Sunday, August 11, 2013

My take on Elysium

The long-awaited Elysium, Neill Blomkamp's grim vision of Earth in 2154, arrived to theaters in USA this week. It is Blompamp's - a young collaborator of Peter Jackson's - only second feature film, after the acclaimed District 9. A native of South Africa, Blomkamp seems attracted to overpopulation, ravaged cities and social injustice, and in this sense Elysium looks like another District 9 (2009), just one with bigger budget and Matt Damon.

I enjoyed District 9. It was a fresh look into the theme of aliens arriving to Earth for whatever reason. Its special effects were refreshing too, and Sharlto Copley's main character was an official with personality and humor. Copley is back in Elysium as well, and so are so many other things from Blomakmp's South African team.

I enjoyed Elysium. It is indeed a well made movie, but not different enough from the director's previous movie and it suffers from some of the same problems.

The idea of the mankind having split into two populations - one rich and privileged, other poor and disadvantaged - isn't a new concept, even H. G. Wells explored this idea in The Time Machine. The space habitat Elysium is reminiscent of visions of Wehrner von Braun and others. The dystopian Earth reminds me of worlds of RoboCop, Judge Dredd and Blade Runner (well, at least a bit). The plot just isn't that novel, but execution is mostly outstanding, with Matt Damon as an English-speaking hero who ends up carrying Elysium's bootstrap code in his head.

The first problem is the casting of a big name like Matt Damon. He is a well-known American (action) movie star. The scenes of Earth were filmed around Mexico City, with most of the people on screen being Spanish-speaking Mexicans. Of course, this is supposed to be the future Los Angeles, but the friendly English-speaking Matt Damon sticks out. A less-known Mexican actor would have been a more suitable choice for the main role. Damon still plays the character of da Costa well and delivers a good performance both dramatically and actionwise - and there is maybe too much action in this film.

However, then there is Jodie Foster. I fet like her role as the "evil", overprotective secretary Jessica Delacourt was one-dimensional and just a rehash of her role as Madeleine White in Inside Man (2006). There was no real justification for her actions, she is just the classic stupid antagonist. Sadly, she reminds me of the evil bad guy Hein of Final Fantasy (2001).

The most delicious part of the film is whenever the insane mercenary Kruger - played by Sharlto Copley - is on the screen. He heads an apparently South African mercenary team supported by Elysium and Jessica Delacourt. He is blatantly repulsive, ugly and wicked. However, his interactions with da Costa are largely about shooting weapons and hitting each other with the help of their exoskeletons. This is what plagued District 9 as well - there is too much action and too many explosions that take the stage from drama and meaningful story.

I generally liked the use of information technology in the story, but even though some thought had been put into the design of all the technology, it is still plagued by some classic Hollywood  shortcomings - such as source code showing when a program is loaded and executed, errors appearing in huge popup dialogs instead of command line and so on. Come on, you can do better. In so many instances in this film, they knew what they were doing, so why deviate from that?

Since Elysium is in space (low Earth orbit), you need a spacecraft to travel there. Perhaps surprisingly, the airships (jet-powered craft with no wings) can fly there without problems. Generally, the spaceflight part of the movie was handled very badly - it is like nobody cared a bit how you actually fly to space. In order to reach the orbit of Elysium, you need a delta-v of about 8.5 km/s and it is not easy to imagine how a simple helicopter-like craft could possible carry enough fuel to attain that speed. In addition, it seems all you have to do is to aim for Elysium and accelerate. Orbital mechanics don't work that way. It was also showed how craft approach directly from Earth's direction, constantly accelerating. If they were already on the same orbit, they could have just approached, using their fuel to try to evade the interceptor missiles, and of course decelerated to be able to match their speed with Elysium's habitat ring.

Elysium itself was nice, but boring. The idea of the habitat lacking a "ceiling" is interesting. The centrifugal force might not be able to hold the atmosphere against the habitat in real life, but if Elysium was larger, it might. In any case, the construction and early evolution of Elysium might be a good topic for a comic book treatment (and another movie?).

Even though the supporting cast was excellent, the characters of Damon and Foster did much for the film to appear like another bland blockbuster. Production design by Philip Ivey was excellent, and he was the production designer for District 9 as well.

Social commentary? Just like in District 9, there is a lot, sometimes even stereotypical (overpopulation, electronic music). The director readily says this is an allegory of the world today. Maybe that justifies some of the blockbuster approach, to appeal bigger audience and introduce them to the scifi world that is not too far away from our reality?

The ending was nice with the medical shuttles. It's difficult to say how well Elysium's resources would have helped Earth's population, but the ending implies they now get the equal treatment. Much of the film I was wondering whether Elysium was like royal courts of Middle Ages where a very small minority of population enjoyed high standards of living, with art and sciences supported by them, with no means to actually spread that wealth to the ordinary folk ravaged by plague and famine.

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