Review: Matt Damon adds emotional weight to Neill Blomkamp's smart and unsubtle 'Elysium'
Thank god for Neill Blomkamp.
I sincerely hope I never end up writing a news story about how Neill Blomkamp, struggling to recover after a series of films that didn't earn their money back, is now signing on to direct the reboot of the reboot of "Robocop" or some similar money-driven monstrosity. I hope he is able to follow his own particular vision for as long as he wants to, and that audiences turn up to support him enough that he is able to maintain his independence.
Also, before we get started, if this movie had been made in 1974, Charlton Heston would be playing the Matt Damon role. AND IT WOULD BE AWESOME.
Right now, my oldest son has declared himself "a science-fiction fan." He is in the shallow end of the baby pool right now in terms of what he's seen or read, but he spends days after each new science fiction book or movie just asking me questions, and most of them aren't about things he saw in the film, but things that were suggested by the movies and the books.
I love that. I can see that it's sinking in, that he's starting to assert his own interests. When we gave him a Kindle a few weeks back, I loaded up the device with books for him to read, and I tried to touch on a pretty broad range of things. I got yelled at recently by some of you when I mentioned that one of the books that I put on the Kindle was Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game," and even when I explained that I paid for that book well before I made my recent decisions about him, people were still upset.
I think they thought I was just putting that one book on Toshi's Kindle, like I was forcing him to read that immediately. Far from it. Instead, I packed it with things like "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy," "Watership Down," the first Prydain book by Lloyd Alexander, Asimov's "Caves Of Steel," a crash course in Jules Verne (including "Journey To The Center Of The Earth" and "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea"), three books by H.G. Wells ("The Time Machine," "The Invisible Man," and "War Of The Worlds"), Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court," a couple of the "Star Wars" short story collections ("Tales Of The Bounty Hunters," "Tales From Jabba's Palace," "Tales From The Mos Eisley Cantina"), the Harry Potter books, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the first Lemony Snicket book, "A Wrinkle In Time," "Coraline," "Good Omens," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Childhood's End" by Clarke, "The Martian Chronicles," Something Wicked This Way Comes," and both "Cosmos" and "Pale Blue Dot" by Carl Sagan. And, yes, "Ender's Game" is in there, too.
When I asked him what he likes about science-fiction recently, he told me that he likes imagining other planets and he likes it when something makes him see the world in a different way. He's at that age where he's starting to understand what metaphor is, and that there's more to a story or a movie or a book than just the surface. He says he likes science-fiction because it engages his powers of imagination in a way that nothing else does so far, and because he wants to believe that the future is full of possibilities and miracles.
I suspect Neill Blomkamp was the same way when he was a kid. There is no doubt as you look at his work that he is drawing on a broad base of knowledge of the genre. He approaches the world-building in his movies with a truly brilliant eye for reality. He is painting in big broad metaphor here. I would say there is very little about the movie that I think is subtle, but I don't think it's required for this sort of thing. Sometimes, you need a hammer to deliver a message, and as long as it feels genuine, I'm okay with unsubtle. I am also impressed by how he makes Earth and Elysium feel like real environments, because this "world as metaphor" thing can easily break down. Just look at "In Time" or "Upside Down" for truly painful versions of that, and you see how easy it would be for the whole enterprise to tip over into silly.
Max (Matt Damon) has never had it easy. He grew up in an orphanage, and even as a kid, he was constantly in trouble, stealing to get whatever he wanted, with only one close friend, a girl named Frey. Blomkamp shows us quick scenes of childhood, basically punctuating who Max is as we get to know him in the present. He's tried to leave his criminal career behind him, and he has a job at the factory where they build the various robots we see working as police and security and EMS over the course of the film.
Life on Earth is miserable, and Blomkamp paints a convincingly run down portrait of what life is life for anyone living there. His whole life, Max has been tortured by the view of Elysium in the sky overhead, a space station where the 1% have all moved, where life is beautiful and easy and where any illness can be cured in a matter of moments. He has always kept the dream of Elysium as a goal for himself, while knowing full well that the odds are against him ever finding a way to get up there.
Blomkamp also introduces us to the people who keep Elysium working, including Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and President Patel (Faran Tahir), and while Elysium is beautiful, the politics of the place are really ugly. I was surprised to see Foster playing this kind of role, and I like that. Her fierce intelligence reads one way onscreen when she's playing someone virtuous, but it's very different when she's playing someone who has a broken moral compass. It's scarier precisely because she's obviously very smart.
She shows early on in the film that the only thing that matters to her at all is the safety of the citizens of Elysium and a strict enforcement of who qualifies for that citizenship. She has no problem killing anyone who tries to land on Elysium illegally, no matter their age or their reasons. It is a source of some contention, as is her insistence on using Kruger (Sharlto Copley) as an Earthside enforcer. He's a horrifying character simply because of his total lack of conscience in terms of what he'll do. He is the worst kind of privatized security labor, amoral, happy to kill, and remorseless. He is the weapon, but Delacourt is the one with her finger on the trigger, and the two of them together are the worst face of Elysium.
Thanks to an accident at work, Max goes from wanting to visit Elysium to needing that visit, and his timeline seems next to impossible. He has five days to either get himself into one of Elysium's medical machines, or he's dead, and he is determined not to let that happen. I find Damon's work in the film to be casually great. It's a performance that doesn't necessarily look like the most demanding thing he's ever done, but the work he does here is deceptively complex. I like that as put upon as Max is in his life, he can't resist an ill-timed wise crack, even when he knows it's going to cost him deeply. Max's conversion from car thief to factory work wasn't motivated by selflessness, but by fear. He knows how close he is to getting totally flushed by the system, and he's barely holding on to a quality of life that looks terrible to me, but it's better than whatever alternatives there are for Max.
Once he's pushed to desperation, though, he's willing to do anything to get to Elysium, and that's where the film starts to get really crazy. Blomkamp had aliens to play with in "District 9," and in this film, the really outrageous stuff has to do with body augmentation and the technology of death. There are some "Robocop" crazy moments of violence here, and humor so dark I'm surprised Blomkamp got away with it. It's a very stylized world, and that includes the performances. Wagner Moura made a huge impression on me with his work in both of Jose Padilla's "Elite Squad" movies, and his work here as Spider is completely balls to the wall.
Spider's an underground tech rebel, a guy determined to use The Man's own tools to bring him down. He's an opportunist when we meet him, and the underworld he is part of seems like a very scary, grimy, ugly place. But there's way more of him in the film than I expected. Moura plays a very key role in what happens, and in the fate of not only Max, but really everyone who was left behind with the rich left Earth behind. I think it's a great performance, and in some movies, his might be the broadest character, the one that is sort of larger than life.
That's not the case when you've got Copley as Kruger in the same film, because that is one crazy gonzo over-the-top piece of work, all in service of what I think becomes a pretty scary character by the end of the film. It's creepy when villains have some particular world view and belief system driving them that is wrong, but I think it's much scarier when you realize someone is driven by no world view at all. Base instinct in place of considered action. I think that's what we see in the form of Copley and his men. There are stretches of the film where Copley is the center of gravity. You can't stop looking at him, watching the choices he's making. He's repulsive here, but in a way that you have to watch because it is so electrifying and scary and unexpected. He is unrecognizable as the lead of "District 9," and I hope he's a lifelong collaborator with Blomkamp. They seem perfectly suited to one another.