Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Elysium

Film #384

THE PLOT

Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Year 2, Film #19

THE REVIEW: I’d like to begin with the famous quote from Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… the only home we’ve ever known.

For me, Elysium is a reminder to keep dreaming. There are many reasons I could cite that make this a less than perfect film: scientific inaccuracies (sound, fire in space) and not enough background on Elysium – the man-made space station where the wealthy few live in pure bliss. But I’m not going to talk about those reasons. Not only were all my concerns resolved in the end (that’s not to say all loose ends are tied up at the end), but by the time the credits rolled I realized that what I wanted would have been a different film. A film that has more detail, description, and explanations, but not necessarily the same depth, imagination, and guts as Elysium.

Earth is a disaster and it’s crowded populace struggles to make ends meet. Elysium on the other hand is a paradise where not even the 1% are welcome; more like the 0.01%. What is so great about this film is its incredible focus. Despite the title, this really isn’t a film about Elysium. It’s a film about Earth – Elysium is just a tool that’s used. There’s probably less than twenty minutes total of screen time that takes place on the space-station; the vast majority is spent on Earth following Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) and what life is like in a very bleak 2154. Much like director Neill Blomkamp’s previous feature District 9, Elysium is a look at human desires and our will power to do what we must to survive. After receiving a lethal dose of radiation at work, Max is given five days to live. His only option: get to Elysium and into one of their magical, all-healing med pods. Problem is, Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) gives a shoot-on-sight order to any unauthorized shuttle entering her airspace. I’ve talked a lot in the past few days about unoriginal plots and ideas and from the outside, this may look like a simple good vs. evil story where Max wants to take down Delacourt. Yes, there is some of that (after all, there’s only a limited number of conflicts to choose from), but Elysium is also highly innovative.

The film is innovative because it attempts something rarely done with films today: it takes risks. Elysium is a big-budget summer blockbuster and it’s clearly evident with the visual quality that’s produced. But even $90 million is nothing compared to today’s films being made for $200+ million. And unlike every single other blockbuster, it doesn’t play it safe. For one, there’s relatively few action scenes with explosions and fighting. Most of the time is spent scheming and planning or, even less “exciting”, walking around. There certainly are “trailer moments” as Damon Lindelof calls them but they’re few and far between. What is featured, well that’s another story. The best way I can describe the action, and more aptly the violence, is that it’s like something out of a Tarantino movie. Seeing the flesh be torn off a person’s face and bodies literally exploding into pieces is much more gory than you see in most R-rated films. But unlike in some of Tarantino’s films, the violence is highly realistic and it’s for that reason I feel it adds a lot to the film. The goriness and realism make the action believable, and the sparseness draws attention to these few scenes.

Another big no-no that Elysium does is something I don’t want to go into too much detail on but suffice it to say that the film limits its options. Very few films, and no blockbusters I can think of, have sad endings. Everything is always happy and finds a way of solving all the problems that arose. While I wouldn’t necessarily call this ending a sad one, it is extremely bittersweet. The best comparison I can make is to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, more popularly known by the HBO series Game of Thrones. While some definitions of good and bad are clear – Max DeCosta is good, Secretary Delacourt is bad – some actions and events are more muddled. Bottom line is that it takes guts for a major film like Elysium to do what it does. And whether or not you can read between the lines and decipher what my vagueness means, I can assure you that you should always expect the unexpected.

“Consider again that dot… the only home we’ve ever known.” If you step back at all and just think about how insignificant we are and Earth is, it can be scary. But it can also remind you that we’re special. We are the only living species, that we know of, in the universe. Always at war, always fighting, always causing mayhem and destruction instead of peace and construction. Elysium shows what it’s like to live on a desolated and poverty-stricken Earth, what it means to want something better and fight for it. It also shows how elitist and self-centered people can be. But most importantly of all is it shows us something that we should think of more often: Earth is a miracle. There is a capacity for greatness in a macro- and microscopic scale; it just needs to be seized. And Elysium does the same for films. In an time when most movies are overproduced, repetitive, and action-packed garbage, Neill Blomkamp takes some risks and dares to dream about how blockbusters can be both entertaining and well-made. It isn’t the best film ever made and probably won’t be the most successful or influential, but it certainly deserves recognition.

Elysium opens in theaters this Friday, August 9, 2013.

THE RATING: 5 out of 5