. The icy head of security (Jodie Foster) is determined to keep out the unwanted masses, going so far as to shoot down incoming unauthorized space shuttles filled with illegal immigrants. She looks at them as moochers unworthy to even glimpse Elysium’s palatial suburban gardens or catch a sniff of their pristine air.

In the film’s opening minutes, terrific detail and convincing special effects fill up the screen in fine sci-fi fashion. Set in future Los Angeles far from the typical Blade Runner vision, vehicles are worn-down, technology is unreliable, the teeming masses speak a combination of English and Spanish and live in a sprawling, crowded series of favelas. Max is the victim of police brutality, the coldly logical robot cops beating him for nothing more than his criminal past and a bad joke. He sees his parole officer, a scuffed plastic head with a mocking frozen smile telling him in a muffled computerized accent that he has eight additional months probation. By the time he’s had the accident and makes the deal to attempt an escape to Elysium, we’re fully immersed in the labyrinthine details that keep the majority of the population poor. It’s a systematic failure enforced by Elysium and unwillingly perpetrated by those on the ground. What is made at the factory Damon works? The very robots that keep the populace down.

All the allegorical force and intriguing futurist conjecture of the film’s opening third is placed in the background as the action cranks up and the film becomes a thundering, clattering, lightning fast spectacle of fisticuffs, gunfire, explosions, and gore. The head of security activates an extralegal agent named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a vicious creep outfitted with all kinds of fancy weaponry capable of liquefying anyone in his path. He storms after Max and the movie becomes a tense series of bruising combat and close calls. The haves-versus-have-nots throughline very nearly gets lost in the shuffle in a movie more interested in fun setpieces, super cool special effects, and villainous switcheroos than in making sure the allegory tracks perfectly at all times. But an innocent nurse (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter (Emma Tremblay) get caught up in the action to provide a boost of emotional content and obvious rooting interest. (Who can root against a sick child, right?)

Blomkamp keeps the look of the picture agreeably skuzzy. The amount of dirt, grime, dust, and sweat on display makes all the more vivid the earthlings living conditions, as well as their constant toil and exertion. It makes their striving all the more real and urgent, especially in contrast to all the sleek lines and pristine surfaces orbiting above them. He’s smart to make the drive to sneak aboard Elysium not about stomping on wealth out of jealousy or spite, but to provide life-saving resources (medicine, clean air, pure water) for those most in need. It’s a fight for rights. The fight turns into a fairly typical sci-fi actioner, but it’s done in a largely satisfying way, just inventive enough to keep things interesting. I could’ve done without quite this level of lingering on splattery violence, with futuristic weaponry that blows people apart, but I would not for one second suggest going without the film’s biggest gory shock to one character’s face and the coolest gross-out effect that soon follows. You’ll know it if you see it.

Though both the film’s intriguing world-building and hurtling action are largely symbolic and naturally, forcefully thin, the thinly written roles have the benefit of some fine actors. But only Damon truly elevates the material, with his natural, compelling ability to invite instant empathy put to use with a no-frills, working-man striving in his demeanor, a resigned sadness in his eyes that sharpens into steely, determined hope. He’s a compelling center around which a sci-fi concept can confidently turn into a mildly brainy shoot-‘em-up. Though it ends up in a more standard place than it initially appears headed, Elysium is ultimately fast and satisfying on the most basic levels. It’s entertaining and trim, fun in the moment and over before you know it.

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