Saturday, August 10, 2013

Elysium review

This has been a weird summer for movies. It's contained several good films, with the standouts being Iron Man 3 and Fast Six, along with some satisfying hits in World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Pacific Rim. But there have also been a ton of crushing disappointments including The Great Gatsby, Oblivion, Monsters University, Man of Steel and The Wolverine. Even some of the good films were disappointments. Now, we arrive at the final blockbuster of the summer: Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. Blomkamp is following up the highly praised science fiction feature, District 9, with a bigger, badder science fiction project. Once again, Blomkamp mixes dazzling sci-fi effects with excellent action and great characters. Elysium is definitely one of the better, more memorable films of the summer.

Elysium tells the story of Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker who lives on the barren wasteland of Earth. The rich, powerful and beautiful have left Earth and now live on the space station Elysium, which is a complete utopia. On Elysium, the rich and powerful are served by droids, live in luxurious mansions, and best of all, are instantly cured of any ailment thanks to a Medi-Pod. Max is a former felon, who is trying to go down the straight path and avoid the temptations of the organized crime led by the underground revolutionary Spider (Wagner Moura). When at the factory one day, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and is given five days to live. Unless he reaches a medi-pod on Elysium, Max will die. He contacts Spider, who hooks him up to an exoskeleton suit and sends him on his mission to Elysium, which could change everything.

Recently, I saw Blomkamp's District 9 for the first time. I wrote a review and enjoyed it a lot, but it never really had any characters I cared about, and its visual style seemed to be nothing but barren wastelands and disgusting aliens. And while you may hear that Blomkamp's Elysium is very similar to his debut feature, I don't believe that's the case. Elysium is much more visually polished, much more entertaining and has a more interesting story. It doesn't quite have that universal message in the subtext like District 9 did, but I feel like it's a much more polished film. In addition, this film not only provides a sympathetic hero, it also has a colorful cast of supporting characters that drive the film.

Elysium is very much a film that is done in three acts. The first act does a great job setting up the plot and has a magnificent opening shot of downtown Los Angeles in ruin. It sets up Max's storyline, it sets up the story on Elysium and it does it well. I wasn't instantly hooked, but I was very intrigued. Once Max is exposed to the radiation is when the story really kicks into gear. Blomkamp does do some of the shaky-cam work in Elysium, but overall I felt that the action scenes were extremely effective. They're intense, sometimes bloody and often a lot of fun. The third act is the most entertaining, tense and effective as it builds off of everything that the first two acts set up and it delivers a rousing, explosive conclusion.

The performances in this film are pretty solid, some spectacular. I liked Matt Damon as the hero, and you do sympathize for him slightly, but he's not all that memorable. I didn't find Jodie Foster to be all that bad, she's fine in her role, but not exactly great. The best performances lie with the supporting cast. While I didn't find Foster as bad as everyone else did, I also didn't think that Sharlto Copley was as great as he has been hyped as in the role of Kruger. His villain is great in the last few minutes and is definitely menacing, but not necessarily a character that I'm going to remember years from now. William Fichtner is fantastic in his small role. I really thought that he had great screen presence and was enjoyable to watch. My favorite performance in the film came from Wagner Moura, an actor that I was not aware of before this movie. He's always exciting to watch and I really cared about his character.

While I really enjoyed the film overall, by far my favorite part of the film was Blomkamp's ability to set up the story, put in some good action sequences and colorful characters to keep you interested and invest you in the plot that when the action came around, you cared. There's my problem with this summers crop of films. You just don't care. Man of Steel had impressive action, but I didn't care, because the story was not set up well. Same with The Wolverine and Pacific Rim to an extent. However, in the final moments, when Max and Spider are up against the wall, I cared. When Frey (Alice Braga), Max's childhood friend, was in peril, I cared. When Max and Kruger are fighting to the death, I cared. Blomkamp made me care about everyone involved and that's why I loved the final third of the film. Anything on Elysium is instantly captivating. Plus, I loved the action scenes during that section.

In addition to great practical stunts and fight scenes that don't involve blowing up buildings, the visual look of the film is amazing. Blomkamp mixed the practical action and visual effects so well in District 9 and he does it again in Elysium. The robots in this film look amazing, the exo-suits look amazing, and Elysium looks amazing. I wish that I could have seen this film on a bigger screen, but unfortunately, I got one of the smaller theaters at my multiplex.

Let's talk a little bit more about the action in this film. This summer has not had that show-stopping action scene that everybody talks about for years to come. Last year it was the final battle in The Avengers and the year before that, it was Transformers 3. Now, Elysium still doesn't have that awesome action sequence that blows you away, but it still has some impressive ones. The final fights in the hallways of Elysium is impressive and so is the fight between Kruger and Max. Blomkamp knows how to shoot gritty, bloody action and does it in a spectacular fashion.

I really don't have much negative to say about Elysium. It is far from a perfect film, it has a lot of problems and a lot of flaws, but none of them are too big. I guess I could point out that the film could have trimmed ten minutes or so and that a couple characters were underused and unnecessary, but I'm not going to because none of it drags down the film. It's a rollicking ride that really gets your heart beating. Plus, underlying themes that could possibly start a conversation never hurt. I'll just point out that this is an R-rated science fiction film, so anyone expecting a Pacific Rim is going to be shocked when they see the first gory scene. Overall, the gore isn't pervasive or extreme, but it is there.

In the end, I found Elysium to be an extremely satisfying end to the summer blockbuster season. It's got action, wit, humor, and a cast of colorful, fun characters and some great fight scenes. The visual effects are splendid and the themes are interesting if you are drawn to that kind of thing. Elysium is one of the better films of the summer and a better film than District 9 for many reasons, despite not being quite as innovative as that film. Still, innovation isn't all that matters and on all other fronts, I felt that Elysium was more daring, will certainly be more divisive and is a much more entertaining film.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                              (8/10)

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