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08/15/2013 12:40 pm ET

Film Leader: Elysium's Techno-Guerillas Wage Battle To Universalize Healthcare, Reinstate Due Process & Improve S.O.L.

File under sarcasm: Do the folks at Tri-Star expect us to buy the idea of a future when only the sheltered rich can afford health care, clean air and safe 'hoods?


Elysium, or, District 10

The storylines for writer-director-CGI-artist Neill Blomkamp's Oscar-nominated District 9 and his latest film, Elysium are essentially similar, with workaday anti-heroes undergoing empathy-inducing events of contagion (both on the job) embroiling them in a struggle for survival that transforms them into agents of change. Where D9's Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) undergoes bio-metamorphosis à la the great Josef K, Elysium's Max Dacosta (whose phonetic nomen adjectivum suggests he will pay the ultimate price) becomes a man-machine, uploading into his cerebrum computer code which re-programs and renders benign a digital police state.

In A World...

As you already know, Elysium begins with a description of a dystopic Earth, circa 2154, with the "have-nots" overcrowding a wasteland police state, and the "haves" occupying a satellite haven of Mcmansions and Kubrick-esque control centers (giving new meaning to "white-flight").

In a Catholic orphanage (guess where), we meet young Max (Maxwell Perry Cotton), a headstrong mini-Luke Skywalker of sorts, and his sweetheart, the un-specifically Latina, Frey (Valentina Giron), who, in a reversal of presumptive roles (a common Blomkamp element), teaches him to read English. Busted for stealing (so he can buy tix to Elysium), Max is chided by a mother-figure nun, for failing to see the beauty of his raices. Cradling him Pieta-style* (one of two such images in Elysium), she gifts him a locket containing a picture of Earth, prophesying: "Es su destino ha hacer algo marabilia cuando es hombre".

Instead he becomes an ex-con, holding down job and a spartan apartment. When he steps out into Blomkamp's Los Angeles-as-third-world, rather than experiencing the totality of the environment (after all, what are CGI and IMAX for?), we are hurried through trad Hollywood signifiers, (heat, dust, extras), which is disappointing, because richer set design and directorial details could have delivered classic cinema. Additionally, too often the dialogue in Elysium sounds more like plot description in a screenplay, with characters (rather than the film) explaining scenarios.

Read the website, then see the movie

Because of its failure to deliver the evocative "little differences" which make a film a classic, Elysium's excellent website makes for useful supplemental viewing. By way of a left-field musing, I wonder if it might have worked better as a short film.

This short, Tetra Vaal, is apparently a preview to Blomkamp's next film Chappie, completing a societal-role trilogy of sorts: District 9' s administrator of the law, Elysium's workaday citizen affected by the law, and Chappie's enforcers of the law.

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The Parole 'Bot: "The personality of a human, without the propensity for error."

Nonetheless, when Max deals with a parole officer 'bot, lacquered with an eerie smile that's just-on-the-smug-side-of-vacant (like an evil Weebles), and when he's stopped and busted up at a bus stop by police 'bots, the claustrophobia and menace are palpable -- unfortunately, we've already seen these episodes in Elysium's trailer. By way of a "plot hook", the stop-and-frisk-and-pummel episode lands Max in a hospital, where he encounters Frey, with whom he's lost contact.

On the assembly line at Armadyne (the "A" and "D" prominent in its logo, à la Huxley's year-of-our-Ford) Max assembles the androids controlling his life (making for a terrific bit of materialistic determinism). The line jams, and Max is told to go inside the apparatus and troubleshoot, or he'll be replaced. 'Quick as you can say "workman's compensation" or "Upton Sinclair", he's trapped like a mouse and exposed to radiation, which a HazMat 'bot informs him is fatal, giving him pills to last his five-day life-expectancy.

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Great pot-shot at over-prescribed times. Note the last words in the fine print.


Failing Foster Care & Pain In The Neck Mercenaries

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Secretary Delacourt, a Vader of sorts, bedecked in Armani.

Up on Elysium, Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodi Foster) commands her own death-star like a yuppified Vader, bedecked in Armani suits tailored to 80's-style militarism (slightly elongated shoulders, large cloth buttons, constructed accents). A true believer in Elysium's preservation-of-privilege-through-quarantine, her pained smiles, over-enunciation, and the changing hues of her outfits -- from white to gray to gun-barrel pewter -- suggest both her growing militarism and the sense that Elysium is getting hard to protect, what with namby-pamby politicians forbidding lethal force against refugee shuttles.

Reprimanded by President Patel (Faran Tahir) for using vigilantes, she implores him to engage in behavior "more conducive to the longevity of your children, because when they come for you in your house, the house you built, it won't be public relations, nor campaign promises that will protect you; it will be me." These lines are delivered amidst a terrific set design suggesting individuals at the precipice of a vortex, akin to an airplane toilet.

Disgusted, Delacourt hatches a plan with Armadyne founder John Carlyle (a reference the real-world Carlyle Group?) to "encode" a new president. This is followed by another visual cue, a string of cherry blossoms around a Kubreckian console. Seen before a break-in by a refugee mother desperate to heal her sick daughter with the Med-Pod 3000***, it recurs during the various encroachments of Elysium, signifying the triumph of the organic over the mechanical.

Max Guevara Et Le Ferrelieur

After his accident, Damon visits his former partner-in-crime, Spider (Wagner Moura), who now bootlegs DNA-melding Elysium IDs and operates refugee shuttles. Deciding to make a wager on a man with nothing to lose, he offers Max a suicide mission to steal Carlyle's digital keys to the kingdom, in exchange for passage to Elysium. Max has a hard drive implanted in his brain and is fitted with an exoskeleton resembling a variation on a crown of thorns, framing his entire corpus -- and given that Carlyle has encoded his data with a lethal security code, it is in fact the symbol of Max's martyrdom.

