Sunday, August 11, 2013

ELYSIUM (2013) Movie Findings

In the late 21st Century..

The earth has become a polluted, diseased catastrophe. And as a result, the rich and powerful have evacuated the planet to an orbital colony where their lives of prosperity and technologically enhanced mortality may continue.

As for the rest of humanity..

Neil Blomkamp's big budget return is an aggressive, heavy-handed and ultimately satisfying voyage into the nadir of western civilization. The very idea that the man who helmed the modestly funded dystopian underdog work, District 9, would go on to expand upon many of the same concepts with a significant sheen, and succeed as well as this remains pretty astonishing. Gone are the almost script-free bursts of madness, and unerring use of handheld. This is a grand peek into Blomkamp making grand entrance into the world of fiercely studio filmmaking, and coming out swinging, indie streak intact.

ELYSIUM tells the tale of Max, a robot factory worker with a spotty criminal past who finds himself forced to rethink what remains of his dreams when he is poisoned with radiation during a work accident. Having grown up an orphan who continuously dreamed of one day living amongst the dreamlike enchantments of that oh so glimmering goal in the sky. A man so willing to tow the line after doing several years in prison, this accident bolsters Max into returning to the shady underworld in hopes of getting himself a ticket to ELYSIUM, where illegals (IE- anyone not of opulent birthright) have often attempted to shuttle their way (to occasionally disastrous results). Now saddled with only five days left to live, a just recent encounter with his long lost best friend, and a dearth of options, Max is tasked with pulling a dangerous data heist with a small team. And when this inevitably goes horribly awry, leaving him on the run from a dangerous trio of vicious mercenary-types, a sequence of events unfolds that could very well affect both haves and have-nots. But not without a great deal of bloodshed first.

Even from that description, one can surmise that Blomkamp is in no way interested in subtleties. This would be an understatement. While this is in no way Tolstoy, there is a richness to his worlds that speak in ways that his pacing often does not. Which is a potent thing to consider as his vision of a planet-sized sprawl is both terrifying, and impressively tactile. His futuristic Los Angeles is a nightmare vision that could so easily be seen in many a neglected metropolitan area on Earth today. Streets and structures in tatters, often strewn with decay, garbage, and even overgrowth. This is how the world catches up with D9's Johannesburg shantytown. Life is an utter misery, and it is clearly understandable why someone like Max would resort to what he had in his past. But he so badly would rather not, and in attempting to live up to what remains of society, he finds himself back to square one - but with incentive this time. Meanwhile, the citizenry of ELYSIUM find themselves surrounded by sculpted beauty, both natural and constructed, in a symphony of human achievement. A place held in such esteem (often to the longing of many looking above from the Earth) , that those tasked with protecting it will take any measure at their disposal to to do so.  

Enter ELYSIUM's Secretary of Security Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a woman of stature and intelligence who sees herself as the colony's first and final line of defense. Unafraid to kill often innocent women and children to achieve her goals, Delacourt is even seen as problematic to the habitat's President Patel (Faran Tahir). Even as gears are in motion to reprimand Delacourt for her methods, she is soon harboring plans of her own in the name of maintaining what she sees as an ocean of necessity. And this also means keeping mangy private security specialists such as Agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley, in a truly menacing turn), an expert tracker, and an obvious psychopath. With allegiances splintered even amongst those in charge of maintaining the status quo, Delacourt represents the nasty side to this most glaring example of disparity.

And as Max's tale goes from woeful to desperate, the film swiftly careens into a familiar, yet no less impactful exploration into some very real problems plaguing our world today. Blomkamp having grown up around the sadness and desperation of economic disparity, sees no need to play matters down and simply applies the same no-holds-barred approach here as he did in 2009. He even goes so far as to explore the world of the deep underground, even to the grit and grime of pure homegrown resistance. When options for making a living are so miniscule, and the health levels are so toxic, technology becomes the next best way to have any manner of advantage in this torn up world.

Enter Spider(Wagner Moura)..Seemingly well connected smuggler, but more of a would be resistance leader and tech wizard extraordinaire. While his methods border on questionable, there is no doubt a great concern in him for the people he sees as deserving of better treatment (IE- everyone). And his proposed plan (to extract delicate security data from the mind of Max's former CEO, and until recently disgraced corporate go-between, John Carlyle, played by that always terrific "middle-man", William Fichnter) seems so insanely grand, that Max's initial instinct is to walk. (But considering the alternative..) As Spider, Wagner Moura creates a truly memorable hybrid of sleazy and deceptively undignified. A man of foggy morals, he is perhaps one of the film's biggest surprises as he finds himself further and further locked into the center of the conflict between the desperate and the seemingly immortal.

