"They can fix this shit on Elysium..." or "Come Comrades We Rally!"

Whenever I'm about to start filming, my assistant director/cinematographer/good friend Tucker Johnson and I usually watch something new to stir our creativity. A few years ago we watched Super 8 on the first day of our shoot, last winter we watched The Innkeepers at 1 in the morning the day before we started and thank god I made a trip to go see Elysium before I embark on my own sci-fi film, my first. I was wary. Blockbuster season has been remarkably unkind. Pacific Rim, World War Z and Iron Man 3 gave me passing, momentary pleasures that saved them from total blandness or outright embarrassment. I didn't get out of my house to see The Wolverine, After Earth, Man of Steel or The Lone Ranger. I'm sure a few of them are fine, but I'm burnt out. That's what led me to think that Elysium would be merely passably entertaining, despite my trust in Neill Blomkamp. District 9, his feature length debut, managed to prove the size of its heart even as it murdered dozens of innocent bystanders on the way to the finish line. Here was the heir to Richard Stanley taking gleeful pleasure in burning up Peter Jackson's money and giving us a horrifically funny vision of the past rendered in new code.

Blomkamp may not be going out of his way to earn the legacy of the best of African filmmakers (Elysium isn't precisely Yeelen, even if I think the two have undeniable similarities) but I see enough of a kinship in his ragged grammar. Technical mistakes or shortcomings add to the feel of this being a film made for the people from the bottom up, even with the millions of dollars behind its every shot. There's something much more majestic about the sweeping, impressive shots of outer space habitats coming from the mind of a young South African. For some reason Gavin Hood has never inspired that same sense of awe... The shakycam may at first seem a little pointless and it certainly isn't endearing at this late in the game but it doesn't get in the way of the multi-layered compositions that give this film its grounding. Shots of Matt Damon staring out at the dust-and-blood covered new Los Angeles like a diseased monument or Sharlto Copley's villain ominously approaching in different guises may adequately represent the heart of the movie but they don't usurp its cumulative effect, in the way the few great moments of Pacific Rim do. Elysium works moment to moment but it adds up to something engaging and relevant, rare these days when the budget passes big on its way to ultra. Now, in fairness I have a few predilections that made this film impossible for me to resist, much in the same way Lords of Salem seemed like it was a pagan idol cut out of an old, haunted tree just for me. And much like, say, Nic Winding Refn's Bronson, it also retcons old ideas I once didn't care for into a new shape that I do. If Bronson was a version of A Clockwork Orange that I could finally get behind, then Elysium is a Total Recall I can not only sit through but love.

The year is 2154 (I wish filmmakers would stop telling us when their dystopias take place. Like Blade Runner, a clear influence, there's gonna be a day when we pop in the dvd and realize it was set yesterday) and the rich have fled Earth for an orbiting gated community called Elysium. Matt Damon plays Max, a paroled convict with big dreams who's stuck on Earth, specifically a hellacious Los Angeles that's become what many cops believe it's going to turn into: a wasteland populated by Latinos. Global warming's hit this town as hard as drugs and gang violence. It never seems like it's ever actually night thanks to the burnt up atmosphere. Max works a shit job and gets hassled regularly by robot cops just for having a record and being a wiseass, but things take a turn for the "you've got to be fucking kidding me" when he has an accident at work and suffers a mammoth dose of radiation poisoning. He decides it's time to jump the line to Elysium where they have in-home sick bays that cure anything you can catch.

There's loads more plot, but watching it unfold without knowing exactly the turns it'll take is part of the fun. It does eventually come to pass that our hero is put through a battery of harsh physical trials on his way to Elysium that structurally, err, recalls Total Recall. Like that film's Quaid, Max is a sort of blue-collar everyman who figures out he might be meant for greater things and in the process gets caught between two sides of a political conflict. There are plastic similarities too: the mercenary henchman working for a murderous bureaucrat, the robot at the parolee department looks like Total's cabdriver, the gore effects race past graphic to emphatic, and the third act is kicked off by rebellion during surgery. Both are about curing a political agenda and giving "the people" back something they need and deserve. The crucial difference in every case is that Elysium is the more hopeful of the two films, it actually feels like it cares about the humans doing the running around and getting killed. Total Recall is a movie made exclusively on dark, very 80s-feeling sets so consequently you spend the whole film feeling like you're in a dirty basement. Which is certainly thematically appropriate but it makes for dour viewing. Then of course there's the script. Both resort to the hamfisted, but Elysium does only that: resorts. Everyone is trying to maintain a facade of normality, even if they're up to something else; the craziness has to crack the surface first. Total Recall puts Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusset's script through the mouths of character actors too crazy to sell any of the dialogue as anything other than tonedeaf satire. Remember Alien? That too started as one of their screenplays. The difference is believing it. Ridley Scott calmed down and made the characters adults. Paul Verhoeven had no such interest; never has. That's not his style. But between his fetishizing Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is many things but there isn't a blue-collar bone in his body) as a kind of fascist superhero who uses civilians as shields against bullets, the cartoonish delivery of all dialogue, the paper-thin characterization, the neon claustrophobia and the hugely unpleasant ratcheting up of gore effects, the 1990 Total Recall has never been a film I've felt the urge to revisit. And the less said about Len Wiseman (in any capacity, really) and his remake, the better. 

