Elysium (2013)

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-Review by Paul Ewbank-

Before I start I just wanna point out that 3 of my last 4 articles have been about films/books which have only been out for a few weeks. Is Ablogalypse in danger of becoming a relevant source of information on current media? I sure hope not.

So anyway, Elysium is the second movie written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. His first movie, District 9, is considered one of the best sci fi films of the new millennium- a totally out of nowhere phenomenon that brilliantly mastered the overarching point of science fiction: to use aliens and other worlds to tell us something about our own world. District 9’s South Africa alien ghetto was about as un-subtle a metaphor for apartheid as they come, but all the films political points never got in the way of what was still a totally kick ass action movie. And straight from the outset, Elysium sets itself up to be a similarly successful blend of allegory and mayhem.

It’s the future and earth is vastly over populated and diseased. The wealthy upper classes have fled to the orbiting space station Elysium, where they live a life of luxury while the unlucky majority struggle on below. Matt Damon is one of the unlucky- working a menial job at a security robot factory until a lethal dose of radiation gives him five days to live. His only hope for salvation is to find his way onto Elysium, where their virtually limitless medical technology can cure him, but immigration to the station is strictly controlled and unauthorised transport ships are routinely blown to pieces by defence missiles.

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I’m sure you can get what the analogy is here. All of Elysium looks like Tony Stark’s LA beach house but with more palm trees, while all of Earth looks like an endless sprawl of dirty desert slums where the main language is Spanish and everyone except Matt Damon is some variant of Mexican or Hispanic. Subtle. As Damon’s struggle develops things step up a notch as he finds himself in possession of a code which would reset all of Elysium’s security and allow all of the oppressed earthlings to make their voyage to the Promised Land. Standing in their way are a bunch of scheming politicians led by Jody Foster as defence secretary Delacourt and District 9 hero Sharlto Copley (Wikus!) as Kruger, a nasty, grizzled and very probably insane agent working on earth to ruthlessly quell any unrest. It’s a clever and fast moving plot which leaves space for some great action whilst still making its point very clearly.

So yeah, the plot is good, the action is tense and well shot, both the pristine Elysium and the endless slums of Earth look fantastic and the acting, especially that of Damon and Copley, is rock solid. So whilst it’s certainly a good film and a worthy follow up to District 9, my problems with Elysium are twofold. First, all too much of it will be familiar to anyone who has seen Blomkamp’s first feature. A lone anti-hero with the power to save an oppressed race but instead choosing to save himself? Sound familiar? Do you think there’s any chance he’ll decide to sacrifice himself to allow the prawns, er, I mean humans back on earth to live a better life? Surely not. The distinctly grimy technology, especially the ‘bots, spacecraft and futuristic guns are all fairly reminiscent of District 9 too, and while that’s not really a bad thing, the sense of familiarity robs Elysium of the originality and punch that its predecessor had. The action is uniformly good, and the first major set piece where Damon and crew hijack the all-important codes from the mind of a shady executive is a real standout, but there’s nothing to rival the final giant robot climax of District 9. There are plenty of nifty gadgets to behold though, and Copley is endlessly entertaining as the katana wielding, semi mechanical psychopath with that awesome South African accent we all love.

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My second issue with Elysium came to me as I was driving home from the cinema. So in the end I’m sure it won’t be a major spoiler to say that they do indeed manage to upload the reset code into Elysium, granting full citizenship and proper medical care to the masses down on earth. This is depicted as a universal triumph for humanity that cannot be repealed. All I could think was that if I were the guys in control of Elysium, would hitting Crtl + Z really have been too much to ask? How about loading the system from the last save? Seriously, almost all the leaders of Elysium are left alive and well, so are we really supposed to believe they’re just gonna let hordes and hordes of unwashed Mexicans aboard their ship just ‘cos the blatantly-hacked computer now says its ok? I’m not normally one to pick at plot holes in otherwise entertaining films (that’s Liz’s job) but this one was gaping enough that I could drive a space station through it.

In the end Elysium doesn’t measure up to the best sci-fi of the last few years but it’s still a great watch and none of its limitations detract from a powerful message about whole nations for whom clean living and decent healthcare must seem as distant as other worlds. The fact that it’s even trying to say something important puts it leagues ahead of most of the trash that passes for sci-fi cinema today and Elysium will entertain accordingly. Neill Blomkamp is clearly an exceptionally talented film maker with a lot to say, and if he can just step out of the shadow of his first and greatest movie then no doubt he’ll craft many more masterpieces for us to enjoy over the coming years. In which case having his second film be merely ‘pretty darn good’ will be a forgivable crime.

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