Saturday, August 10, 2013

Elysium / ***½ (R)

Max: Matt Damon
Delacourt: Jodie Foster
Kruger: Sharlto Copely
Fray: Alice Braga
Julio: Diego Luna
Spider: Wagner Moura
John Carlyle: William Fichtner

TriStar Pictures presents a film written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Running time: 109 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout).

Science fiction is a genre like no other in all of story telling. Other genres can acts as allegory and adventure, but none puts the elements together in the same sense of dependence on one another as science fiction. Sci-fi is a marriage of plot and metaphor in both structure and execution. It attracts with story and a need for something more. At one time, this meant that sci-fi required the more rare consumer, but its reach has expanded because of film. Now, sci-fi isn’t just about the unique, but also about the masses.

One question that might be posed about the creation of a science fiction work of art might be, however, which came first the allegory or the plot. Did Neill Blomkamp forge into his second feature film intending to write an action film about universal health care, or did the criticisms and analysis of health care and government corruption just pour naturally from the story about a boy who dreams of living in a satellite for the elite above the squalor of the decayed society that Earth has become. I suppose many elements were there from the beginning of Blomkamp’s creative process, but I think the bite of the story comes in the execution of the writing and the filming.

We learn of this dystopian future through the eyes of Max, and orphan boy who learns from a nun that he is meant for great things and who befriends a girl named Frey. Max promises Frey that one day he will take her to Elysium, the satellite above the planet where all disease is cured and the people live in luxury, served by robots. The children grow apart as adults and Max is swallowed by the surface planet’s culture of crime. When we resume Max’s story, he has left his life of crime after several incarcerations and is trying to earn his way to Elysium through dangerous factory work.

On Elysium, not everything is as perfect as it seems. A power struggle within the government has the Secretary of Defense Delcourt at odds with the President, who takes issue with the way she indiscriminately destroys any illegal vessel that comes within Elysium airspace. Rebels from Earth frequently send shuttles to the satellite filled with citizens looking for medical cures. With Delacourt’s defense strategies, most of these people will die, when it is easy enough to deport them back to the planet’s surface.  There are a number of political issues being tackled within Elysium’s political portrait. The president takes umbrage with Delacourt’s use of a sleeper agent named Kruger on the surface of the planet. This is a barely veiled attack on the U.S. use of drones to monitor its own citizens.

The involvement of the American industrial complex in the funding of politicians also plays into the story a great deal with a subplot that puts everything into motion for these disparate players. Delacourt is sick of the current president’s weak beliefs on protecting Elysium from the scum of Earth’s citizens, so she makes a deal with a failing manufacturer ensuring all future military contracts for a computer program that will allow her to place her own choice of president in office. The manufacturer’s factory is where Max is employed, when an accident at the plant exposes Max to a lethal dose of radiation that will take his life within five days. He become determined to get to Elysium and cure himself.

The arc of the plot is the stuff of many science fiction films. The little guy decides to put it to the man and must sneak and steal his way into the house of power to change everything for everyone. The primary issue is the fact that this healing technology exists and the rich rulers of Elysium are keeping it from the people who live in the squalor of Earth. The notion of universal health care couldn’t be more obvious. But, that’s OK in this science fiction setting. It fits in with the action of the story so naturally; it doesn’t impose or seem preachy. Plus, there is plenty of action to be had.

Matt Damon and Jodie Foster get top billing and prove a point about how our female politicians have changed the landscape of politics. Damon is there to be the everyman. He’s the one we’re supposed to get behind because he is us. As such he’s not given much to do other than react to the situations in which he finds himself. This is where the citizens stand these days. Foster, on the other hand, is the puppet master working in an environment of corrupt and impotent men. She adopts an affluent speaking accent for her role. She does all the work of the story and she does only what she does and nothing more. She knows her place.

“Elysium” doesn’t seem quite as profound as Blomkamp’s electrifying debut “District 9”. It certainly has the same sense of the dangers of powerful government and the same sense that government mostly functions to keep the citizenry in check. It isn’t really less profound either, it’s just that the issues that parallel our reality are just sitting there naked on the surface of the story, rather than being buried beneath the material. I like that about this movie. It may get a little too heavy with the notion that Max is fated to become what he does, but it works as great science fiction. 

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