Elysium: Politically Charged Sci-Fi

Opens August 9, 2013

“Elysium,” the eagerly-awaited sci-fi actioner, is not as intellectually provocative or as dramatically engaging as “District 9,” Neill Blomkamp’s splashy directing debut, which came out of nowhere (so to speak) and garnered in the process two Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and Best Screenplay.

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One of this summer’s last big-budget CGI movies, “Elysium” will be released by Sony on August 9, 2013. The studio has high hopes for a box-office success that would compensate for several major flops, “Another Earth,” “White House Down.” Likely to get critical support (though not universal acclaim), “Elysium” is a politically charged film and as such demands more attention than the usual summer pop corn mass entertainment.

Like “District 9,” “Elysium” is a socially-conscious sci-fi, fueled by an interesting idea—social class conflict—but after presenting the intriguing premise, the film turns into a more conventional actioner, dominated by some thrilling set pieces and state of the art effects. In other words, the film declines considerably after the first hour or so.

Despite its shortcomings, by standards of mainstream Hollywood spectacles, especially this summer, “Elysium” is at least a notch or two above the norm. But I think it would be a mistake to label it as “the thinking man’s actioner”–the picture is not that cerebral and it also conforms to conventions of actioners.

The film benefits tremendously from the dominant performance of Matt Damon, who seems to be enjoying a career height this year-—what with his turn as Liberace’s jilted boyfriend in Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” (HBO).

Borrowing some ideas from Fritz Lang’s seminal silent sci-fi epic, “Metropolis,” “Elysium” is set in 2154, in a polarized society defined by sharp and rigid stratification along socio-economic status lines. Essentially, there are only two classes: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium (“the haves,” to use a Marxist terminology) and the rest of the populace (“the haves not”), who live on a densely populated, largely ruined planet that screams for help and renewal on any level.

We learn that in 2013, only six astronauts live and work on the international space station, about 250 miles above the Earth. However, 150 years (why 150???) from now, the place will expand to become a luxurious, well-equipped home for the rich. Elysium’s small group of people uses their vast resources to build a separate, hermetic space for themselves—far away from the maddening crowds. For the director, “Elysium” represents the opposite of the usual Hollywood story of alien-invasion. The members of the elite protect their privileged way of life not by fighting for Earth, but for going into space.

We have seen many dystopian tales lately, but this one touches hot buttons in at least three respects: The haves not are minority citizen (Mexicans and other Hispanics), they are underpaid blue-collar workers, and, most important of all, they lack health insurance. In other words, according to this dark, nightmarish picture, in 40 years, L.A. would look and feel like a Third World Country.

The inhabitants of Earth are desperate to escape the rampant crime and unbearable poverty of their land. But an outright revolution seems impossible, and so the writers resort to the Hollywood norm of “One Great Man,” “A Single Savior” (which, ideologically, is a mistake, in my view).

That man is Max (Damon), a former convict with strong ties to the underworld, described as the only individual who can bring (or increase) equality to these worlds. It’s been Damon’s specialty, his established screen image, to play ordinary men who become extraordinary under pressure ad under specifiable socio-political conditions.

The scribes are not particularly good—they are vague–in explaining why Max seems to be in such desperate need to get to Elysium. But, again following Hollywood conventions, Max becomes a reluctant hero, a man whose life hangs in the balance, and subsequently decides to take on a risky mission, a battle that will put him face to face against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her militant forces.

Initially, the chances for triumph are minimal, but we know that with Max’s determination, commitment to the cause, energy, and skills, he could overcome any obstacles that would help him save his life as well as that of millions of people on Earth.

Elysium suffers from two structural problems: The last reel is weak and, as presented, the “resolution” is neither compelling nor convincing (it’s a let down).

Second, despite a large ensemble of gifted international actors, most of the secondary roles are underdeveloped or one-dimensional.

More about these points later, in a longer review.

Wearing its liberal politics on its sleeves, “Elysium” is a movie that will be embraced by Obama and the supporters of Obamacare.

Box-Office

August 10, 2013–Taking less than expected, Sony’s “Elysium” is looking at a three-day total of about $30 million, enough to beat three newcomers and crowded marketplace of holdovers. Early estimates had the apocalyptic actioner earning just a few million more, so this bow is not far off the mark, but it is modest, given its $115 million budget. The film took $11.2 million Friday domestically, and opened day-and-date in 17 overseas markets.

End Note:

I am willing to bet that if “Elysium” was Blomkamp’s debut and “District 9” its follow-up, it would have received a better critical response. That’s the nature of criticism that’s largely dependent on expectations based on previous achievements, and, not to forget, “Elysium” is only the helmer’s second outing. It’s often tough for filmmakers to match the quality of their first film in subsequent feature. Soderbergh is a prime example of a director, who at 26, began high, “sex, lies, and videotape,” in 1989, which was followed two years later by his sophomore jinx, “Kafka.”

Cast:

Matt Damon
Jodie Foster
Sharlto Copley
Alice Braga
Diego Luna
Wagner Moura
William Fichtner
Brandon Auret
Josh Blacker
Emma Tremblay
Jose Pablo Cantillo
Maxwell Perry Cotton
Faran Tahir

Credits

MPAA: R.
Running times: 110 minutes

Released by TriStar
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriter: Neill Blomkamp
Producers: Bill Block, Simon Kinberg
Executive producer: Sue Baden-Powell
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Philip Ivey
Costume designer: April Ferry
Editors: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith
Music: Ryan Amon
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Muyzers