by Steve Habrat
In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp took moviegoers by storm with his hugely original directorial debut District 9, a grungy science-fiction gift from the gods that acted as an allegory for apartheid in Johannesburg. Made with only $30 million, District 9 went on to make $37 million its opening weekend and earn almost unanimous praise from both critics and audiences for being one of the most unique and human science fiction films to come around in years. District 9 then went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, a huge surprise considering it was a summer action movie. After a grueling four-year wait, Blomkamp finally returns to the science fiction genre with Elysium, which finds the director digging deeper into the politics that he hinted at with District 9. While not quite as invigorating as District 9, Elysium still finds Blomkamp at the top of his game, crafting another pedal-to-the-metal sci-fi thriller around heady ideas and left-wing politics. Elysium doesn’t shy away from current hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class warfare, but the film still finds plenty of time to keep audiences hooked with a full story, immaculate special effects, and a handful of extraordinary performances from a group of gifted actors. Did I mention that it is also pretty powerful?
Elysium begins in 2154, with Earth being an overcrowded and polluted wasteland. The human population has been split into two groups: the wealthy, who have fled Earth and moved to the ritzy space community Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves in the slums on Earth. Among those living in the slums is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ex-con who is trying to get his life back on track. Max spends his days working a factory job at the Armadyne Corporation, the company that is responsible for building Elysium, and his evenings dreaming of moving to the glamorous city in the sky with his childhood love, Frey (played by Alice Braga). After being exposed to deadly levels of radiation at work, Max learns that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan to make his way to Elysium, where there exists Med-Pods, which are able to cure human beings of any illness or injury in seconds. Max seeks out his old friends, Spider (played by Wagner Moura) and Julio (played by Diego Luna), who have ways of sneaking Max into the heavily guarded space community. Spider agrees to help Max under one condition: that he helps steal valuable information from Carlyle (played by William Fichtner), Armadyne’s shady CEO. With his strength diminishing by the minute, Spider provides Max with an exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength to carry out the mission. As Max closes in Carlyle, he realizes that the information Spider is after will change the world forever. However, waiting for Max is Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the iron-fisted defense secretary of Elysium, and her psychotic mercenary, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), who will stop at nothing to keep Max out of Elysium.
Ditching the found footage approach that he used in District 9, Blomkamp allows Elysium to unfold in a much more conventional manner. The bulk of it isn’t comprised by expository interviews or shaky news reports from an alien warzone, but rather classic storytelling that retains the same antsy sense of urgency that made District 9 such an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Elysium means business and it is bound and determined to give you your money’s worth, especially in the action and effects department. At about the forty-minute mark, Blomkamp sends the bullets and bombs flying, and he does it in the most eye-popping way imaginable. He has guard droids getting blown to bits by exploding bullets in slow motion, spaceships zooming in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with heat seeking missiles hot on their tail, and a climatic fistfight between Kruger and Max that is sure to take your breath away. It should be noted that even though Elysium is a late summer movie, Blomkamp certainly doesn’t soften up his violence. Humans are torn to shreds by an array of advanced weaponry, one character gets a whole blown right into their face, another gets stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, and the scene in which Max gets fitted with the exoskeleton has a few graphic moments that will make you cringe.
In addition to his refusal to soften on the breakneck pacing and the flesh-ripping violence, Blomkamp also refuses to back down from his politics, which he kept largely subdued in District 9. Ever since the trailer debuted, Elysium has been taking quite a bit of heat from the right wing for its blatant left wing political standpoint. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, Blomkamp tackles hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class division/warfare, things that are currently filling news headlines as you read this. While you may think that this would automatically turn anyone with a right wing viewpoint off, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. It really isn’t difficult to see where Blomkamp stands on these issues, but it’s the way he places them within the action that is truly admirable. He almost presents them as a cautionary warning rather than an awkward lecture. A few of these topics are wisely pushed to the foreground, mostly implied rather than outwardly addressed, which is nice because it prevents the film from really forcing itself on those who disagree with the side that the film is taking, but perhaps the most controversial topic of all (health care) doesn’t budge. The most relieving aspect of all is that Blomkamp gives these ideas a huge amount of emotional weight, and by the end, it is almost impossible to say that you weren’t shaken up at least once.
As far as the performances are concerned, Blomkamp doesn’t fall back on a group of unknowns to sit behind the wheel of the film. Unlike District 9, there are a handful of A-list thespians headlining Elysium. Damon is in full action mode as our dying hero Max, a guy who longs for a place in paradise. It doesn’t take us long to like his blue-collar ex-con and he has our full support as he fights his way into the sky. Jodie Foster is ice cold as the ruthless defense secretary of Elysium, a cruel and scheming monster who has no problem shooting down shuttles carrying handfuls of innocent Earth civilians. Sharlto Copley goes full crazy and makes off with the entire film as the scene-stealing bad-boy Kruger, a psychotic mercenary who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission. If you thought Copley was fantastic as the bumbling hero Wikus in District 9, wait until you lay eyes on this bloodcurdling performance. After the disaster that was The Lone Ranger, William Fichtner completely redeems himself as the slimy CEO of the Armadyne Corporation. It’s a small role but he plays it with fire in his eyes. Braga is fragile as Frey, the heartbroken and exhausted love interest of Max. Moura is another scene-stealer as the hobbling smuggler Spider, who gets a chance to act as a sidekick to Damon’s ass-kicking Max, and Luna shows off a soft side as Julio, a car thief with a heart of gold.
