Saturday, 24 August 2013
I’ll be honest – there haven’t been many films in the past few months which I’ve loved. The World’s End and Alpha Papa are up there, but this summer’s blockbusters have, on the whole, been disappointing – Man of Steel lost its way, Kick-Ass 2 was a disappointment, and Star Trek Into Darkness made the grave mistake of having some scenes without Benedict Cumberbatch in. I was, however, looking forward to Elysium, the latest from South African director Neill Blomkamp. His previous feature, District 9, was a great example of relatively low-budget science fiction with a real intelligence to it. After that success, Blomkamp had more money to play with this time. And he didn’t disappoint.
The year is 2154. The Earth has been devastated by over-population, global warming, disease, and all those other bad things that’ll happen in the future. The rich have buggered off to Elysium, a paradise in space where everyone has a sharp suit, a pretty mansion, and a machine that can cure any illness. Max De Costa (Matt Damon), meanwhile, is stuck working in a grimy factory in dangerously downtrodden Los Angeles. When he’s irradiated in an industrial accident and given five days to live, Max decides it’s now or never – he’s going to Elysium, and no-one’s stopping him.
It’s a story revolving around a very strong core concept, which, despite the futuristic setting, is very much rooted in the here and now. It’s about class divide, the one percent, the importance of giving aid to poorer societies, and immigration – all very real, very contemporary issues. The exaggerated divide between Elysium and future-Earth bolsters this point and gives the film a strong political bite. This political side is prevalent throughout, but, importantly, doesn’t get in the way of the fighting and explosions and fun. It’s an adventurous thrill ride that rattles along at a good pace and strikes the balance between action and allegory very well.
Leading us through all this is Max, who, as a former car thief, is not the most cut-and-dry of heroes. Indeed, his main objective for much of the film is simply to stop himself from dying – he just happens to get caught up in the resistance movement and becomes much more of a hero. Damon’s a great choice of lead, bringing his Bourne action credentials to the fore and effectively bringing out the darker complexities of this character.
On the other side of the conflict are Jodie Foster’s power hungry Defense Secretary and Sharlto Copley’s greasily rough, heavily accented field agent, both enjoyably horrible and well-cast. I do think that the inhabitants of Elysium are perhaps one-sided – we never really get to know whether there’s anyone up there who has the slightest bit of sympathy for those down on Earth, and it would be nice to know a little bit more about Secretary Delacourt’s motivations. Nevertheless, the core story is strong enough to withstand this – I was swept away in Max’s quest, and the story retains a powerful feel of political parable.
What also helps paper over these cracks is the magnificent visual panache with which Blomkamp brings this story to the screen. Both the slums of Earth and the fields of Elysium look stunning, and the director’s talent is really brought out when we delve deeper into these vistas. From the chunky robot soldiers that police LA to the homemade weapons used by the resistance, all the technology, costumes, and assorted details of Elysium’s world really enhance the story; it’s an imaginative and impressive piece of world-building. Blomkamp shoots this kinetically and excitingly – though I do think his use of shaky-cam does get excessive, particularly in some of the later action scenes, rendering them difficult to watch.
It’s not perfect, and I do understand people who don’t agree with me, but for me, Elysium is sci-fi at its best – clever, politically charged, beautiful, and thrilling. Neill Blomkamp is a very talented director and has handled the step-up in budget from District 9 well, creating a great blockbuster without losing his edge – his films are big and fun, but ultimately about something relevant, and it excites me that these films are being made. I’ll be looking forward to what he does next. Elysium is exactly what this summer had been missing and my favourite film of the year so far.
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