Science fiction, it's been said, is a view of modern society extrapolated into the future. Even something as adorably cheesy as the original Star Trek series took on contemporary social issues such as racism and the Cold War from the perspective of a utopian 23rd Century, when Earth had overcome war (between humans, at least), poverty, disease and (seemingly) capitalism. That's why you had a moneyless society where a black, female communications officer, a Russian ensign, and a Japanese navigator worked in harmony with atypically idealist white people during a time when the U.S. and Soviet Union were on the verge of cataclysmic war, Americans were still a little pissed about Pearl Harbor, and black people were systemically discriminated against.
Well, two out of three ain't bad.South African director Neill Blomkamp is also a purveyor of this kind of sociological sci-fi. With his breakout 2009 hit, District 9, Blomkamp filtered the issues of racism, immigration and apartheid through the story of an alien ship that stalls out over Johannesburg, relegating a population of "prawns" to an underclass, reviled and segregated by nativist South Africans who see them as nothing but a drain on society. With liberal doses of corporate militarization and exploding dudes, D9 became an instant sci-fi classic.
Now Blomkamp is back, and with his latest, Elysium, he's playing in the same sandbox while upping the action ante. And, once again, he scores a big win.
Earth, 145 years into the future, is an overpopulated, disease- and crime-ridden rock covered in mega-cities and endless shantytowns, ruled by a robotic police force built by the Armadyne Corporation. Meanwhile, the richest among us have long since jumped ship to Elysium, a massive Kubrickian space station biosphere in the sky, where disease has been eradicated and the well-off reside in spotless, idyllic luxury.
Of course, the underclasses do their best to get up there but are thwarted by not only their poverty and the law, but also by Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs) a sort of Defense Secretary/Immigration Officer who can be quite ruthless in rebuffing would-be migrants.
Do You Like (Exploding) Apples? Good Will Hunting kills the shit out of some futuristic rich people in Elysium. Boston accent not included.
Back on Earth, Max (Matt Damon, True Grit) is a former thief who has gone straight and works an industrial job for Armadyne. When a totally avoidable accident irradiates and dooms him to death within five days, Max is given new cause to live outside the law. If he can make it to Elysium he can be cured in minutes by a medical machine that comes standard with every home.
Hooking up with an underground smuggler, Spider (Wagner Moura, Romance) Max gets outfitted, Robocop-style, with a bio-mech suit that gives him unnatural strength and wires his brain with a hard drive. The mission: steal the data hidden in the head of Carlye (William Fichtner, Drive Angry), the CEO of Armadyne. His noggin holds a malicious program that Delacourt intends to use to reboot Elysium's central computer and execute a coup d'état of the sitting President (Faran Tahir, Warehouse 13), who she considers insufficiently brutal in protecting their orbital homeland. Max intends to use it to make everyone on Earth citizens of Elysium and give equality and free healthcare to all -- including the daughter of his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga, Predators) who suffers from leukemia.
That's not going to help the overpopulation problem.
Written and directed by Blomkamp, Elysium is a densely detailed and beautifully rendered world of visual wonder and prescient ideas. The Los Angeles of 2145 might as well be an extension of modern Central American slums (Max is seemingly the only white guy in L.A.), with the skyline dotted by crowded tin shanties, mega-towers and spacefaring shuttles. The film looks amazing, lived-in, and ultimately an all-too-believable nightmare future that sets itself apart by never relying on hyper-cool, Blade Runner-like darkness to render its dystopian vision.
The societal themes underneath are rooted in the here and now. Income inequality, corporate personhood, universal healthcare, drones and police militarization are all deftly folded into a gangbusters action story that finds Max perused by a psychopathic, rouge government agent, Kreuger (District 9's Sharlto Copley) who does his best to help Delacourt usurp whatever semblance of transparent government that still actually exists. He's basically a conservative anarchist who loves his job.