Elysium's production design has a built-in edge on Total Recall. They actually went out and shot on real streets and indeed made the sun a dogged characteristic of the early act. It's what threatens to expose Max to his would-be captors when things start going wrong. It's what comes to separate Earth from Elysium; artificial night has fallen when Max finally lands and the bulk of the action is set in the comparatively sleek harddrive of the big space station. Blomkamp makes us feel the difference and that the core of Elysium has none of the character of the earth-bound streets we've left behind. A perfect little detail: when Max and Sharlto Copley's fantastically sadistic Kruger have their final meeting, there's a potted plant on a railing nearby as a reminder to people who work here what the real world looked like. Everyone misses the outside world, even the 'villains'. In fact it's what separates the redeemable from the irredeemable. William Fichtner, who is and is clearly having a ton of fun as the film's third tier villain, hilariously despises every second he spends in the polluted atmosphere of Earth. Though by outward appearances your garden variety corporate villain, Fichtner's actually doing something fantastic with his character: he's playing a grown-up trustfund kid. I'm sure while visiting his kids at college he got to see the worst kind of shitty behavior that the children of the rich indulge in and added twenty years of never hearing "no". Like so much of the film, it's kind of perfect.

Fichtner's unfeeling bureaucrat is luckily the rule, rather than the exception: the performances in Elysium are better than good, they're memorably weird. Matt Damon is more casually profane than we've seen him before, which does sell his criminality more than I thought it would. The minute he says "I'm just fuckin' with ya, there's nothin' in the fuckin' bag" I was sort of shocked by his candor considering he usually plays responsible or naive. Sharlto Copley is great, as usual. He was recently in the excellent lo-fi Sci-fi mock-doc (I'm being paid by the hyphen) Europa Report doing a hell of a job being a square jawed American astronaut with the dearth of engaging personality you'd expect. People have called this a flaw...they're wrong. Elysium captures the flipside of his evidently unlimited range. He was so good at being an average American (and I mean flawless) that watching him be a completely unhinged South African was somehow the most exciting thing in the film. When he vanishes in the middle of the third act, there is a genuinely terrifying sense of menace as we wait for him to turn up. That bloke's like to do anything! A lot of critics have been trying to geolocate Jodie Foster's accent, and have ventured France and South Africa, but the real charm is that it's so tough to place. Copley's henchman have that deranged Toecutter feel that I so love in villains. Wagner Moura's fidgety Spider is clearly kind of a selfish prick, but his good intentions, which have driven his criminal activity, rise to the surface when he realizes the thing he's been looking for is right in front of him. He's a combination of the two scientists from Pacific Rim, complete with cane, except I never wanted to strangle him until he stopped talking. Diego Luna, faced with a fairly thankless role, gives his character the zaniest pigtails his hair would allow. Things like that let you know that this a community who've gotten used to their lives. The sole normal performance in the whole film is Alice Braga, grounding things, as she does, alternately by being so adorable you could see anyone martyring themselves for her, and bringing enough gravity to keep the film from being too crazy. She's the human face of the people forgotten by the rich. And that there is crucial.

I like the way Blomkamp directs action (frenetic and bloody, every punch hurts) and certainly there are moments of genius in his handling of the film's more horrific touches: The employment of a rail gun leads to one spectacularly gruesome shootout and there's some facial surgery that ranks as among the most excellently sick effect shots I've ever seen. So why was I ok with the violence in this film but not in Total Recall? It's a matter of intention, certainly. Verhoeven has long played the role of a cinematic trickster god, pushing people into corners and getting them to like it and think it was their idea to be there. He's just as manipulative as Lars Von Trier or Michael Haneke, though I think he's got a sense of humour that's a little more mainstream-friendly. I don't think Blomkamp takes as much glee in killing people as Verhoeven and when he does murder characters the huge bloodshed doesn't feel like extremity for its own sake - it feels like he's trying to make audiences understand just how horrible it is when someone is killed. Maybe I'm giving him too much credit but I'm happy to do it. He's from a wartorn country in a continent full of them, so from me he gets the benefit of the doubt. More than that and more than just because Braga and Damon make for incredibly solid leads, this is a film that's honest about political conviction. Max's motivation until very late in the game is that he just doesn't want to die. Compelling, but more importantly realistic. He never even really buy into Spider's utopian political vision and frankly that is a sort of power-drunk conquest that has as much to do with pissing on the leg of the rich who scorn him and kill his people. The film doesn't ask us to believe that Spider or Max have bone-deep Marxist conviction, but it still gets to eat its socialist cake. The revolution may be almost accidental but Max (and Blomkamp) recognize that it's more important than the plight of one man. So while universal healthcare may be the end goal, it's more about giving up the individual for the sake of the greater good. The action and drama has an internal life. It makes every second of the character's struggle work as more than just a well-paced sci-fi thriller with awesome spectacle. Maybe that's too simple for a lot of people, but if you need me I'll be over here with my fist in the air singing this film's praises to the tune of the "L'Internationale"

No comments: