ELYSIUM: Just in time

Finally, right at the end of summer, a great blockbuster has arrived.

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Where does he get all those wonderful toys? Matt Damon, being awesome in Elysium.

This summer at the multiplex has been disappointing. Even the movies I’ve enjoyed—“Star Trek Into Darkness,” “World War Z,” “Man of Steel”—have gotten worse upon reflection. There’s a big problem with them and the rest of the big movies this year. I have no desire to watch any of them again. I’m not saying these movies are terrible (“The Lone Ranger,” though, now that’s a disaster), just mediocre. They’re disposable. See ‘em once, like or don’t like, move on to the next one. Rinse. Repeat.

Maybe I’m just getting older. My palate (perhaps) more refined. Or maybe, just maybe, we have to admit to ourselves that the same noisy, tired and flat-out dumb product Hollywood has shoved down our throats this year ain’t up to snuff. Ask yourself: do you actually care about these movies? Even the biggest financial success of the year so far, “Iron Man 3,” will you talk fondly with your friends about it for years to come, or has it already faded from memory? Dammit, these movies can be good, even great, and if lightning is caught in the proverbial bottle, well, then you got a rare, bonafide classic.

“Elysium” is a great movie. And just in time to rescue this summer from mediocrity. Like a football coach past his prime, content with simply running the same plays that have worked for years instead of shaking up the playbook, every blockbuster filmmaker this year has executed an all-too familiar formula with hollow efficiency. Even the special effects don’t seem so special anymore. Not the case with “Elysium,” writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the wonderful “District 9.”

That film (Blomkamp’s feature debut) was an across the board success. Liked by critics and audiences. Nominated for Oscars (including Best Picture). Strong box office. A lot of filmmakers would’ve taken a cozy franchise gig. Not Blomkamp. He certainly cashed in on the goodwill and profits made from “District 9,” but like Frank Sinatra, he did it his way. “Elysium” is an original property, lovingly referential to other films, but not a sequel, based off a toy, adapted from a comic book, TV show or novel. In our current movie climate, it stands head and shoulders above the rest as a bold, well-made, intelligent piece of science fiction action spectacle.

A brief bit of text and flashback throws us into the story. It’s set more than 100 years in the future, and Earth is overpopulated, polluted and harsh. It’s not that far off from a “Wall-E” like dystopia. Only the very rich have escaped, moving to a Kubrickean space station called Elysium where they live in a pristine, gated community environment. Even better, every house up there comes fully stocked with a machine that will cure any ailment in seconds. The rest are left to fend for themselves on Earth, working shitty jobs for low pay or turning to crime. For Blomkamp, this is what happens before the world ends. The gap between the 1% and the rest of us poor working stiffs has reached grand canyon proportions.

Blomkamp directing Damon on the set of Elysium.

Blomkamp directing Damon on the set of Elysium.

Right from the opening, it feels fresh. Here is a movie that really moves. The editing is precise, tightly coiled like a python’s grip. There’s nary a wasted moment. Blomkamp and his DP Trent Opaloch show us the world instead of telling us about it. LA, where the Earthbound section of the movie takes place, is now borderless, resources stretched far too thin, and subsumed by trash. The first language is now Spanish. Basically a Fox News watcher’s worst nightmare. As in “District 9,” the fantastical is grounded in a real environment. The actual plot is minimal and straightforward, kicking in when Max (Matt Damon) must break into the space station in order to save his own life from disease.

One gets the sense that Blomkamp has done his homework. It’s as if he’s made a checklist in the last few years, highlighting all that’s wrong with most spectacle movies these days and vowing to avoid those pitfalls. In “Elysium,” you won’t find a sluggish origin story; clunky voiceover explaining what you just saw; non-sensical, hallucinatory action without consequences; bloated run time; PG-13 rating; major cities laid to waste; one dimensional characters; or room for a sequel. This is a story with a beginning, middle and end. Nothing’s left open for a sequel. When the credits roll, the story has come to an end. It’s a weird feeling. I think… it’s… called… satisfaction?

Damon is one of our most gifted movie stars. He’s talented and chooses to work with gifted storytellers. The part may not be super flashy, but he does great work as Max, a hero who harkens back to the days of John McClane and Snake Plissken. He’s a wisecracking, tough, self-interested protagonist, doing what’s best for number one. Which makes his arc all the more satisfying. Damon’s low-key approach to the character grounds the film, giving room to the rest of the cast to have fun in smaller, showier parts.

Sharlto Copley

Remember the anti-hero from District 9? Now he’s a big baddie in Elysium.

Sharlto Copley, the anti-hero from “District 9,” shows up as a psychotic blackwater-esque private soldier. He does the bidding on Earth for Jody Foster, the head of Elysium security who’ll stop at nothing to protect it. Her performance is, surprisingly, the weakest link. She reaches for an odd, difficult to place accent that never quite comes together. But there’s plenty of great work done by the rest of the ensemble, most likely familiar to fans of world cinema: Wagner Moura, from the Brazilian “Elite Squad” films, is gravelly-voiced and pitch perfect as a criminal who aids Damon in his suicidal quest to reach Elysium, for reasons I won’t go into here. Diego Luna, best known for “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” is a breath of fresh air, adding dimension to what must have been a fairly rote character on the page. And Alice Braga, the immaculate beauty from “City of God,” is very good as the character who inadvertently spurs Damon’s redemption. I also can’t forget character actor legend William Fichtner, a welcome sight in any film as far as I’m concerned.

There is a sense that this film could have been more complex and stronger with even 15 more minutes added in. Perhaps a character from Elysium could’ve been more fleshed out, so they didn’t seem so one-note and easily unlikeable . That could have muddied the politics at play, making for an even stronger achievement. But really, this is spectacle done right, coming in under two hours (mindblowing in this day and age for big tentpole films) with plenty of kick-ass action. Because Blomkamp is unafraid to present and deal with real world problems in his massive science fiction action movie, it can be easy to forget that he’s out to entertain the audience first and foremost. To work on a canvas this big, he’s wisely chosen to keep things mostly simple, clean and relatable. It never feels like there’s an agenda at work, instead the politics can be gleaned through action and character.

And even more mind blowing is how Blomkamp convinced his financiers to let him make a hard R-rated movie with a massive budget. It seems like the studios, in their infinite wisdom, have chosen extinction for such a thing. Weird as it is to admit this, the ultra violence—bodies liquefying, exploding, bloody impalements, faces imploding— was a breath of fresh air here, showing what actually happens when people fight with weapons. It isn’t pretty, but somehow, Blomkamp films it in a way where you can’t take your eyes off the action, regardless of how brutal it gets. Just as Damon’s character harkens back to an older character type, this film seems to long for the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles, and the work of Paul Verhoeven. It mostly succeeds in capturing their spirit and wry satirical humor.

As many of you readers probably know, we rarely choose to cover big movies like this at Oregon Arts watch, instead choosing to focus our attention (and hopefully yours as well) on smaller, more obscure cinema. “Elysium,” while a bit flawed, is not only impressive compared to other movies of its ilk, it’s simply a great piece of entertainment, regardless, with near-flawless special effects, a thrilling pace and just enough sustenance. It’s well worth your time, even if you’ve given up on this summer and big Hollywood spectacles. I can’t wait to see it again.

****

Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday. The latest episode, AYT #74, features an in depth review of “Elysium.”

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