Sunday, March 01, 2015

Elysium (2013) **

It's impossible to talk about Neill Blomkamp's “Elysium” without talking about politics. It's a shame, because the insistent, one-sided political message ruins the story and what is an otherwise promising action, sci-fi movie.

“Elysium” imagines a future earth which is so overcrowded and polluted that those who can afford it have abandoned the surface to live on a giant, ring-shaped, orbiting space station called Elysium. Conjuring up the biblical image of a “wheel in the sky,” Elysium is visible from the gritty sprawl of Los Angeles and serves as a tantalizing lure for the slum-dwelling millions below. Is there anywhere on Earth that isn't this squalid? The movie doesn't tell us, nor does it reveal to us much about the citizens of Elysium other that they live in nice houses, each equipped with a medical scanner that can diagnose and cure any disease.

Down on the over-populated earth, they don't have these scanners, so that is a strong draw for sick earthlings to try to sneak up to Elysium, break into the houses, and get access to the healing devices. When factory-worker Max (Matt Damon) gets exposed to a lethal radiation dose, he becomes desperate to get up to the station before radiation sickness kills him. He contacts smugglers he knows from his days as a criminal, and they agree to smuggle him to Elysium if he will first hijack a rich executive and steal secrets from his brain.

Meanwhile, Elysium's ruthless security chief Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is engaged in a political tug-of-war with the station's weak-willed president. He doesn't have the stomach for Delacourt's policy of shooting down unauthorized shuttles when they refuse to turn back, but he has no plan for dealing with the “undocumented immigrants” or the inequality that draws them. Delacourt cooks up a rather un-believable plan to depose him with a computer system reboot. Max uncovers this plan when he hijacks the executive, and the computer code he downloads makes him a hunted man.

Science-Fiction has always provided plenty of opportunity to explore political and social issues. Neill Blomkamp did this well in “District 9,” where he explored the complexities of dealing with a refugee population. The initial contact between the humans and the starving aliens in that film is filled with promise, but due to poor communication, the aliens are not able to integrate into earth society. Openness gives way to suspicion and fear, and the aliens become a ghetto-ized underclass. The film recognizes that the situation is not the result of intentional evil on the part of either side, but rather developed as a result of one unfortunate incident after another, as well as basic human (and alien) nature. By acknowledging these complexities, “District 9” is able to serve as a vision and a warning about relations between different groups of people, while at the same time serving up satisfying sci-fi action.

“Elysium” gets the sci-fi action part right, with stunning images of the space station and of guys duking it out in cool exoskeleton suits. The concept is cool as well. As with the movie “Snowpiercer,” however, the movie is ruined by a sloppy story that seems to be written solely to promote a simplistic, one-sided political message. Blomkamp clearly has a very Liberal attitude towards issues of health care, immigration, and economic inequality, and some may agree with him strongly enough to enjoy the movie. I imagine that even most liberals, however, will find the reductionist message heavy-handed, like something a college freshman in a Che Guevara T-shirt would have written.

As it happens, in a recent interview, Blomkamp basically apologized for the film, admitting that the story was half-baked.

I feel like, ultimately, the story is not the right story. I still think the satirical idea of a ring, filled with rich people, hovering above the impoverished Earth, is an awesome idea. I love it so much, I almost want to go back and do it correctly. But I just think the script wasn’t… I just didn’t make a good enough film is ultimately what it is. I feel like I executed all of the stuff that could be executed, like costume and set design and special effects very well. But, ultimately, it was all resting on a somewhat not totally formed skeletal system, so the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.

It's rare to hear a director admit so freely to his mistakes, and it gives me hope that Blomkamp still has great work in him. I wasn't very impressed with the trailer for his latest film, “Chappie,” but I liked “District 9” so much that I will probably give the movie a chance. As for “Elysium,” it's a good idea, wasted.

2 stars out of 5

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