HARDBARNED! The Blog

In Praise of Free Healthcare (and Exoskeletons): ELYSIUM Review (Part 1 of 2)

First, take Matt Damon, well-established action hero and champion of the oppressed. Make him do lots of sit-ups. Give him tattoos and coveralls, and shave his head. Then, take Jodie Foster and her searing mettle. Add a snooty, uneven accent, all-business shoulderpads and Tobey Maguire's emo haircut from Spiderman 3. Dye it blonde.

Find Sharlto Copley, the bumbling, endearing hero of District 9, and make him into a bad guy. Give him some black, bad-guy contact lenses. Have him grow a dark, bad-guy beard and unleash his South African accent to exaggerated levels. Add a couple evil henchmen leftover from D9, a ninja sword and some fighting knives to fill in the gaps between his fancy future weapons that blow people up in a variety of slow motion explosions.

Super-glue some Legos to his cheeks because ever since William Gibson's Neuromancer, future people have used "ports" to "jack in" for data transmission or to experience virtual realities a la The Matrix. Outfit Bad Sharlto with a glowing blue insta-shield like those pesky Jackals from Halo. Make sure he has some ninja throwing-star bombs because who wouldn't want those? Grab Martinez from The Walking Dead TV show, that guy who never says much but follows the Governor without question, even though there's no longer any question whether Gov's a total maniac anymore.

Add some facial tattoos to this guy, and some other tattoos because everyone has lots of tattoos in the future. Have Martinez attach a robotic exoskeleton to Matt Damon with a power drill, so that he can kick even more ass than usual. Add a few grubby guys in an underground bunker with a bunch of screens and wires and guns and let them lead an underground resistance/border-busting coyote operation for aspiring immigrants hoping to penetrate the floating space ring of paradise for rich white folks who eat cake and swim naked in the perfect, computer-controlled climate.

Add a few cop and parole-officer robots who don't respond well to back-talk, some bright-red homeland security robots with matching helicopters, and some helpful but blunt robot medics. Throw in a few flying Roomba surveillance drones, apparent descendants of the vacuum-bots. Add some Pelicanesque spaceships left over from the Halo that wasn't and maybe even the Halo ring itself, but this time call it Elysium. Shake vigorously. Stir briefly. Enjoy.

That's enough information. I hate reading film reviews that are mostly plot summary. Who really wants to read a description of what happens in the movie? Don't you want to enjoy it without spoilers? It's hard enough to keep an element of surprise these days. I even turn off trailers half-way through because they're giving too much of the movie away. Once I know I want to see it, I try to adhere to a self-imposed media blackout, but it's not easy. I'm tempted by reviews from all over, but usually, if I know who is in it, who directed it, and if I have a general idea of the plot and tone, I have enough information. I barely managed to avoid reading any reviews of Elysium before seeing it on Friday, in my first trip to the theater in quite some time, and writing this.

I had been looking forward to Neill Blomkamp's next movie because I loved District 9 with a five-star intensity. In fact, speaking of the Halo that wasn't, I had followed Blomkamp since his excellent series of live action Halo shorts had debuted on the Xbox 360 dashboard several years ago, well before District 9 arrived. Yes, the more recent Forward Unto Dawn wasn't bad, but I think Blomkamp's Halo would have been much better, based on his intense Landfall series of shorts, collected here:

Despite its underdeveloped effects shots, which I knew would improve in post-production, Blomkamp's Landfall held the promise of an exciting new vision for what a film based on a video game could look and feel like, and being a Halo fan who to this day couldn't name a truly great movie based on a game, I was psyched to see Bloomkamp's version of Halo coming to fruition. Of course, it never did. The Halo film borne of Landfall was deep-sixed by a combination of corporate greed and epic ego clashes that was ultimately a good thing for Blomkamp's career.

Now he can command some respect as an auteur and make movies the way he sees fit. We all will surely continue to benefit. The bottom line is that Elysium is well worth watching and earns its spot in the upper echelon of modern sci-fi. I thought it was great, but maybe not quite as great as D9. Either way, I'm ready to see it again. It's full of awesome effects, great gadgets and fights, and several excellent actors. It makes no secret of its power-to-the-people angle, advocating for everyone's basic right to decent healthcare and a better standard of living. There's a childhood subplot that's a little bit cheesy, and there may not be a lot of nuance between the forces of evil and forces of good, but this is still a welcome, thinking person's science fiction movie that also happens to kick a hell of a lot of ass. Bring on more Blomkamp!

Read the second part of my Elysium review, "Searching for Signs of Serious Sci-Fi," here.