Saturday 24 August 2013


The Magnificent Heaven

2013 USA
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: Possible slight spoilers.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Neill Blomkamp’s last movie, his debut feature District 9, although I can acknowledge it was certainly quite an impressive film for all the right kinds of reasons and it’s no surprise to me that he’s got a couple of big names like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in his follow up feature. Not to mention including the “seen him everywhere lately” character actor William Fichtner in the line up. So in terms of the acting he’s in safe hands here and, as you would expect, everyone in here more than pulls their weight, especially the actor who played the anti-hero main protagonist in District 9, Sharlto Copley, who here plays a very unpleasant villain.

And I have to say that I liked Elysium a lot more than that previous movie although, for sure, it can be almost seen as a companion piece. The worlds inhabited by both sets of characters on Earth is something of a dystopian vision and this also shows up in the style in which the movie is shot. However, since there’s not a great deal to criticise in Elysium and since this would be a real short review if I just said... “Elysium. Okay movie. Wouldn’t watch it again but good for a night out.”... then I’ll elaborate a little more, I think.

You’ve got some really good things going on here because we’re plonked down right into a future society with an established background for both Matt Damon’s Max character and his childhood sweetheart Frey, played charmingly by Alice Braga. Elysium, a space station world where the rich live in their perfect paradise (a metaphor for the world where those chosen favourites by the Gods go to in their afterlife, in certain ancient cultures) is already well established before these two characters are even born and being thrown together again in the mix of a storyline after having been apart from so long is quite poignant when you understand that their dream was always to go and live on Elysium.

However, they are not the chosen elite, they are part of the trodden masses who the rich and powerful look down on... not even that really. People are just things that live and die with no empathic response from the population “up there”. But things now come to a head because, once Max is accidentally exposed to a high dose of radiation, he embarks on a criminal data robbery from his old gang leader in order to get illegal passage to Elysium. Since he can barely stand, he is fitted with an exo-suit to make him stronger and has a data terminal spliced into him, in to which he has to steal and synch with the contents hidden in William Fitchner’s head. I don’t want to completely spoil the story for you but, when everything goes pear shaped, Max, Frey and the others find themselves heading to Elysium in... well... not the best company.

All the scenes on earth are shot with that same kind of gritty and jerky “reality viewpoint” which made District 9 a notable film to watch and the establishing footage initially shown of Elysium has a much more steady-cam, cleaner look to it... and this works really well. My one complaint being that the jerky camera work and editing style is also employed when our main characters are indulging in action sequences on Elysium too... which kinda annoyed me, it has to be said. It’s like the gritty realism is not really a harbinger of the duality of the environments portrayed in the movie... it’s more like a leitmotif for the inner chaos brought by the inhabitants of Earth and the way this bleeds out in to the world as they experience it. Which is a fair enough approach, I guess. I just maybe would have liked a more simplistic idea in terms of environmental rather than social expression.

Another gripe I have is the fact that the exo-skeleton suit that both Max, and later Sharlto Copley’s Kruger character, wear is really low tech. It looks like a pair of crutches and it’s not really believable that this would give our hero super strength. Yes, I understand it’s an Earth-tech, patched up version but that’s no excuse for the identical “frame” that Kruger wears, which he gets fitted on Elysium. So this kinda killed the mood for me a little.

That being said, the film has a certain gritty, brutality all its own and I suspect that this is why people will cotton on to this one so much. It’s easy to get sucked in and be inhabited by a movie when it’s hitting all your comfort zones with a big stick, I’m guessing. So, to be fair, it’s one of those movies where you really feel what’s going on (judging from the audience I saw it with the other night), rather than sit back comfortably and look at the way in which it is framed. It succeeds on this level really well.

One of the reasons it does succeed in this, of course, is because of the editing. Although the action sequences are chopped about quite aggressively, at a fast pace and with lots of changes of scale, it actually manages to capture what’s going on very well and although you may be numbed by the intensity of the various fight and chase sequences in the movie, you certainly shouldn’t have any problem with following what’s going on in them. It’s very carefully edited to produce a raw, in your face aesthetic while still preserving the sense of the overall scheme of things... Blomkamp really seems to know what he’s doing here.

There’s also a great and almost, at times, hypnotic score by first timer Ryan Amon, which is muscular and not unlike a solid Brian Tyler score... who is who I’d guessed had scored it until I saw Amon’s name in the end credits. The current retro trend of using short musical motif’s like Bernard Herrmann or Philip Glass is in full swing here but, who cares, it works and I happen to like those composers anyway. It’s a score I’ll probably get around to picking up sometime soon, I expect.

All in all, Elysium is over-the-top brutal fun for a certain kind of audience. The story is old and clichéd 1950s style science-fiction again, to be sure, but at least it’s treated with a certain degree of respect for its influences and Blomkamp certainly pulls no punches when it comes to manipulating the emotions of the audience. As a piece of hard hitting sci-fi, admittedly ramming its personal philosophies down your throat quite a lot, then it’s still a pretty impressive exercise in movie making and, while I probably wouldn’t watch it again, I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it the once at the cinema. Good work done here.

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