Elysium, writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s second feature film feels like a familiar visit to old stomping grounds, in the best possible sense. Blomkamp himself has said Elysium takes similar issues as District 9 and applies them on a global scale. Where the two films differ is in the genuinely affecting love story from District 9 versus even more over the top action and sci-fi spectacle in Elysium. As steeped in action as it is Blomkamp’s biting social commentary, this is easily one of the best films out this summer. There’s also more behind the story than you might possibly imagine…
Review, interviews, secrets…
Blomkamp’s Second Treatise on the Failed Social Contract:
As an allegory for and scathing indictment of the most acute social issues of today Blomkamp’s vision is even less apologetic this go round. Focusing his thorny lens on the suffering by ordinary people due to widespread lack of basic medical care, the institutionalized abuse of lower classes masquerading as maintaining order, the raping of earth’s resources by and for a select few, while the majority go without (despite performing all the labor to extract said resources), and the double standards of judgment between the haves and the have nots, Blomkamp excoriates in his examination of these ills society inflicts on itself. One of the most overt examples, early on, compares how the elite can commit mass murder and classify it as necessary self protection, earning a warning in ones work record, compared to the lower classes routinely earning a broken arm for as little as being impolite. Similarly, being subjected to a deadly dose of radiation means a death sentence for the lower classes (though you do get medication to ensure you can function (i.e., work) normally until then), while the upper class have robots to bring them drinks, and any ailment is cured instantly by a medical bed that literally passes a wand over the body, allowing future tech wizardry to remove or repair the affected tissue.
Elysium begins with a flyover of an endless cityscape with towering wrecks of skyscrapers jutting up from a sea of urban blight. There, we meet Matt Damon’s character, Max, as a child and learn he’s an orphan who develops a lifelong bond with a pretty young girl at his orphanage. Filmed in washed out colors and handheld close-ups, the flashbacks exude a palpable nostalgia, almost absurd considering the story’s 2154 A.D. setting. This makes the switch to Max’s adult life, full of equal parts filth and future-tech all the more jarring.
Max, the adult, keeps his head down, putting in his hours at work and staying out of trouble until his probation ends. That plan upends when a clever joke made to a police robot earns him another eight months added to his sentence. The probation department is busier than a New Delhi DMV, suggesting criminal records are a way of life for residents of Earth. We don’t call them citizens, as terrestrials are stripped of even that basic dignity. Only residents of Elysium are considered citizens, and enjoy such perks as immunity from arrest by police robots. The schism between the life of the earth bound and Elysians is that severe. The closest Max comes to abandoning his daily ritual comes when he visits a hospital to have a cast put on his arm, where he meets Frey (Alice Braga), that pretty young girl from the orphanage, whom he hasn’t seen for years. The old affections remain, and Max convinces her to meet him for coffee in a few days. Things are looking up until, as these stories require, fate steps in. Max finds himself in a desperate situation, and the only solution involves an unsanctioned flight to Elysium, and unauthorized use of the medical equipment it holds. As one would expect, getting there requires hard choices, and dangerous exploits along the way.
The very busy William Finchter as business owner John Carlyle, Jodie Foster as Secretary Delacourt, and District 9 alum Sharlto Copley as psychotic ‘terrestrial asset’ Kruger prove considerable obstacles to Max’s plan. Finchter is excellent as the well heeled and equally delicate corporate whore. Foster exudes the perfect degree of ‘excessive because it’s false’ outward charm, pitifully masking a cold as ice core. But perhaps the highest praise should be reserved for Copley’s gritty, entirely unhinged guard dog, Kruger. If you’ve seen District 9, you remember Copley’s The Office worthy, clueless bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe. (Note: the name ‘Wikus Van De Merwe’ is borrowed from the classic South African buffoon character.)
Wikus’s transformation through that film demonstrated a great performance on it’s own, but then Copley portrayed Murdock in The A-Team. Imagine the difference between the straight-laced buffoon Wikus and the slightly loopy Murdock, then imagine going equally far again, towards deranged lunatic. That’s Kruger. These performances are made all the more impressive when you consider Sharlto Copley was not an actor, but a South African television station owner, and childhood friend of Blomkamp. Copley portrayed Wikus at Blomkamp’s request, in support of Blomkamp’s determination to make his pet project, District 9, despite a limited budget and South Africa’s famously non-existent film industry infrastructure. It’s also interesting to note those shanties and trash dump villages in District 9 are real. In a Vanity Fair article by Krista Smith, Copley describes their work as ‘guerilla filmmaking,’ running through real locations, grabbing footage as they could. Copley’s natural skills haven’t gone unnoticed, with him appearing in two other highly regarded 2013 releases: Europa Report, out now, and Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy, out this November.
