Elysium: gritty, merciless, action-packed

By on August 14, 2013

There has certainly been an overload of sci-fi movies lately at the multiplex-even more so if you expand the definition to include comic book and superhero adaptations. Not to mention all the fantasy-oriented stuff out there, to boot. As a fan of all the above to a certain degree, I don’t entirely mind, but there is such a thing as an embarrassment of riches- or overabundance of failures.

Thus far, it’s been pretty hit or miss, especially in the straight sci-fi arena, with the likes of “Oblivion,” “After Earth,” “Pacific Rim” and “The Wolverine” all underperforming at the box office, at least in the States. Meanwhile, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel” and “Iron Man 3” have done big box office, but all of the above could have done alright if they’d kept costs down a good bit more. (Okay, maybe not “After Earth”- even Will Smith knew enough to minimize his screen time on that one, though that’s still no excuse for continuing to foist Jaden on us yet again. On a side note, why isn’t director M. Night Shyamalan over yet?)

The next sci-fi flick to throw its hat into the ring is “Elysium,” which I was actually looking forward to, given the high pedigree of those involved. The film is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who also did the honors on one of my favorite sci-fi films of at least the last decade, the superlative “District 9.” It features big-time stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and like “D9,” has undeniable and timely political underpinnings. All of which I hoped would add up to a whole pile of awesome.

I’m happy to say that, for the most part, it does. Basically what we have here is a political allegory for what might happen in the future if we destroy our planet to the extent that it becomes borderline unlivable. In this case, the 1% takes to the skies, building and inhabiting a space station called “Elysium,” which, in case you don’t know your Greek mythology, is basically the place where demigods and heroes and the like go to live out their afterlife. (Big week for Greek mythology, between this and the latest “Percy Jackson”!)

Well, you can see where the remaining 99% would be a little bit upset to be left behind to fend for themselves, least of all when the 1% possesses the means to cure all disease and heal broken bones and what have you at will. Not too cool, 1%.

In this particular Dystopian future, Big Government has the whole immigration issue well under control. You get too close and try and “jump the fence” as it were, you’re either shot down in cold blood or, best case scenario, sent right back where you came from. Meanwhile, everyone on Earth works back-breaking, thankless jobs watched over by unrelenting robot overseers that will break a human bone without thinking twice about it if you mouth off too much for their liking or don’t do your job.

Such is poor Max’s fate, who not only gets smacked down by a robo-a-hole, but gets exposed to radiation and basically given mere days to live. Enter his old criminal associate Spider (Wagner Moura), who offers to help him out and get him to Elysium to be healed on one condition: he steals some downloaded material from shady exec Carlyle (William Fichtner). The problem: it’s in his head.

Even worse, it’s material that can be used to override Elysium’s control system that the nefarious Jessica Delacourt (Foster, in a rare villainous turn) plans to use to stage a coup so that she can become the new President. So, she has some pretty shady guys at her disposal to help take Max and his team down, including a nasty piece of work named Kruger, played by “District 9” star Sharlto Copley.

The end result is basically like Blomkamp’s version of a James Cameron movie, circa “Aliens” or the first two “Terminator” films. The violence is seriously graphic and over-the-top, including such fun stuff like a guy getting his face blown off in near-slow-motion and various people exploding. So, to answer your question about what sets this apart from the bazillion other sci-fi flicks overpopulating the screens this year, that would be it.

In short, it’s a gritty, merciless, action-packed affair that is not for the kiddies and probably not for everyone in general. On the one hand, if you are not the biggest sci-fi fan but like it when the genre is combined with other stuff- in this case, action- then you’re going to love this.

On the other hand, some may be put off by the griminess of it all, not to mention the fact that Jodie Foster is the main villain, which is kind of hard to wrap your head around, admittedly. Also, the acting, even from Foster, is a bit one-note, and doesn’t really change throughout the film. If you’re looking for character arcs, this is not your movie, even in the slightest.

Visually, though, the film is stunning, from the beautiful paradise of Elysium itself to the slum-like areas most of the film takes place in. Granted, it’s nothing you haven’t really seen before, but it’s nice to see a visionary like Blomkamp get to take the reins of a big-budget summer popcorn film like this and not screw it up.

I like that he’s not afraid to be slyly political, and that the film isn’t afraid to show the worst of humanity, even among the supposedly “good” guys, who are almost as flawed as the “bad” ones. In the world of “Elysium,” there is no black and white, only shades of grey, and I like that quality in a film. I’m going to go ahead and give it a B+. It’s no “District 9,” but it’s no embarrassment, either. Can’t wait to see what Blomkamp comes up with next!

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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