Blomkamp directs the dense narrative and interrelated themes with graceful ease, while raising the action quotient to new levels from District 9 (though, happily, he's still fond of exploding dudes). My seat mate (and erstwhile UTW film writer, Joshua Kline) rightly called it "a Michael Bay movie with a brain". What's more, it's Michael Bay with a near perfectly balanced sense of thoughtful restraint.
Damon is a perfect everyman, as usual (thankfully, Blomkamp's first choice, Eminem, was dropped after his insistence on shooting in Detroit). Charming, funny and sympathetic, Max has an imperfect moral center that provides his character with an admirable arc. Jodie Foster is great as Dick Cheney. Her icy inhumanity is a flesh-and-blood rendering of the robotic police that keep the unwashed masses in line. She would wipe them all out if she could. Sharlto Copley is a blast (and clearly having one) as Kruger. He's a volatile mixture of humor and sadism that is impossible to ignore or not enjoy.
High-minded ideas are great, but great heroes and villains are what make them memorable. Elysium is positively brimming with both.
Sticking it to the man is an admirable endeavor, and just because you can't fight city hall doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Weirdly, that's a theme that both Elysium and Still Mine, the new film from Canadian filmmaker Michael McGowan, share.
James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential) portrays Craig Morrison, a semi-retired farmer who lives in rural New Brunswick with his steadily declining wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold, The House of Yes). Despite having raised seven children over their 60-year marriage, Craig, the son of a shipbuilder, is still hale of mind and body. But as Irene's condition worsens, he realizes their ramshackle, two-story farmhouse is becoming a dangerous place for her. So he takes it upon himself to build a new house for them on an adjacent slice of his 2,000 acres of idyllic property. But at 87 years-old, Morrison's friends and family are skeptical. He's been forced to give up cattle ranching because his fences are decrepit. He can't sell his strawberries anymore because of new rules that won't permit it without a refrigerated truck, despite the fact they have only been off the vine for an hour before being delivered to market. Why not just cash in, move to town and take it easy? Give up your way of life. Morrison is having none of it.
So, pain in the ass though he deems it, he goes to the local zoning board where he's told he'll need a permit to begin construction. Fair enough. Then he finds he'll need notarized blueprints. "Why would I need a plan when it's all in my head?" he exasperates to a government bureaucrat, Rick Daigle (Jonathan Potts, Devil).
Thatíll Do, Dying Wife. Thatíll Do. James Cromwell isnít creepy at all when heís not playing a former Nazi doctor at a Ď60s insane asylum. Not-creepy Cromwell stars in Still Mine.
But that is only the beginning, as Morrison is forced to jump over a gauntlet of regulatory hurdles just do something he's clearly an expert at: building things with his bare hands. When he refuses to let the nitpicking Daigle thwart his plans, Morrison finds that the long arm of the law gives zero shits about anything resembling common sense.
Written and directed by McGowan, and based on a true story, Still Mine's title encapsulates not just the idea of unwelcome, unnecessary bureaucracy, but also the autumn of Craig and Irene Morrison's unshakeable love for one another as the onset of Alzheimer's cruelly threatens to take her away from him.
McGowan deftly interweaves both into a beautifully rendered, slice-of-life tale, gorgeously realized by the cinematography of Brendan Steacy (Harm's Way) and the stellar performances from Cromwell and Bujold. They both knock it out of the park with their chemistry (they even pull off sexy) which renders the lives of Craig and Irene and their love and loss as tangibly as if they lived through it themselves.
Cromwell and Bujold are in top form here. Supporting roles from Campbell Scott as Craig's longtime lawyer, Julie Stewart and Rick Roberts as two of the Morrison's grown-up kids, along with Barbra Gordon and George Robertson as their long-time friends fill out the periphery with finely naturalistic performances. Canadian indie rocker Hawksley Workman cameos for those that notice Canadian indie rock. All three of you.
The nuance and ease with which Still Mine's interworking parts create such an organically enjoyable whole reveal the joys of pure filmmaking. To find the unexpected truths of the human condition, the way a simple story about real people can mirror our own sensibilities without pandering to the audience, finding the golden thread that ties our disparate yet collective consciences together.
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