Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Elysium

Directed by: Neil Blomkamp

Produced by: Neil Blomkamp
Bill Block
Simon Kinberg
Sue Baden-Powell

Screenplay by: Neil Blomkamp

Starring: Matt Damon
Jodie Foster
Sharlto Copley
Alice Braga
Diego Luna
Wagner Moura
William Fichtner

Music by: Ryan Amon

Cinematography by: Trent Opaloch

Editing by: Julian Clarke
Lee Smith

Studio(s): Alphacore
Media Rights Capital
QED International

Distributed by: TriStar Pictures

Release date(s): August 9, 2013 (United States)
August 21, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 109 minutes

Country: United States

Language(s): English

Production budget: $115 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $263, 655, 806

Right there, starting to get the activity back, if ya ken what a mean, boss? Sorry for the shoddy Edinburgh Scots there, but I've just seen an advertisement for Filth, the new Irvine Welsh adaptation starring James McAvoy and I can safely say it's one of my most anticipated films of the year. It looks like it's going to be an absolute, no-holds-barred screamer. Among others, I'm planning on getting to see Diana, Rush and Blue Jasmine (I haven't reviewed a Woody Allen movie before!), so, with Halloween (article or two in the works there) and Oscar season around the corner, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for a look in is Elysium, another of my most anticipated movies of 2013, as it's the sophomore feature from director Neill Blomkamp. Bursting onto the scene with 2009's District 9, an independent science-fiction film with action and intelligence in equal portions that was a surprise hit and bagged four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Very much one of the fastest rising film artists, Blomkamp re-unites with many of his District 9 crew for Elysium. BIG PLOT CHUNK AHOY! In 2154, the eponymous location (a reference to the Ancient Greeks' conception of the Elysian Fields as an afterlife) is a space station inhabited by the wealthy who are kept free from disease, while Earth is impoverished, overpopulated and ruled by robots to keep them under control. Matt Damon stars as Max Da Costa, a former car thief on parole attempting to live day by day in the ruins of Los Angeles working in an assembly line for Armadyne Corp., but he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. In the midst of this, illegal Earth immigrants are attempting to reach Elysium and Secretary Of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) enlists the service of mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to take them out. The President does not appreciate these extra-legal measures, and thus a coup d'etat is conceived by Delacourt and Armadyne's CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner) to override the Elysium database and make her President. Of course, Max, with his short life expectancy, needs to get to Elysium and that begs the question, will their paths cross? Let's find out. BIG PLOT CHUNK BYPASSED!

Following on from the largest, more or less spoiler-free plot synopsis in the history of this blog (we're all about firsts here), it brings me to what is good about this film. In order to lay out that groundwork, I had to devote some time and space, whereas in the movie it is all dealt with in a decent, relative timeframe. Blomkamp, in the four years since District 9, has obviously devoted a lot of time and attention to detail in creating the world of his picture. Equally devoted to bringing the vision to the screen is production designer Philip Ivey, who has done a tremendous job in making us believe in this future world. Like District 9, but more so as that film was in a contemporary setting, Elysium is full of careful craft and an attention to detail not dissimilar to that seen in a Guillermo del Toro picture. Ivey is a student of science-fiction cinema and Syd Mead, and the respect that he has for those before him, while carving his own designer's path, comes through here. The exosuits created by Weta Workshop are standouts in the picture, the scene involving Damon and his suit (I'll not spoil) is a fine example of people thinking outside the box and harking to an extremis form of artistry, pushing the imagination to the limit. Indeed, the mise-en-scene as a whole is a remarkable achievement, with the makeup and costume design being among the finest I have seen all-year round. The visual effects, headed up primarily by Image Engine (among others), are meticulously designed, complicated and full of little bits and bobs and intricacies that just set a standard above and beyond the norm. Their contribution is another strong addition to the tapestry of this piece, blending seamlessly with the location shooting by Trent Opaloch. He brings the same photographic sensibilities from that film over to this one, the dust and grime in the Earth-bound scenes are captured in all their grot, Opaloch getting across the sense of this world as oppressive and bleak with his excellent digital photography, which, when put together with the beauty in the idyllic gardens of Elysium, make for an extreme contrast. This sense of contrast and class structure in the film is put over by Opaloch consistently high standard of digital photography. The film also has two very talented editors who do a great job of cutting it. Julian Clarke (another District 9 alumni) is teamed with Lee Smith, who has worked with Peter Weir and Chris Nolan on his past five films, so both know a thing or two about how to edit a big action film. Like that previous film, Elysium is an R-rated action movie not afraid to have the audience feel the impact of blood and things spattering into a million different places, but furthermore, the action scenes in the film have a weight and power behind them that most others are lacking, and this is down to the classic Kuleshovian knowledge that the two editors have with timing things just right so that the audience feels them. Finally, on the acting front, while Matt Damon is just about always a reliable lead, once again, the show-stealer is Sharlto Copley. Looking ever more messed-up than he did in the middle of his transformation in District 9, Copley is a genuinely intimidating and menacing screen presence, taking an otherwise secondary character/trope and turning him into a figure of intrigue. His Kruger is the epitome of an onscreen loose cannon, and any time this character is onscreen there is a palpable sense of tension in the air. Sick, twisted and yet intelligently aware of his transgression of moral and personal boundaries, his performance is so convincing that during the course of my research I've found that playing Kruger has put Copley off playing villains: he might not want to play the bad guy, but I'm not going to stop watching them if he does!

