'Elysium' Depicts the Cinematic Shape of Things to Come

It may not be nominated for an Oscar, but Elysium stands as a triumph for those who think sci-fi is nothing more than dumbed down dogfights in space.


Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Rated: R
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-08-09 (General release)
UK date: 2013-08-09 (General release)

In Greek mythology, Elysium is the place at the ends of the earth to which certain favored heroes were conveyed by the gods after death. You can call it Heaven or Nirvana, Valhalla or Utopia, but the meaning is very clear. This is a place for the hallowed and the privileged, the preferred and the elite. In South African auteur Neill Blomkamp's anticipated follow-up to his surprise Oscar nominee District 9, Elysium is the name of a space station rotating far above a depleted and decimated Earth. The 1% have taken their technology and McMansion up into orbit, leaving the rest of the planet to fend for itself, and while workers slave to provide this paradise with all the resources its needs, they themselves are left to eek out a meager existence in what can best be described as one massive third world slum.

We are thrust into this world with no backstory, no simple explanation about how things came to this. There is a title card explaining how our future Earth becomes overpopulated and polluted, but there is no indication of why Elysium was built other than as a pet project for everyone wealthy enough to make it so. Think of it as a restricted community with star gates.

Early on, we meet the orphaned Max DeCosta (eventually played by Matt Damon). He's a sad little boy with dreams of living far off above the clouds. His best friend is Frey (as an adult, Alice Braga) who has ambitions of her own. Fast forward twenty years, and he's an ex-con struggling to escape his past while working a dead end job in a robot factory. She's a nurse, but also dealing with a daughter dying of leukemia. For them Elysium is escape. For Frey's child, it's also salvation.

You see, up there, among the tailored clothing and beautiful people, there are machines that can instantly cure you, rendering someone virtually immortal. Cancer, crow's feet, a crick in your back, a missing face... with one push of a button (and mandatory status as a "citizen") and science 140 years from now makes it all better. For those living down below, this is the last straw. Not only does the population of Elysium rob the needy of their only means of survival, but they horde hope as well.

Such a situation has created a black market immigration operation run by Max's old crime boss Spider (Wagner Moura), though most of their attempts at landing on the station are thwarted by the cold, calculating bureaucrat in charge of Elysium's defense, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Working with the inventor of the habitat's protocol, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), she wants to control everything about the place, including who's in power.

Thus Blomkamp has set things up for another sublime slice of sci-fi social commentary, complete with recognizable realities circa 2013. He's positioned his hissable Haves high above the lowly Have Nots and turns Max's need to get to Elysium into every Neo-Con's pro-socialism nightmare. Instead of boot straps, our almost dead hero (he barely survives a radiation accident where he works, a plant owned by Carlyle) pulls himself up by an unique exoskeleton fused to his nervous system. In exchange for this powerful device, Max agrees to help Spider infiltrate Elysium once and for all, grabbing his boss's pass codes directly from the storage cloud in his brain. Delacourt, already plotting with Carlyle, sends her most lethal agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley) out to make sure nothing happens to him.

While it sounds like the standard elements of a Summer season tentpole, Elysium is much more than this. It's more dangerous, more thoughtful, more provocative in what it spells out and what it leaves unclear. There are no sequences of mass exposition, no attempt to explain away everything that happens and every item Damon and company come in contact with. Take the exo-suit. We get why a human would need it. It provides both an offensive and defensive advantage against the mechanized security forces both on Earth and in the sky. But where did it come from? Why does Spider have one? Who were our are still using them before 2154? Thankfully, there's no dialogue about a Great War or the legions of soldiers who bravely fought against some kind of robot uprising.

No, like most of Elysium, it's a mystery, a piece of genuine intrigue that requires something few summer movies mandate: thought. Indeed, the film is filled with elements that tax one's brain, requiring a kind of mental manipulation of expectations and established ideas. Unlike District 9, which spelled out its race relations allegory in broad if still believable strokes, the premise here is the only part of this movie that screams an agenda. The rest is a tricky combination of allusion, the obvious, and the strange. The whole brain implant aspect, straight out of a William Gibson cyberpunk epic, is a mere throwaway. Food, water, transportation, and the various languages spoken all argue for a world not much different than ours. Then Blomkamp twists things ever so slightly, and suddenly, we see our own situation in a totally different light.

Foster's desire to cannibalize her caretakers, Fichtner's disgust with being down on Earth with the working scum, Max's easy connections to both the good and bad of his social setting, the weird, almost Verheoven like parole officer are all reflections of now, not what lies ahead. We live in a time when the elites scream "Freedom" as they fleece the Middle Class out of anything remotely close to the American Dream, and Elysium reflects that in both blatant and far more subtle ways.

Take the looks on the citizens' faces when a ship crash lands along their beautifully manicured lawns and gardens. Squirm as Foster feigns respect for those she is plotting against. It's like watching the Nightly News magnified against a surreal though strangely recognizable setting. Science fiction from decades before lacked a certain level of multicultural recognition. Elysium takes it to extremes, making the Earth seem so color blind that the space station becomes the very definition of white flight (though it too has a discernible diversity).

Unfortunately, District 9 becomes a bit of an albatross for Blomkamp here, fans flocking to theaters to see something similar in tone and originality is being offered here. The latter exists in visually stunning spades. One look at Elysium itself and you'll be hoping that someone gives Blomkamp the cash to take over for David Fincher on his long gestating adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The former, however will be wildly absent. District 9 more or less spoon-fed its ideas to audiences, the parallels clearly defined and the resolution ambiguous.

Here, the ending is set and concrete. Everything else is up for speculation, which, according to author Harlan Ellison, is the preferred approach to this kind of fiction. It may not be nominated for an Oscar, but Elysium stands as a triumph for those who think sci-fi is nothing more than dumbed down dogfights in space. It's the cinematic version of the place where favored heroes lie.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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