I loves me some good science-fiction action. The promise of more by the director of District 9 had me excited a year or more ago. The addition of Matt Damon surprisingly didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, despite the dull posters showing the back of his head and a stack of K’Nex. As with Pacific Rim I studiously avoided all trailers and information, and I’m glad I did; it really does improve my enjoyment of films. I frequently write during adverts and trailers anyway (I’m not paying to see them) and I think I’m going to do it more.
Anyway… Elysium – awesome space-station wheel in the sky for rich folks. Earth life sucks – population explosion, global corporate governments, hideous poverty and all the other awful things we seem utterly bound for. It’s exactly the dystopian future that had me thinking of Neal Asher‘s new series and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon with a huge poor population envious of their brutal callous overlords, who in this case have fucked off into orbit to have the lives they want.
The story is that of a poor chump, Max who has always dreamed of going to Elysium (ever since being little in a nun-run orphanage). Life hasn’t really worked out and it gets much worse when he gets his arm broken by a robot cop and then takes a tonne of radiation poisoning at work. He has days to live and nothing to lose – cue action. There are some nice twists and painful scenes to watch and I don’t really want to give away the story (be blissfully unaware like me). It pounds by at a satisfying pace, beginning with a flashback to Max’s childhood friendship with Frey and their hopes and dreams. That gets referred back to a lot during the film, which certainly irritated a number of my friends. I quite liked it. For all the action and drama that get packed in this is a classic sentimental sci-fi story that ends exactly as it should.
The supporting cast really makes this work, though it’s unfortunate that once again Frey is shunted into female mother-hostage-victim role, despite being a nurse and having the potential to be a strong character. There are a host of criminal renegades to enjoy, on both sides of the good/bad divide. William Fichtner is the face of corporate evil (complete with skin branded company logos on his face). It’s his character that becomes the focus of Max’s attempts to get to Elysium. To be fair he actually gets there relatively easily, once he’s got his exo-skeleton power suit bolted on (that’s a disturbing surgery scene right there!) Sharlto Kopley plays a very disturbed and disturbing corporate mercenary who is nonetheless rather amusing and very watchable. Jodie Foster is Elysium’s no-nonsense totalitarian minister of defence who has few qualms in blowing up ships full of refugees and sending Kruger (Kopley) after Max and Frey.
Visually this film is beautiful, Neill Blomkamp has created a thoroughly credible, filthy, awful future Earth (his robot policemen are very similar stylistically to the aliens of District 9) and it contrasts extraordinarily with the graceful Elysium. The space station itself has an open, park-filled atmosphere in a huge toroid wheel which I don’t think I’ve seen before. That and the small shuttle craft and general feel of the technology reminds me of ’70s and ’80s sci-fi book covers – loved it. The weapons, when they come out (and boy, do they) are messy and violent. I’m told by teh internets that the film is about the dangers of immigration, but that doesn’t match my feelings in watching it – it’s a great sci-fi action film with a backdrop of massive over-population, corporate political power and privilege of the rich elite. If all yuo get from watching it is “immigrants are bad” you probably should have stayed at home and read the Daily Mail.
Now this is a film that most right-minded humans should hate. It has the usual Hollywood “based on true events” crap, as if that justifies taking ‘a thing happened’ and bending it unrecognisably away from reality. It’s also Michael Bay directing it, so no one’s hopes for the film should be set too high. I must admit that I was primarily drawn to the film by two things – the rather jaunty music and style of the trailer and the presence of Dwayne Johnson (aka ‘The Rock’). The trailer presents the film as a wacky caper with a bunch of buff losers who rip off a wealthy criminal and get into predictable action scrapes. I’ve also found Johnson to be quite reliable in films, from Welcome to the Jungle upwards – the guy is huge (though his musculature inflates and deflates alarmingly between roles) and really has presence. His action skills are superb and he seems to have a minor gift for comedy.
So those were my expectations and priming for the film. I wasn’t let down – it bounds along brightly coloured and gaily packed with comic characters who worship the inane egomaniacal self-help gurus of the ’90s (loathsome exploitative scum to a man, easily comparable with the worst of fraudulent mediums and religions). Hilariously they are also body builders – in itself an absurd cult of steroid abuse. Mark Wahlberg‘s voiceover narration is pretty entertaining “I believe in fitness”, sure – why not. But life is unfair and despite their pectastic skill sets, Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie (who’s usually tiny) find that they really aren’t making the money and getting the life of people who y’know, work really hard for it. Wahlberg’s muscle-neck gets obsessed with the prospect of robbing a client at his gym.
This the point at which the film becomes at once highly entertaining but also gradually comes loose from the comedy trailer. The guy they rob is not a criminal at all, he’s just a hard working US immigrant (Tony Shalhoub on fine form) who is quite a bit of a dick, but then he has embraced the American dream… They also recruit The Rock, an ex-con with an ex-drug and alcohol problem (there’s no reason that should cause any problems) to help add more muscle to their top heavy team. They kidnap the guy and torture him for a month in a sex toy warehouse. There is much room for humour, and it is mercilessly exploited. After that, they try to kill him (still milked for laughs) but overall, they’re successful and while Wahlberg becomes a model neighbour, Mackie gets married (to his nut nurse – the always brilliant Rebel Wilson) but poor Johnson gets back on coke and goes fairly crazy. That’s also funny. Then they go for another rich target, while the not-quite-dead-but-broke-and-pissed-off Shalhoub gets ex-cop PI Ed Harris (he and Peter Weller are now twins) to investigate. Then it finally goes horribly, horribly wrong.
It’s only in retrospect that I’m at all torn about the film – during it I enjoyed it immensely. Especially when at the 2/3 point a message pops up saying “this is still a true story” – it seems incredible and it no doubt is. We can at least be assured that the actual thugs were a good deal more ugly than this bunch. However, these guys do awful, awful things to entirely innocent people. While watching it my sympathy was entirely with the bodybuilders and I laughed throughout. It is very clear though that they are the bad guys, and the film is played completely for laughs. It’s quite bizarre and I’m not sure how I feel about it now. It could just be a tribute to the consistently terrible films of (now departed) Tony Scott in its garish style, direction and lack of moral compass. Either way it’s Bay’s best film for a looong time. I think I’ll watch the trailer again.
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