At a brief hour and fifty minutes, Elysium has quite a bit of storyline to go around. There isn’t a second wasted in its surprisingly brief runtime and you’ll never find your attention starting to wander. It balances every single character and side plot perfectly, all to come together at a hugely satisfying climax that is sure to put your emotions to the test. All of the white-knuckle action is complimented with a grimy electronic score from Ryan Amon, who is able to smoothly shift from rusted synthesizers to swelling orchestral blasts. Overall, Elysium isn’t the game-changer that District 9 ended up being, but then again, that was a tough act to follow. It is, however, a consistent, clever, thrilling, poignant, and self-assured work from a true science-fiction visionary. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another four years for Mr. Blomkamp to exhilarate us with his wild imagination.
by Corinne Rizzo
For a film so packed with disturbing content, Contagion is an awfully quiet display of events. Everything from the colors on the screen to the music and dialogue, this film is just a somber and quiet depiction of the spread of what eventually becomes a SARS like epidemic, a drastically contagious virus that seems to induce comas and seizures on the affected.
Unlike many films of contraction, Contagion lacked that sense of panic one felt during Outbreak or 28 Days Later. The skilled and mature cast of characters lends the film a contained sense of control. Each actor in his or her role is wholly believable and to the viewer entirely professional. Here’s an idea of who we are dealing with here:
Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Lawrence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eliot Gould and Demetri Martin (of all people).
Now if you’re anywhere near my age, you watched Matt Damon play Will Hunting and sort of even swooned after him, if that’s your thing. We saw Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaums and laughed at her cynicism, Kate Winslet—best known for Titantic and the list goes on to Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. If Contagion had anything working for it, it was its cast, as a film on this subject matter has long been a dead horse beaten.
And that is where Contagion is different. It begins with Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returning from some corporate event in Hong Kong, which seems a bit cliché considering the past American paranoia from things like bird flu or H1N1, but the film isn’t so quick to place blame anywhere entirely. In fact, a web is created between the affected persons and the range of distance between the infected is wide. Suddenly, a mystery is being woven and it’s almost undetectable that you’re working toward the solution, as the film takes a drastic diversion from discovering the origin of the disease and containing and curing it.
The web of the infected begins with Paltrow’s character, or so that is where the viewer is introduced to the illness. The film takes the viewer home to Minneapolis where Emhoff calls home. At the same time the virus goes (no pun intended) viral by ways of a character played by Jude Law, Alan Krumwiede, a free lance journalist/blogger bent on exposing what he believes is the truth about anything, no focusing on the virus and it’s cure.
What’s interesting about the film and what makes it different from a plethora of other movies based on epidemic is that Contagion spreads no real panic among the audience. Sure, the audience is aware of the severity of the disease at hand. Within hours of contraction, the illness seems to take entire families down. But, as aforementioned, there is a quiet sense of survival among the main characters. Those who fall victim understand that they took the risk in the first place. Those who watched their loved ones succumb didn’t understand, but still never tried to.
For instance Mitch Emhoff (Damon) finds that he is immune to the virus and works silently and diligently to keep him and his daughter from demise.
As the film progresses we see Erin Mears struggle with her contraction, but handles it with dignity and understanding when, despite her status among the government, she learns that being airlifted is a waste of government resources.
The dignified sense of survival is what creates this quiet feeling among Contagion and it is clear to the viewer that the cast, well chosen and well played, are responsible for that feeling as each cast member is one in good standing with the Academy and moviegoers alike.
A viewer might enter the theater ready for a gory mess of death and mass graves and while death and mass graves are a sure part of the film, it is not those scenes which stick with the audience. It is scenes like a gnarly autopsy of Paltrow’s character followed by a classic line between the two examiners, “Should we call someone?” says one hazmat suited examiner. “Call everyone,” proclaims the other.
The film’s story unfolds between many different scenarios and that is where the viewer becomes distracted. Instead of asking ourselves about the origin of the disease, we find ourselves deep in the discovery of hard working biologists trying to cure it or the lives of those trying to avoid it. The audience understands that the primary question was that of origin, but the film leads us on such a chase that it’s easy to feel caught off guard in the last two minutes when everything changes.
The history of the disease, of the travelers and the scientists unfolds before the viewers eyes and before the audience knows it, the credits are rolling. And the unraveling is just as calm and quiet as the onset of disease.
There is a lot that happens in the film, but keeping ears and eyes open, Soderbergh keeps the audience informed and interested without the gore and total societal breakdown involved in a good portion of other epidemic based films. Granted, there are moments of pillaging and anarchy and downright human survival bullshit that makes a viewer want to yell “that doesn’t help the situation, assholes!” it’s just muted and the viewer is put a distance that is almost voyeuristic.
Top Five Reasons to See Contagion:
1) Demetri Martin plays a scientist!
2) Eliot Gould’s character rocks this line, “Blogging is not reporting, it is graffiti with punctuation.”
3) You get to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s cranium sawed off.
4) You’ll never guess the combination of crap that has to happen to incubate such a disease.
5) The tagline “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone,” is badass.