Elysium: The plight of Max Damon

There aren’t many things I enjoy more than a good film, but one of them is a great film. After hearing about Elysium, the new Neill Blomkamp flick (which hilariously auto-corrects to blowlamp, which I thought was interesting), I had almost made my mind up that it was indeed going to be great before I had even entered the theatre. What I didn’t really count on was that the incredible special effects would outclass everything else in the film by far.

However, with any good film these are more or less irrelevant to a viewer who prefers actual substance over drooling at the beautifully rendered head explodey goodness. We’ll get to the visuals later. First, the nitty gritty.

As he did with District 9, Niell Blomkamp tells a sci-fi story that parallels issues of the present. Elysium is loaded with social commentary. Today the themes are centered on immigration, healthcare, and the imbalance of wealth in society; the rich all live in the eponymous Elysium, a wonderful, clean, disease free space habitat. Everybody else gets to live on the polluted, overpopulated Earth because fuck building a space station for all those poor people. Basically, those unlucky enough to be Earth-born get to be the 99%.

Although a bit of social commentary is all well and good, Blomkamp tends to place a higher value on it than getting you invested in the characters. Matt Damon plays Max, an Earth-born who dreams like everyone else of getting to the beautiful Elysium space station which seems to be entirely populated of rich white men and scantily clad females (also white), who all live in disgustingly boring mansions with large lawns, and most importantly, sun-bed shaped capsules that can heal you of pretty much any disease or injury.

The fact that Max and the rest of the 99% may never reach Elysium in their lifetime is a blatant metaphor for hardworking people from third world countries seeking asylum in a developed country. Elysium explores the bleak oppression of a biased system, mainly the poor being unable to gain decent healthcare from those who could provide it if they weren’t too busy drinking wine, admiring each others mansions, and being all indignant about the ruffians from the hood. Even Max’s workplace parallels the way large corporations outsource their factory work to foreign countries to cut costs, resulting in unhealthy and dangerous conditions for employees.

So the (incredibly bleak) plot reels you in and it’s up to Max Damon to help change the system… With awesome mechanical attachments that allow him to be be super strong and kick some serious ass! Except… He doesn’t really get to do all that much ass kicking.

It was really a missed opportunity in terms of both character development and action. Max doesn’t get a treatment like the one given to Wikus Van De Merwe in District 9. Wikus got to start off as an ignorant employee of the MNU; basically a full blown prick without really knowing it. Then he gets a taste of what is really going on with the company he works for. He gets to have a big realisation that he’s been working for the bad guys and proceeds to team up with an Alien in order to teach the racist pricks a lesson in viscera splattering, because fighting violence with more violence is incredibly fun. It satisfies the urges you have to kick the bad guys right in the nads. In Elysium, this is not the case.

Instead of administering well deserved nad kickings, Max spends most of the film getting his ass handed to him by Kruger, a rather engaging psychopathic bastard with a hilarious South African accent. It was a surprise to me to find out that his accent was actually genuine, as crazy-psycho-Kruger is played by Sharlto Copley, the actor who played Wikus in District 9 (I suppose since I’m not South African I couldn’t really tell). He looks so different in Elysium and his character is so vastly different that I couldn’t tell at all.

Accent notwithstanding, he still seems like the greatest villain of all time when stood next to the character played by Jodie Foster, who I swear is supposed to be a good actor. Her entire performance as Elysium’s secretary of Defense is incredibly robotic. I’m not sure if she was meant to come across as non-human, but some of the cold unfeeling machines felt more deserving of my attention than her.

From what I could discern from Fosters’ first part of clunky dialogue, the character seems to me to embody the paranoia and fear of the lower class that the rich possess. One could argue that all of the things I consider to be flaws are just there to reinforce the helpless, bleak despair one would feel if they were in the shoes of an asylum seeker.

When it comes down to it, I feel that Total Recall (yes, I am talking about the reboot) did a decent job of incorporating commentary on issues of class and over-population, but not so much that it overshadowed everything else in a cloud of obviousness. Essentially I left the theatre afterwards feeling like I’d had a better filmy fix in spite of the plot holes that I won’t go into right now. I understand that it may not have been quite as artistic, but it was amazingly fun and I actually came to care about the characters. Oh yea, and I got the immense satisfaction that comes with seeing the everyman hero take down an oppressive leader with his fists.

Alright enough of that.

Onto the positive!

In spite of some missed opportunities with Max, Matt Damon still performs to his usual high standard of acting and brings a bit of likability to his character. It’s quite contrast to his quasi-love interest/childhood friend who sadly doesn’t get enough screen time for any emotional attachment and in terms of acting is upstaged by an actress in a particularly moving scene involving a bunch of extras with basically no lines.

Sorry, I wasn’t quite done with the negative. I’ll say good things for real now.

As with District 9, the action is solid during the parts of the film when Max Damon is fighting fit. Expect lots of blood, sci-fi weapons, and explosiony catharsis. Which brings me to the thing that truly makes this film worth seeing at the theatres:

Special effects! Yay!

While all of the visuals are spectacular, from amazingly realistic robots to gratuitously violent people-exploding fun, the eponymous Elysium space station stands out as the crown jewel of the films assorted selection of shiny. Needless to say, it is a big step up from the prawns of District 9 (which were also incredibly impressive, but I really need to stop talking about that movie).

The main thing that struck me about the Elsyium space station is that it looks very much like a smaller version of the Halo. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade; Halo was the super-weapon/ring-space-station-world/freaky-zombie-alien-housing thing from the video game series of the same name. Blomkamp and Peter Jackson were in line to make a film adaptation of Halo, yet Blomkamp left the project. The strange thing is, according to Empire Online his words were “The older I get, the idea of inheriting someone else’s ideas becomes less appealing”. It seems a bit contradictory seeing as Blomkamp seems to have taken just the really cool parts of somebody else’s idea. This can all be forgiven quite easily though, as he pulls off making it look more incredible than it ever did in a video game. I suppose a $115,000,000 budget helped, but I’ve seen films with larger budgets that have CG that looks like it could have been used in the average video game cutscene.

The visuals and the action reason enough to go and see this at a good theatre. Few movie-going experiences can compare to seeing visual effects like these on the big screen. Never before have robots looked so incredible in combat scenes. These machines will make Michael Bay want to cry in a corner while the camera frantically circles him quickly enough for you not to see his tears.

All in all I have to say that in spite of Elysium being a step down in quality from District 9 in terms of everything but effects, it is still essentially a good film that you should totally fork out some cash to see. As I write this, Wikipedia tells me it still hasn’t recouped it’s budget, and I really want to see some more of that unique Blomkamp-style violence soon.

Aaaand it’s 5:00am. Oops. I suppose that’s what I get for being a movie nerd.