Political-minded 'Elysium' and 'The Act of Killing' take wildly different approaches
“Elysium” is the first film in four years from writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who stunned Hollywood in 2009 with “District 9,” a startling sci-fi allegory about apartheid and its corrosive nature that featured a race of stranded aliens being treated like second-class citizens in South Africa.
His follow-up again tackles class warfare and features a host of other political hot-button parallels from immigration and health care reform to drone strikes, but it’s less likely to receive the kind of critical praise “District 9” did because it otherwise follows a more traditional Hollywood path. That doesn’t mean it isn’t deliciously entertaining.
It’s 2154 and the Earth is overcrowded and virtually uninhabitable — essentially one big slum. Matt Damon plays Max, a Los Angeles factory worker with a seedy past who is trying to leave behind a life of stealing cars and fly straight. As a child, he made a pact with his best friend Frey (Alice Braga), a girl that lives in the same orphanage, that one day he will take her to Elysium — the giant terrarium space station floating above the Earth (by spacecraft) that the only the wealthiest people have migrated to.
One theme that’s magnified by the film’s perfectly realized setup is that in a society out of control, people have very little freedom and even less choice. The noblest intentions lead Max into a desperate situation where he has just five days to make it to Elysium and — of course — nothing less than the fate of humans on Earth are at stake.
Damon is perfect to play Max, a figure of such single-minded intensity that he might come off as a bully were it not for Damon’s natural charisma as a stand-up guy. In the spirit of playing larger than life, however, Jodie Foster plays Elysium’s ice-cold secretary of defense with a non-specific aristocratic accent that’s all over the place (but fun as hell), and Sharlto Copley (the unlikely star of “District 9”) is a bounty hunter who is as slimy as bad guys get.
Blomkamp works a little too hard to make Max and Frey sympathetic, and when their paths converge again in adulthood with a similar problem, it’s nothing if not convenient. The world-building in “Elysium,” however, is fantastic and detailed. CGI is blended expertly with practical effects and every level of the production design — from the graffiti-tagged humanoid-looking robots that serve as parole officers to the pallid fluorescent hue of Elysium’s artificial atmosphere — serve to deepen the story.
The action is fierce, shot in close-up and with a combination of slo-mo and shakycam that makes it all the more vivid. When there is violence, it is gory and brief, used to shocking effect. There are even some surprises in the narrative as it builds toward its inevitable, too heavily foreshadowed conclusion.
“Elysium” may not have the immediacy of “District 9” but it proves that Blomkamp has some serious cinematic chop, even if the weakness in both movies are their predictable third acts.
Opening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City this weekend is a remarkable achievement in the genre of documentary filmmaking called “The Act of Killing” that must be seen to be believed. Legendary filmmakers Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) and Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”) signed on as executive producers after seeing an early cut of this movie with the sole purpose of bringing more attention to it. Herzog himself said of the film, "I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade... it is unprecedented in the history of cinema."
Director Joshua Oppenheimer uses a unique method to tell the story of Indonesian gangsters who carried out hundreds of thousands of death squad killings following a failed coup of Indonesia in 1965. While also capturing standard interview-style and vérité footage of their paramilitary organization Pancasila Youth, he also asks the unrepentant and unpunished leaders to re-enact their versions of the killings for a film.
The result is a mind-boggling two hours, where the murderers are confronted with their crimes against humanity at every turn and in a variety of ways. There are no violent images of the victims. There is no perspective from the victims' families.
“The Act of Killing” is instead a fascinating exploration into the ways that guilt can manifest itself when the offender has acted with complete impunity. The men are by turns boastful and blissfully unaware of the real cost of their actions, and are eager to make a musical, a western, and a gangster film of the killings.
Structurally “The Act of Killing” is a challenge, as it contains no single narrator or fixed perspective. As the film progresses, it bounces even more frequently between shots of modern-day Indonesia and their culture of denial and the absurd re-enactments. It also lacks many of the clear facts about the genocide, leaving only a devastating impression of the darkest depths of the mind and the banality of evil.