Having lived near East LA for a time now, there is a fascinating amount of real world texture to this film that feels both feral and quite at home. And despite the advanced tech we see throughout the film, again it is all treated as lived in and often left about for only those crazy enough to use them. It is to the point that so many in Max's world seem well broken into this mode of living that one could either live on their knees, or fight back in often the craziest ways possible. Blomkamp again proves that his particular world building voice is so studied, so stark, that it perhaps deserves its own moniker. The production design work by longtime collaborator, Phillip Ivey is singular at this point. Often interweaving the State Of The Art with the State Of The World, ELYSIUM is the ultimate expression of a continuous thread he has been playing with since his early days, producing uniquely strange pseudo-science fiction shorts. From Max's casual use of spanish, to the often worn out feel of the environs and the people who inhabit the earth, the film is unafraid to embrace reality as a vital part of the director's complete vision. As he has said before in interviews, this is not simple science fiction, this is what he truly sees in our world. And it is both hellish and beautiful in its brazen honesty. It is not a place I would ever wish to leave to the future..

But what does Blomkamp bring that is new to this souped up remix? Most egregiously, a potent fable about what we plan to do for future generations when all that is left, is to hide behind walls in fear of a "boogeyman" named reality. Summed up by both Delacourt's concerns as to whether or not President Patel has children of his own, to the revelation that Max's newly reunited childhood friend (Alice Braga) now has a child of her own with a serious health condition, much of the film is not obfuscating its intended messages. Also, he often lushly expands upon his fetishism for humanoid machinery, not to mention his love for put-upon characters, and the occasionally shocking moment of grue. There is even some biting satire involving the machinery the powerful have left upon the world in order to delegate what they may consider to be tasks that are "less than desirable". From POLICIA droids, to Max's parole officer, there is some truly dark humor at work here, and I'm still kind of shocked to see it in a 99 million dollar summer production.  (And, yes. Aware that the film had been pushed back from a 2012 release. Still. )

The performances here are almost uniformly terrific as Max's voyage allows us to meet more than a few memorable characters. Even as Copley's deeply disturbing, Kruger impresses with his zero compass and sheer audacity, it is Moura's Spider that really shines as a man who has long found himself embracing the so-called "bad guy" role, and now finds himself embroiled in something he never once dreamed was possible. A chance for true, across the board change. Braga is also terrific as the childhood friend who inspires the best in Max, even as the worst only seems to pile on. She receives some of the roughest physical and emotional ride throughout the film, and she handles it with an almost frightening amount of ease. And while Damon himself isn't really asked to reach too far as Max, there is just enough here for viewers to invest in. He's not an action hero type. None of this feels remotely ideal for him, and so much comes out as if by pure survival instinct, which he seems long attenuated to. If there is anywhere else where the film falters, its in that we never really get a full kaleidoscope of our lead, but the performance is complex enough to have some heft. 

In many ways, it is a blunt force evolution of the worlds once illuminated by directors such as Paul Verhoeven. And while we are talking trailblazing genre wizardry, if Blomkamp is this era's equivalent to a homegrown genius such as Sam Raimi, then ELYSIUM may just be his DARKMAN.  A refinement of all that has come before. (and yet no less venomous towards the inequities of the day) Like an expertly carved hint at the mindful wildness that is yet to come, Max's story is the only mildly distilled commercial echo to D9's raw battle cry.

In all, this is a lush, blunt, occasionally over edited, but well executed follow-up to what was easily one of my favorite films of 2009. When matters heat up in this piece, it hardly gives the audience room any to breathe. By the point the characters find themselves at a point of no return, and the situation has fallen into utter chaos, the seething emotional drive of the film is unmistakably Blomkamp. There is no question that the issues that pulsated through the heart of his previous feature, have in no way diminished. He is still ready to use genre as a weapon, and seems as brazen as ever to wield it in what is on its surface a down and dirty action tale. From immigration, to health care, to private security, this movie is not out to make friends, and we are meant to be participants. An often thrilling exercise in re-contextualizing our collective need for escapism is at the heart of ELYSIUM's grim, immediate vision, and more often than not, it's a greatest hits album with unrestrained bite.

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