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Elysium: Socio-Economic Gaps Are Solved With Power Armor

August 10, 2013

I find I rarely get to say this about films, and since it was my first thought when Elysium started, I’ll share it with you now: Wow! I really love the art direction in this film.

There’s something about how Neil Blomkamp has envisioned the future that is both familiar and distinctly different. The titular space station looks like a mash up of planned suburban communities and every ‘city of the future,’ concept art I’ve seen in the past five years. Meanwhile, Earth now looks like a cross between the brown/gray cityscapes of modern first person shooters, Brazilian favelas, and concept art for cities of the future after they’ve been left to decay for a couple of decades. Add in all the technology that we see from shuttles to power armor to a souped up AK-47 (or more likely AK-74) and you have just a really great realistic and consistent looking film.

Elysium marks Blomkamp’s second major film, and I must say that my expectations were largely met though sadly not surpassed. I often hold up Blomkamp’s first film District 9 as a prime example of the kind of original films that people are clearly hungering for. With its $210 million worldwide box office on a budget of $30 million, to say this was a great success is a massive understatement. To think that it did so well when it barely broke even in the first weekend, and is fairly niche to begin with, also speaks highly of both the film and its writer/director.

However, when I first started seeing shots and trailers for Elysium, I was instantly reminded of the final fight scene of District 9. Blomkamp’s science fiction meditation on refugees, racism, corporatism and so much more also contains an awesome action sequence involving oversized power armor, private military contractors, and some other over-the-top science fiction hardware. A lot of Elysium I think spins out of that scene and what I interpret as Blomkamp’s desire to have what can be best described as a thinking man’s action movie.

If you’re looking for a movie with good action sequences, cool sci-fi gear, and clear writing then Elysium will deliver. Where its strength truly lies though is that you can choose to engage deeply with it or not. There’s a lot going on with the world, the characters, and the plot itself, that you can easily dig into it and pull things out. Or you can just sit back and watch Matt Damon wear power armor, and fight Sharlto Copley (the sniveling bureaucratic lead of District 9) who has a wonderful turn as a psychopathic villain. Jodie Foster also has some great scenes though they primarily consist of somewhat blunt dialogue about the horrors the leading nations of the world let occur ostensibly in their name for their standard of living.

Elysium is a spot on movie that plenty of nerds, film or otherwise, should have a lot of fun nitpicking apart while general movie going audiences will definitely enjoy it as probably one of the more memorable blockbusters of the summer.

After all, Man of Steel is the movie you saw because everyone did (or the movie that destroyed Metropolis depending on how much you care), Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 are already distant memories, and Pacific Rim stands tall as a 500 foot nerdgasm.

With the summer drawing to a close I think the films people are really going to remember are (for better or worse): Fast and the Furious 6, The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, and hopefully Elysium. In the last few weeks, we’ll see what else might join that list.

Read on if you’re a superfan who can’t get enough of my nonsense.

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Greetings, superfans! Chariots chariots!

I think the main thing that I want to complain about in this film is that by virtue of being a Hollywood flick, its ending could only be so dark. It’s funny how despite this weird almost fetishistic relationship we have with dark, brooding, cynical films we still can’t allow for a bleak ending. Now I’m not saying that Neil Blomkamp wrote a sad ending and it got focus grouped out of his hands or something. After all, looking at the end of District 9 I think he’s a pretty positive guy at the end of the day.

Still, I can’t help but sit here and wonder, would Matt Damon’s character Max (who I really thought was named Matt for the first few minutes of the film) have actually succeeded in his plan?

For those who have seen the movie or don’t care about spoilers. The whole concept of the film is that because Jodie Foster is sick of being told to defend Elysium from the poor and desperate, while at the same time being told that she basically can’t do her job in the most efficient way possible, she colludes with an arms manufacturer to perform a coup. The problem arises when Matt Damon’s character, desperate to be smuggled to Elysium after a horrible workplace mishap leaves him dead within five days unless he can reach one of Elysium’s magical healing beds, decides to steal all of the information (Bank account numbers, passwords, etc) out of the CEO’s head for an underworld figure named Spider.

Since the CEO also has the program that will enable Jodie Foster’s coup in his head, Matt Damon’s brain hijacking basically creates a massive political and practical problem for her. It’s sort of Johnny Mnemonic meets a political thriller, and gives the film some solid real world grounding for its plot. Basically, Matt Damon decides to use his own brain as a bargaining chip to live, unaware that once extracted from his brain the program will kill him (due to a safety protocol to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen).

