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Elysium Review

There was only one way to go but down, really.

Four years have passed since Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, a feature length film inspired by his original short “Alive in Joburg,” released into theaters and was lauded by critics as a classic and received a good helping of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. When we were meant to get a videogame adaptation of Halo (which would probably have turned out like every other movie of its kind), fate instead decided to give us a bold, original dystopian tale that had as much brains as brawn. Although I didn’t get into Blomkamp’s freshman outing as much as the next guy—not in the sense of it feeling ‘overrated’ as it was personal preference, I still have a great amount of respect for what it was trying to say and immediately knew Hollywood stumbled upon a new star of a director. Despite yearning for more from this sophomore outing, Elysium is still a full-throttle action flick with a willingness to make broad strokes of social commentary and absolutely destroys the notion that this director is just a one-hit wonder.

Like District 9, Elysium is an allegory with a science fiction outer coat that presents a powerful thesis on a modern-day injustice. The year is 2154. Despite this sci-fi dystopia having robots, flying ships, and better healthcare, the disparity of income between the haves and have-nots has only expanded. Earth is now a fatigued, dusty planet filled with overpopulation problems, disease, and constant crime. The privileged have fled to a ring-shaped space station called Elysium housing a mostly-white population that has everything you could imagine: security, cleaner air, luxury, and medical pods that can cure any ailments. Being allowed onto this paradise is regulated via genetic branding yet illegal immigrants are still willing to pay what little they have to reach those healing devices, even at the risk of just being kicked back upon arrival or being shot out of the sky by Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster)—I kept wondering if Jan Brewer was any sort of inspiration for the character’s looks upon first seeing the previews.

Enter: Max DeCosta (Matt Damon). Once a so-called legend of the criminal lifestyle, Max is now striving to just keep his nine-to-five factory job of making robots for Armadyne, a defense company that has a partnership with Elysium. After a work accident results in him having only five days to live, Max strikes a deal with an underworld kingpin to bring power back to the people for a free ride to the station and gets an exoskeleton drilled into his head and spine that makes him an even match for any android. What seems like a simple smash-and-grab job morphs into a major conspiracy that involves Delacourt, her sadistic henchman named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), his life-long friend Frey (Alice Braga), and more.

Even with a screenplay framed around a more conventional means of storytelling, there are a lot of masterful nuances built into it. Since every integral character, leading or side role, is given some sort of pre-existing motivations, they’re forced to adapt them to the ever-changing situations provided by the plot or other characters. None of those that would be deemed important to the script ever feel to JUST be there for a simple explanation or to act as a prod to get the plot moving along; it’s a solid juggling act that works as intended yet also comes within a hair’s breadth of feeling too chaotic in doing so. Because of so much being thrown at you, it feels like a bit of those world-building and slow-paced moments for extra characterization or biting satire—like the meeting between the robot parole officer and Max—are pared down a bit too much. That same yearning could also be extended to action itself. Not in the sense that any of them are bad—in fact, all of them are well-structured for the loud, aggressive violence that’s meant to be depicted (though I’m not a fan of that “body gore”) and contain a lot of inventive high-tech concepts, but rather in getting so many of these treats to the point of not properly digesting the last sequence.

Still, the modest step down in storytelling doesn’t mean that’s the case for the solid—if slightly uneven—visual filmmaking. Just like the artistry and technical expertise D9 was able to display with just a paltry thirty million dollars, Elysium effectively showcases Blomkamp’s powerful imagination with a greater sum of money. As imaginative as it is convincing, the dingy favelas and worn-down skyscrapers of futuristic Los Angeles attain that lived-in feeling that so welcomingly juxtaposes the antiseptic sci-fi spectacles of this summer. The robots have dings and/or graffiti on their outer shell, cars that took a few notes from Mad Max, and the smart mixture of practical effects and CGI display a sense of great dedication in making this world truly alive. If there’s one annoyance in regard to the direction it would be the overuse of slow-mo for many scenes and a misguided bullet time camera technique that crops up a couple of times throughout the film.

When it comes to acting, the level of quality seems to swing to both sides of the pendulum. Copley’s performance for both delivering his lines and simply emoting his ruthless presence on-screen are well done and show a respectable range from his characters of previous films—remarkable considering he only became a professional actor four years ago. Damon also delivers a dedicated and appealing performance. Not just for the stunt work (which he seemed to do most of it), but also that charismatic, low-key identity that gets him in trouble early on that makes it rather easy to grow sympathy for someone who earnestly wished to have a clean slate. Now, at the other end of the quality spectrum would be Jodie Foster. For a two-time Academy Award winner, it’s disappointing to see her just phone-in the persona and odd accent that constantly jumps everywhere in tone.

