Tuesday, March 25, 2014

DVD of the Week: Elysium

Can we all just take a minute to remember how good District 9 was? It seemed to come out of nowhere, which a biting storyline, a great central character arc, real-world relevance and some brilliantly realised imagery. I was totally blown away, as were a whole lot of other people, so the anticipation around Elysium - promising much of the same - was pretty high. Of course, it came out and the reviews were, well, fine, I guess, so by the time we're getting to see it my expectations of a repeat of the jaw-dropping impact of District 9 was pretty diminished. Which in some ways is a good thing, because no, it's not as good as District 9, but does deserved to be assessed on it's own merits.

So, it's the mid-21st Century and all our fears have come to pass. The world is hot and dry, unemployment is rife, and the rich has sequestered themselves off in a lovely green and blue space station whilst the rest of us are left to endure amongst the ruins of Earth. The desperate attempt to smuggle themselves onto this Space Station of Plenty, with fake IDs and the like, so they can access the wealth and medical care available to it's citizens, but which remains out of reach for everyone else. To be honest, the opening section of the film is so heavy handed I nearly missed the rest of it from excessive eye-rolling. I'm on the films side in all of this, but it's so ponderously setup - and the only faces of Elysium so clearly bad guys - that the setup actually loses some of its power by stomping around with it's banners held so high.

Regardless, the movie settles in much better once Matt Damon has a horrible radiation accident, gets treated shabbily by the company (because, evil, I guess) and has only five days to live. He quickly cuts a deal to do a data-heist in return for being smuggled to Elysium and one of their magic, heal-anything beds, but of course he stumbles onto something bigger, and it all quickly gets out of hand. Elysium quickly becomes two films, fighting each other for space without ever reaching any sort of accord - a futuristic cyber-thriller and a political allegory.

As I already mentioned, the political allegory doesn't really hold together for me. The idea of the Rich life-boating themselves off the planet with all the cool tech is a good one, and one that fits all sorts of situations here in the real world. The problem is that the world-building never fits together. Is Elysium it's own country and if so how come it's agents operate so freely in the US? Or is it there some sort of world government going on and how does that work? The main plot driver in the end is the fact that Elysium, and by extension the world - is now so automated that the AI systems of the station don't answer to people anymore. Change the code of the station, you change the President? Really? A lot of this side of the plot is just left out there, so it doesn't "feel" organic to the story, just elements in place for the action to slot around.

The other side of the film is much better. The magic, Ultra-Tech MacGuffin Beds aside, the rest of the tech feels nicely near-future, from the flying gunships, to the robots to the exo-suits. There are some fantasically well-done FX shots, which is often used to damn with faint praise but here establish a world visually far better than the narrative manages to do, with the washed-out colours and loose, verite direction keeping the film grounded for the most part. Director Neill Blomkamp has a gift for this sort of FX work, and its a major strength of the film as the action ramps up.

Elysium does spend its final act slews into heavy handed point-scoring again, and to be honest it was all a little too telegraphed on top of it. Its a film with it's heart in the right place, and a film with a great visual sense, and some really solid action, but it just doesn't gel into a coherent whole. Which is a shame - but on balance I'd rather watch a film that tries this sort of thing, yet falls short, than one that simply doesn't try at all.