Elysium (Sony Pictures, R)

Elysium 75When a mother and child are threatened, we believe that they could actually die.

 

Elysium 500

Paul Verhoeven isn’t making sci-fi movies anymore, so luckily we have Neill Blomkamp to replace him. In a world of safe, generic blockbusters, this guy seems like one of the only directors out there who’s really not afraid to challenge his audience. Elysium is set in the year 2154, which is smart since none of us will be around then to make snarky comments about how this future didn’t come to pass. Earth is a rundown wasteland. The poor struggle to get by, while the rich live on Elysium, a luxurious space station where medical beds can magically cure just about anything in the blink of an eye. On Earth, an ex-con named Max (Matt Damon) is working in a factory when he is exposed to a lethal amount of radiation. He is told that he has five days to live and given pills that will help him function normally until he is dead. He decides to use those five days to try to get to Elysium where he can be cured. This decision sends him back into a life of crime, and obviously, stakes are high.

Max is given a very memorable group of antagonists to go up against. At the top is Jodie Foster as Delacourt, a high-powered figure who runs Elysium, but has a scheme to advance even further. Foster is so good at playing the icy politician that it’s easy to overlook her odd choice of accent. Beneath her is the great William Fichtner as John Carlyle, a slimy CEO who runs the factory where Damon works. He serves as the mark in a unique heist, which Max is forced to take part in. And then there’s Sharlto Copley as Kruger, a violent missionary who is hired by Foster. Copley is a lot of fun in the role, but I’m not sure I buy him in it. He was brilliant as the weasel-like company man in District 9, less great as a badass who grills meat with a samurai sword. Still, he’s a formidable opponent and certainly a memorable character.

Blomkamp’s greatest strength is world building, and like Verhoeven, he uses his world as a vehicle for social commentary. Obviously, the premise of the movie is directly about the divisions of rich and poor and the state of American healthcare. It also has a lot to say about illegal immigration. Citizens of Earth can pay criminals to give them fake IDs and sneak them into Elysium so that they can live a better life. Of course, that doesn’t always turn out well. Blomkamp lacks Verhoeven’s sense of humor, but his gritty, serious take on the material is very compelling.

Elysium does share one flaw with a lot of its fellow blockbusters, and that is that it kind of fizzles out in the climax. Blomkamp’s greatest weakness is that his action scenes suffer from an overuse of shaky cam, but once the action actually moves to Elysium, the movie really seems to take on more than it can chew. It also lacks a certain emotional weight. I haven’t seen District 9 since it first came out, but the last shot of that film still resonates with me. The ending of Elysium tries for a similar emotional punch, and while I respect it for what it does, it left me slightly cold. Still, the first two-thirds are so fantastic, the climax only registers as a mild dip in your enjoyment.

The other obvious connection between Blomkamp and Verhoeven is that they both have a weird fascination with over-the-top gore. Blomkamp specifically likes graphically showing human bodies explode. It’s important to note this, because this is an R-rated film. The first thing this means is that it is not for kids. Seriously, I don’t think kids would even like this movie, not to mention they would probably find it a bit traumatizing. But more importantly, it means that there are real stakes. We’ve seen many recent movies where man melds with machine (Pacific Rim, Iron Man, etc.) but here, that process is brutal and much more permanent. When a mother and child are threatened, we believe that they could actually die. Seeing a big budget, sci-fi action movie with this tone is exceedingly rare, and we need more of it. The genre needs directors like Neill Blomkamp, and it needs more movies like Elysium. | Sean Lass

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