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A crown of thorns, framing his entire corpus.

Perhaps also indicating (another of arguably, many) references to Christian mythology, during the raid by Max and Spider's gang, Carlyle is enthroned in the gold and red of Pontius Pilate, and Sandro (Jose Pablo Cantillo) a member of the gang, abandons Max, à la Judas, when Delacourt's mercenaries, led by Kruger, (D9's Sharlto Copley) show up mid-heist.

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The Judas moment. Note the red and gold.

Max, seriously wounded, appears on Frey's doorstep. Discovering that she has a daughter, Matilda (Emma Tremblay), he flees to protect them, but the drones trailing him lead the mercenaries to Frey, and Kruger's gang kidnap Frey and Matilda.

Max returns to Spider, who samples what's in Max's head and has a Che Guevara moment, realizing that Max has the potential to re-boot the system, but Max, intent on surviving, flees. He is found by Kruger, and clutching a grenade from which he's pulled the pin, makes a deal for his life. The mercenaries' helicopter with Max, Frey and her daughter head to Elysium with Spider and his crew in tow, and the stage is set for the battle royale twixt mercenaries and guerillas.

When Kruger wleches on his deal and tries to take the data from Max's head, Max throws his insurance policy grenade, and they crash-land on Elysium, with Delacourt's use of the incident as a catalyst for invoking war powers recalling real-world statecraft throughout history.

Kruger returns Max to Delacourt, and as she orders for him to be killed, she appears standing on panes of glass which appear like so much thin ice beneath her, foretelling her own impending, grisly death (at the hands of her own police run amok, another common Blomkamp element). In another room tied to a gurney, Max makes like Morpheus and simply breaks the chains that bind him.

Interestingly, when faced with death, Delacourt, a crypto-fascist, and Carlyle, a computer genius-turned-military-industrial-complex-slave-driver, don't go out with a bang, but a whimper. The real battles are waged -- and this makes for an interesting, significant bit of semiotics -- between Kruger's all-for-themselves, power-structure-reinforcing mercenaries and Spider's crew of guerilla hackers and street soldiers, with neither camp looking quite so different from each other.

Although Elysium runs the risk of being counterproductive to its sociopolitical commentary through at-times underwhelming formulaic storyboard filmmaking and also through its bombastic sound design and dizzying action sequences, mesmerizing us like so many inhabitants of Elysium, the film's final scenes [SPOILER ALERT, in case you haven't guessed] when Max sacrifices his life, enabling Spider to hack and re-program the system, and a computer screen reads "Citizens added" and "Citizens in need of urgent health care" (like the doctor-visit scene in As Good As It Gets times everybody), and a re-programmed police 'bot refuses to make an arrest, in recognition of the inalienable right of due process, all make Elysium a very worthwhile, Science Fiction film about the future manifestations of a given society's ethos.

Random Notes

*Pieta in Elysium

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*Pieta: Mother, daughter and evil mercenary as Roman soldier, at the gates of salvation? Note the access panel on the right.

Here's a book on Stanley Kubrick offering another look, specifically, the influence of his early photography on his cinema: Stanley Kubrick at Look Magazine: Authorship and Genre in Photojournalism and Film

re-atomizer


***Med-Pod 3000, the cure for what ails ya, if you can afford it (you can't).

When Frey tells Max that he has to go through the system to get hospital care, I am distinctly reminded of the great St. Vincent's hospital. A pox on the politicians, bureaucrats, real-estate cats, who tore it down. We talk a big game about 9/11 memorials, yet we fail to see the value of having a functioning hospital on Manhattan's lower west side -- a hospital which happens to have been ground zero for the soul-shaking casualties and the beyond-heroic personnel who worked to help them. And a pox on those of us, including me, who didn't do more to stop the hospital's closure.

Frey's comment also reminded me of Hillary Clinton noting that if you don't bring everyone into the system, the HMOs will nickel-and-dime you to death.

Post-screening, reading the health care ads on the train: "Living with HIV? See a specialist, get regular check-ups and get on with your life". And I think of the AIDS epidemic during the '80s and the battle that was waged. The documentary How To Survive A Plague comes to mind. The Toronto International Film Festival will be screening the narrative feature Dallas Buyers' Club about citizens trying to save themselves.

The adidas logo on Max's shoes makes for a product placement somewhere between the expeditions of The Life Aquatic's Team Zissou, and Michael J. Fox's shoes in Back To The Future -- the latter of which were re-issued two years ago to raise money for charity, more info can be found HERE.

The scenes in D9 when the alien refugees are used by voodoo doctors reminds me of the murders of human beings with albinism from the documentary In The Shadow of The Sun, mentioned in my notes on this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which you can read about HERE

In my review of Leviathan I mentioned a future in which fish dinners are prepared by dropping a pellet into a protoplasm-activating solution, then selecting whatever species of fish we wish, after the pellet goes through a series of morphs, in a living menu: one minute for a trout, two for salmon. Last week a lab in Holland synthesized a cow-beef burger.

Although we live in an over-sponsored world of seemingly Infinite Jest, it was a cool idea on the part of Nimble Storage corp. to invite IT professionals in twenty-nine cities, including Alberta, to a free screening of Elysium (in which an individual stores world-changing code in his head).

An interesting Science Fiction short about the future and skin color can be seen HERE

With radiation presently leaking into our oceans, a reminder about why it makes no sense to pursue an energy source which will have us fighting over the raw resources required for it and which creates waste that last longer than we can imagine can be found HERE

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