Elysium’s nuanced construction belies Blomkamp’s “simple” hybrid writer/director title. In fact, according to IMDB, he graduated from 3D and Animation school 10 years before District 9. This explains the exceptional CGI despite District 9’s $30 million budget, as well as the aliens’ unique look. Elysium’s CGI is just as spectacular, with the space wheel, jump ships, and robots all sharing Blomkamp’s distinctive style. Some of the special weapons in Elysium again reveal Blomkamp’s appreciation of video games, evoking something you might see in a FPS or MMORPG game – though much cooler on the big screen. But there’s more to Blomkamp’s skill at work here. Whether from formal training or an intrinsic skill, Elysium continuously displays extensive traditional storytelling techniques. This isn’t simply solid editing, stunning details in set design, or a satisfying character arc – all elements Elysium definitely has. Blomkamp incorporates literary techniques that lend nuance to the story.
As Mark Twain famously observed, Elysium’s characters should, and do, all sound like unique persons, with different languages, attitudes, morals, and goals. He goes so far as to have terrestrials speak a ‘lower’ language, a variation of Spanglish, while the Elysians speak the ‘higher’ Franglish. As archetypes, he even names the characters with similar care. The protagonist is Max De Costa, “ultimate from the coast”, which is about as close as you can get to the greatest immigration threat to Elysium, without calling him “Pancho the Terrifying.” Jodie Foster’s character is Secretary Delacourt, or “Supervisor of the Manor House,” while the president’s name, Patel means “chief.” The curious crime boss of ambiguous intentions is “Spider,” and Frey, that pretty girl Max likes so much, is named after the Norse gods Freyr and Freyja, siblings. He’s associated with fertility, and the most beautiful among them, and has a daughter. She, (via Wikipedia) is ” associated with love, sexuality, beauty, fertility, gold, seiÃ°r (sorcery), war, and death.”
Why Blomkamp is so clever…
Perhaps the most elaborate naming was reserved for Fichtner’s Carlyle, and Copley’s Kruger. These are also the most speculative, but Carlyle’s only interest in this film is making money: influencing life and politics through control of all earth’s resources, to profit from it. The Carlyle Group is a real world ‘asset management group.’ From their own website: “The Carlyle Group is a global alternative asset manager with more than $176 billion in assets under management across 114 funds and 76 fund of funds vehicles.” What’s even more telling is Dan Briody’s 2004 documentary on that company. You can watch the entire documentary on youtube, and if you do, before you see Elysium, it might just blow your mind.
Admittedly, with only speculation at hand, it nonetheless seems there’s little doubt as to which philosophies Blomkamp’s embuing his films with, nor how sincere and passionate he is.
Kruger’s name isn’t steeped in so much social demagoguery, but it’s just as fun. Our Kruger is a sociopath. A hunter, a fixer, enforcer, a brute. An attack dog. Kruger just sounds good, doesn’t it? I think so. In fact, it’s an old Germanic word for bar keeper, or potter. That doesn’t sound very appropriate, except loosely, as a watcher over the rabble, or a low level employee. But further inquiry suggests some more meaningful, even humorous intentions to the name. S.J.P. Kruger is the name of a South African president from over 100 years ago. He’s remembered as being something of a brute, a supreme ruler, thoroughly against civil rights, and responsible for the Boer War. Then there’s Kruger National Park, a South African big game reserve. Should someone write a book about it (they did), it would be (is) called, “The Man Eaters of Eden.” Once again, little doubt remains that Blomkamp is a clever one, and naming a vicious killer after a tyrranical leader as well as beasts from the jungle, has a delicious charm. Copley embodies these qualities brilliantly in the film.
Continue on to watch the trailer and clips from the film, and lots of interesting factoids from the varous principles involved.
And go see the film! Elysium earns its R rating due to extensive graphic violence and some gore. Even so, it’s excellent, nuanced entertainment with strong social overtones and just enough of the human element to make viewers care. Blomkamp wisely keeps the running time under 2 hours – a saintly decision considering so many 2 and 1/2 hour slogs that have been released the past few years.
Next, everything you want to know about Elysium, in video form, without having seen the movie:
The New Trailer! Showtimes and tickets.
Creator / Director Neill Blomkamp discusses the film.
Jodie Foster talks extensively about the film. No spoilers, but a lot of detail. Avoid if you like surprises.
Matt Damon interview.
Sharlto Copley interview.
Now, here’s what you really want, some clips from the film!
First, Matt Damon learning the establishment is built to oppress.
And, Jodie Foster leaves little doubt, responding to “Unidentified Ships”:
Compelled to act, Matt Damon “Awakens” to discover he’s been ‘modified.’
After the transformation, Damon start his journey with “The Heist”:
Note: Trailers and Clips are available in HD. Click the Full Screen icon ” [ ] “, and the settings icon (looks like a gear), and choose 720p.
All materials copyright Â© 2011-2013 Sony Pictures / Columbia TriStar Pictures / Marketing.