Now, I've had a lot to say praiseworthy about Elysium, and I'll certainly give it it's dues where I feel it's deserved and warranted. However (the big however), the fact is is that while it has all these things going for it, Elysium also has a number of problems firmly entrenched in it's design. Interestingly, the problem lies in Neil Blomkamp. Sometimes auteurs can be a double-edged sword, in that while they are what makes the film distinctive and with it's own unique footprint, but on occasion the auteur is not the best judge of their own work. Stephen King made reference to this in his book On Writing regarding the importance of having a 'reader,' someone who can objectively judge your work, in his case his wife and fellow novelist Tabitha King. On District 9, Blomkamp was writing with Terri Tatchell, who's also working on his next picture Chappie, and her absence here is notable. Unfortunately, for all the creativity and effort gone into making the world, Blomkamp, as a sole screenwriter and director, has lost insight of the fact that, at it's core, this film has a base and rather predictable script. Obviously, the shadow of District 9 hangs high over this, but while said film had so much going for it in terms of density and thematic content, this attempts to go for the mawkish high road of sentimentality, takes absolutely nothing with a pinch of salt and contains none of the RoboCop-esque satire and black humour that made previous film so unique. Also, as far as a sophomoric project goes, Blomkamp may have been aiming too high. Indeed, look at what happened to Richard Kelly with Southland Tales, although this is nowhere near the trough in which that picture now resides. Duncan Jones, who released his debut feature Moon in 2009 (along with Blomkamp's film, Star Trek and Avatar were also put out that year) and following that up with Source Code, a simple yet remarkably inventive sci-fi thriller and a modest upward movement. Blomkamp has plenty of years ahead as a filmmaker and does not need to go and make his 2001. All that aside, the script does come across as a poor retread, both of District 9 and x-number of movies across the genre border over the years. Along these lines, I was not fussed on Ryan Amon's score. It's not a particularly bad score, but it really waters down the sort of, post-apocalyptic industrial gruel that we are quite clearly meant to be rolling around in. I'm not against an emotional, heart-rending score, but it over-romanticised and creates a shameless sense of self-mythologising in the movie, and thus qualifies for the EHO (Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra). 

Despite those problems, which I admit probably felt worse off of the sharp intelligence of District 9, whose shadow quite clearly is looming, my conclusion is still positive for Elysium. While it is full of red flags and lacks the intelligence needed to put the movie over fully to me, there is still a genuine artistic drive from everyone involved to try to make the best movie possible. Neil Blomkamp may have been aiming too high and thus lost sight of the ground below, but there is still enough here to convince me of it being a movie of relative merit.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Bored (work is non-existent this week...)

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