Things get complicated, and Jodie Foster uses all of these super-covert ops that aren’t very covert anymore to manufacture a political crisis plus perform her original coup. Except, lo and behold, the psychopathic covert operative has decided that he’s just going to use the program to name himself de facto ruler of Elysium. Meanwhile, Spider who despite being an underworld kingpin is actually more of a revolutionary realizes that they can use the program to make Elysium recognize everybody as a citizen and thus save the world from crippling illnesses.

Matt Damon sacrifices himself mostly to save the young leukemia stricken daughter of his love interest/childhood friend. It’s sort of interesting as it’s never made clear who the daughter’s father is, and despite the deep love the two adult characters have for each other we never really see them be intimate. The events around them make things too complicated for even a heat of the moment kiss, and as always, I appreciate that. I love nothing more than restraint in regards to unnecessary romantic subplots.

My problem with this is, even though Matt Damon dies (in a pretty beautiful sequence), I’m really left wondering why their plan works. I understand why it works for the little girl who’s already up on the space station, but why does Elysium just have whole shuttles with their magic healing beds lined up and ready to go if they’re not going to improve the health of the world? Why can’t they just run the program again and be like, “Ew poor people being healthy, no!”? Hell, how does this actually shatter the vast economic inequalities that allowed any of this to happen in the first place?

The ending leaves you with this feeling of bittersweet triumph but in reality I’m left wondering if any of the suffering is really worth it. I suppose at the very least the medical ships will heal a lot of people before they can get the program all sorted out, though it seems to work pretty quickly so I’m not too sure on that.

Sidestepping the ending though, I really did like this movie even when it was being a little too blunt for my tastes. The one downfall is that while it is a thinking man’s action movie, which puts it a cut or two above lots of films, that certainly doesn’t make it high brow. There’s lots of little things to engage with that I enjoyed; particularly the use of drones and the surveillance state, the fact that Matt Damon’s parole officer is a robot more akin to a phone menu than a parole officer, and even just the simple human pettiness of Matt Damon’s boss which ultimately sets off the whole plot. These are really great and they serve to make things realistic.

On the flipside though, there’s also moments where I sat in my seat and thought, “God, really?” Particularly when a doctor tells the love interest Frey, who is a nurse, that they can’t heal her daughter since “this isn’t Elysium.” By this point in the movie the fact that Elysium is a super paradise has already been well established but the film just needs to make sure you remember that because you might just be here to stuff popcorn in your face and watch Matt Damon punch things. The fact that Frey runs to put her daughter into a medical bed, even though she has been told many times that the girl must have at least a fake citizen id for it to work, while creating a beautiful parallel with a scene fairly early in the movie just seems strange. Not as strange as the fact that in the middle of the Department of Defense’s headquarters there’s just a weird industrial section for Matt Damon to have a fight in.

I understand it’s the future, and in the future all buildings will have metal walkways with low railings over chasms of industrial equipment for our power armor fights, but can’t we have at least one unrealistic science fiction movie. You know, some crazy nonsensical vision of the future where buildings are designed like buildings today? With safety protocols.

Overall though I really liked it.

I think the last great little bit I can say about it was I enjoyed the fact that everyone was multilingual. I especially liked the fact that there was plenty of Spanish being spoken, and that it was appropriate and often fell into Spanglish at times. It reminded me of the random Chinese words sprinkled throughout Firefly. The French in Elysium I didn’t quite get but at the same time, I really do feel that there are few languages more aristocratically ridiculous than French, especially since Latin has fallen so quickly out of vogue. So it works to add another layer to the film. Of course, that’s the best part of this film, that it has layers you can peel back and talk about or not.

I leave you with the final thought that I feel like this movie showcases our ability to do space and science fiction movies well. I feel like it’s easy to forget, especially because thanks to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter a lot of the early 21st century has been dedicated to fantasy, but science fiction is really great especially on film and we really do know what we’re doing when we make these sorts of movies. There are clear influences from sci-fi shows that I’ve seen at work this summer in the way things are shot or where they draw inspiration and I’m not just talking about American science fiction. Clearly Pacific Rim owes its existence to Japanese science fiction but I feel like the design of Elysium itself owes a lot to the Gundam series as much as it might Halo. I sincerely hope that we begin to see an upswing in science fiction for it is truly one of the most imaginative and inspiring genres.

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