22 August 2013
Sci-fi is something of a painfully neglected genre of late. Whilst there's no denying that your Iron Man Threes and your Man of Steels and your Star Trek In Darknesses are all very technically accomplished films and enjoyable films, there's a common theme throughout them - they're all modern updates of already existing franchises. The dearth of originality in this genre on the silver screen is perhaps more glaring than in others, with the last decent attempt - Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion - lacking the heart that made, say, Logan's Run or Silent Running such masterpieces, and lost amid the aforementioned swathe of franchise films.
Step up Neill Blomkamp - having fully recovered from his stalled Halo project, and leaping off the back of the magnificent District 9, with Elysium, he's shown that there's life in the old genre yet. Not just that, he's crafted a story that's got Oblivion's clarity of vision, but instead of a cold, soulless centre, you have sets of fully-formed human eyes staring back at you.
In the mid-22nd century, the rich elite of Earth have fled from a planet that's become over-crowded and over-polluted to a giant orbiting space station named Elysium, where the wealthy can live forever, and the riff-raff are murdered on sight if they even dare approach. On the ground, an ex-vagrant named Max (Matt Damon) is trying to turn his life around, working on a production line which provides the station with it's all-powerful security force. After a horrifying accident leaves him with fatal radiation poisoning, and with neglectful leadership denying him readily available life-saving treatment, he resolves to get to Elyisum however he can. But all is not as peachy as it seems aboard the station, and as his plan progresses, he accidentally becomes embroiled in a plot engineered by the Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster).
The story, whilst perhaps not quite as impactful as D9's apartheid allegory, is still well crafted, and examines in detail various problems facing the contemporary developed world - exaggerating them to their logical conclusion, 150 years down the line. It also succeeds in keeping you guessing as to exactly how it's all going to pan out - though a side effect of this is a couple of story threads that seem a little stalled. The flipside of that coin, however, is a commentary on quite how interesting every facet of the story is.
Then there's the action, and Blomkamp has outdone himself in this department. His penchant for exotic weaponry is on full show - the air-burst rounds are a particularly brutal stroke, but there's small touches everywhere, and they're integrated seamlessly into the world building. This is Blomkamp's true strength as a film-maker - his attention to detail allows him to construct a world that feels like it's been lived in: Earth is a breathing, stinking slum, and Elysium is Homeric in its execution. The special effects are a joy to behold too - particularly the intricate autons that police Earth's surface on behalf of those on high.
The cast do a superb job of it too - Matt Damon's performance is subtle but brilliant, but we should expect nothing less from a man who hasn't put a foot wrong since those amnesiac spy movies. Jodie Foster - despite sporting one of the strangest accents (a mish-mash of French, British and American) this side of Gerard Butler's Irish - presides over Elysium maliciously, sneering through her teeth at those that question her questionable actions beautifully. The real, gems, however, are Wagner Moura and Sharlto Copley. The former plays an outrageously fast-talking people- and data-trafficker, and he's a joy when he's bouncing off Max's literal and figurative outer shells. Copley, on the other hand, belies his previous efforts to deliver a chillingly horrid villain - merciless, psychotic and seemingly impossible to kill, the tension between himself and Damon gives their scraps a sense of urgency and purpose that is most satisfying.
If there are problems with it, it's two-fold. The allegory is a little on the nose, and some may come away with a bad taste in the mouth from its scathing skewering of America's current healthcare and immigration issues, despite it making an entirely valid argument. Most sad, however, is that whilst the action is still entertaining, it's curiously bloodless this time around. That the film carriers a PG-13/12A rating tells you all you need to know, and the result is a softening of its bite.
But truth be told, it's impossible to not overlook these in favour of the other strengths on show. It's such a complete film, bucking the trend of everyone and their dog setting up for a potential sequel that may or may not transpire. The world it creates is believable, the actions sequences are fantastic (and on occasion even darkly humourous), and the performances top notch on all counts. There's even a curt nod to Halo which brought a smile to this gamer's face. Blomkamp has now proven himself to be a major player in the sci-fi scene, and you owe it to yourself to see this.