Despite having that strange identity of feeling a bit cluttered yet leaving me wanting more, Elysium still holds tightly to the idea that having more funds to paint a bigger canvas shouldn’t mean a watered-down compromise in an auteur’s brio regarding sociological examinations. Similar to the exoskeleton, Elysium’s construct is both hardwired with an action-packed backbone and thoughtful topical subjects to boot. In today's world where Hollywood so rarely gives out huge dollars to anything but sure-fire hits, having the audacity to aim for something original in concept and design is what makes Blomkamp’s effort such a great way to end this summer.


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coolbeans2824d ago (Edited 2824d ago )

Hope everyone enjoyed the review. Feel free to comment. :)

I actually could use some help in finding the official name of the "annoying camera technique" that I couldn't find via google's listed sites. It's not the shaky cam (which is in the film and didn't mind), but something else. I'll try to explain:

Camera is initially aimed at Damon's right side of his head/body then everything seems to freeze for the camera to veer over to his left elbow where he's about to throw a punch. I say seem to because it feels like it's all done in one quick motion. It was reminiscent, or perhaps the same thing, of the Sherlock Holmes 2 part where Holmes and his crew are running away from Nazis in that wooded area.

RetrospectRealm2824d ago

No real term for that. You'd basically just say what you just said here. You could use 'bullet time' somewhere in there, if you wanted to. But you'd still have to be specific when using it.

coolbeans2824d ago

Ahh..okay. Thank you for that input. I added a bit more beef to that part with your suggestion.

JL2824d ago (Edited 2824d ago )

Actually, the term bullet time is exactly what you're talking about. No need to "be specific when describing it". Bullet time. That's the technique. Period.

Though, technically Warner Bros have a copyright on that name I think. So it's actually referred to by a variety of names including "frozen time", "flow motion" and "time slicing". Achieved (originally) by using a bunch of still cameras surrounding a scene, then each taking a picture in rapid succession. Then all those still pictures are spliced together one frame after another. Nowadays, they can do it with "virtual cameras" too.

coolbeans2824d ago

Dang it...everyone's giving different answers! :P

"Flow motion" sounds like the most fitting when you see it in action. In any case, I'll look over that portion after work and see what would be the best way to frame the explanation. Maybe just "quasi-bullet time?"

Thanks for your input as well, JL.

JL2823d ago

Bullet time and flow motion are the same thing. Just people have different terms for the technique.

It is what they used in Sherlock Holmes. They did it when he analyzed how a fight was gonna play out too.

Don't think of bullet time as being exactly like Matrix. It's slightly more general a term than that. It's any use of slowing down or freezing time while simultaneously "moving" the camera at regular speed. A speed that would be impossible if the action were in real time. (Would be impossible with one camera too).

But yeah, "quasi-bullet time" would still be bullet time. The technique doesnt demand that time actually stop, just needs to be slowed down.

coolbeans2823d ago (Edited 2823d ago )

I see. Well, I cropped it up to be more fitting with what you've explained. I guess before your description I wanted to add some new word or description was because of how much different it feels from those examples.

I get bullet time for The Matrix and that Sherlock Holmes example, but here and with that portion in Sherlock Holmes 2 it almost deserves a new name, you know? (I'm not sure if you've seen either Elysium or Holmes 2)

In any case, thanks for answering.

Edit: Drats, already out! Curse you 4 bubble count!

JL2823d ago (Edited 2823d ago )

Yes, I've seen both. The forest scene is definitely bullet time. What makes it especially awesome to watch it Ritchie's use of a high-speed dolly for capturing the footage to use for bullet-time. That and he ramped out of and into bullet time multiple times through that scene which made it even cooler. Yes, it's much more impressive and a more creative use of bullet-time than you sometimes see, but still just bullet time.

As for Elysium, yes I've seen it. However, I don't remember that scene. But I do remember the movie using bullet time in multiple places during action, so I'd have to assume that's what it was. And given your description, I think I could say with pretty high certainty that that was indeed was it was. Just maybe bullet time that you're not used to.

What you got to remember about bullet time is that it's basically just separation of the speed of action and the speed of the camera. Like it allows to action to stand still or go really slow while the camera movement stays at normal speed or even high speed. So depending how the director and cinematographer bend those two aspects and twist them together, you can have varying results.

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