Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Have and Have Not: Elysium

In an interview, South African director Neill Blomkamp, who gave us District 9, said he thought it would be a nifty idea to make a sci-fi film about "the haves and the have-nots," suggesting, as it seems, that had never been done before.

Uh, like, Metropolis (1927).

In Elysium the "haves" live in a wheel-shaped space station. There, everything is green and new and opulent; you have to be rich to live there. I found Elysium visually fascinating, but you never feel IN Elysium. You don't know what it's like to live there. The only citizens you see are running away from the scuzzy illegal aliens running across their lawns. I wanted to be taken INTO Elysium. I wanted to know what it was like to live there, like in WALL-E, we are taken up close to the fat blobby people who float around in hoverchairs and consume fattening shakes.

The film does an excellent job of evoking the dismal slums of L.A., filmed on location in the slums and vast dumps of Mexico City. Poor Mexico City. You really feel the crowding, the squalor, the heat, the despair. This is the best aspect of the film.

Matt Damon as Max drives the story. Matt Damon has a presence and a believability he brings to all his films. I really enjoy watching him, and here he fits right into a story that is less about ideas (the commentary is trite: the haves are like our rich people who live in gated neighborhoods, people who thank God for Republicans and Homeland Security) and more about sci-fi action.

In order to make his way to Elysium so that he can be cured of a lethal dose of radiation, Max gets fitted with an exo-suit which turns him sort of cyborg. But the dramatic possibilities of this suit are not exploited. It is never made clear what he can do with this suit other than throw some bad guy across the room. Anyway, Damon fits right into the role of a bitter "have-not" who has always dreamed of getting to Elysium.

Below is Kruger, played by Sharlto Copley, star of District. Here Copley is a mechanically enhanced secret operative whose extreme methods dealing with illegal aliens get him fired, so he plans to use a rebooting code to take over Elysium and rule the world of the "haves." Copley is a suitable bad guy, and his mechanical enhancements make you wonder if he's part District 9 cyborg.

Then there's Jodie Foster as Delacourt, the dictatorial bitch who runs security for Elysium, who thinks the president is too soft, and who would love to run things herself. Unfortunately, Foster is given little to develop her character, explain her bitterness, provide some motives, explain why she constantly acts bitchy and looks sharp and grumpy throughout the whole movie. See below.

A note about accents: When we first see Foster, she is speaking French. (Foster studied French at Yale and then in France. She got pretty good at it so she likes to use it.) But then she speaks English throughout the rest of the film with an accent that isn't quite English, isn't quite American, an accent that is I don't know what. This movie has a thing about accents. Kruger goes with a South African accent that is so extreme it's hard to follow what he's saying all the time. In addition, William Fichtner plays John Carlyle, a business tycoon who wants to help Delacourt take over Elysium. Here, Carlyle speaks in a stilted robotic voice, but when he's shot, he bleeds. I thought he WAS a robot! What's with the weird robotic delivery of his lines?

There's a lot to like about this movie. It is always visually engaging. It is fast-paced. Damon is excellent. But as the action goes standard, I found myself wishing I had gotten to spend more time in Elysium and learn what it's like to live there. This would have provided a starker contrast with the vividly evoked world of the L.A. slums.


Steve's Blog said...

Great to read your reviews again! I agree with much of your take on Elysium--visually engaging, fast-paced, and Damon's strong leading every man persona. But I also feel that keeping Elysium at a cinematic distance as it were lends itself to what Elysium represents: a vapid, dystopian artifice lacking the soul which remains on earth, among the have-nots. I think this may have been what Blomkamp was going for. I also think that is his reasoning for allowing Copley to keep his heavy South African accent throughout. The country represents something of an outpost for the English-speaking world, and Kruger is a mercenary in the story. I enjoyed his performance very much and especially liked the moment he sings in Afrikaans to the little girl.

I do agree that Jodie Foster's character was something of a weak link. More background would have enhanced the story and given some substantive credence to her actions beyond simply being evil.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for getting back! I can see the significance for keeping Elysium at a distance, but I just wanted the place to have more reality and substance - after all, it is the heaven that Damon's character has always dreamed of.

I rewatched OBLIVION on DVD, and I prefer that film to this one. The depth of art direction in OBLIVION adds so much to the standard action plot and maintains the drama throughout all the surprise revelations whereas I felt the drama of ELYSIUM faded away into standard action.