Sunday, 22 September 2013

All Quiet On The Western Front; Elysium

All Quiet On The Western Front

All Quiet On the Western Front (AQOTWF) is practically a template for most modern takes on war, with many sequences used over and over again, proving that either war rarely changes or the cinematic depiction of it can’t be bettered.
As opposed to the patriotic WW2 movies of the 40s and 50s, AQOTWF is the prototype of the anti-war film depicting war as hell.

A number of sequences are fully formed that can still be found today - the first clash with authority in the barracks as the shouty sergeant whips the new blood into shape; the humiliation and repetition of training; the bullying and violence in training before the soldiers even get to the front (though here it’s directed at pompous authority rather than in-fighting between recruits); the idealism of the new recruits versus the old-hand vets; the realities of war at the front and the distillation of importance to food and shelter; the shock and horror of death as it takes people you know, as you take others lives; the psychological breakdown of men by war, either completely, or into killers.

It’s easy to see how the film was banned by many countries preparing for the build up to the next war - the anti-war sentiment is overt, both in the way the war affects the schoolboys we follow from their classroom to the front, and in the speech given by central character Paul at the end.
A number of points are drilled home throughout the film, including the futility of war as the soldiers go over the top of the trenches with numerous of deaths on both signs but no ground gained, conversations highlighting how the soldiers involved aren’t even sure why they are at war and the more obvious affects of deaths and dismemberment as lives are shattered.

Some of the film is a little clunky, with the acting in particular a little overwrought, although this is likely to be a hangover of the move from silent movies to talkies, and the numerous east coast American accents are very hard to reconcile with the German uniforms, though I imagine those very accents could have been intentional in order to acclimatise an American audience and emphasise that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’.  But other sequences such as the trench fighting and no man’s land advances are still unnerving. Due to the quirk of old cinema where action is comparatively sped up, the hand-to-hand trench fighting feels particularly vicious, and the scenes of the soldiers cowering in their fox hole as bombardment goes on seemingly without end helps you sympathise with the men driven to shrieking madness.

Ultimately AQOTWF doesn’t quite stand up to the sophistication (and emulation) of war films that have come since then, but as an example of what was being made over 80 years ago it’s a stark reminder to question the jingoistic and patriotic urges to send the young into war.


After the success of District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s sci-fi critique on racism in South Africa, it’s easy to see the same slums though on a much larger scale in the sets of Elysium. Los Angeles of the future is a giant mega-city, but rather than the crumbling towers of 2000AD, Blomkamp’s vision is of dusty shanty-towns, very reminiscent of those occupied by the ‘prawns’ of District 9.

Elysium isn’t particularly original for a sci-fi tale, but neither was District 9 whose closest ancestor was 1988’s Alien Nation. In the same way that film took an old idea and ran with it, making it fresh and exciting, Elysium updates one of the oldest tales in cinema, that of Metropolis and the Time Machine, of Huxley’s Brave New World and myriad other dystopias involving a downtrodden underclass serving a ruling class.
Whilst the Morlocks were underground in the Time Machine, the ruling class of Elysium are above their servile underlings in another way, orbiting Earth in a ring-world space station with its own atmosphere.
Although the Elysium station is a typical sci-fi creation, all efficient robots, clean air and sharp lines, the main point of difference is the near-magical medical stations which automatically cure all ills. Healthcare back on Earth is lacking, and whilst people are desperate to board rickety shuttles just to try and stay on the heavenly Elysium station, the main driving force is illness and those seeking to cure it. This all leads to a lump in the throat ending as the Elysium computer system is told all Earth’s population are now citizens and it sends out medical ships to the surface to cure everyone in some sort of socialist wet-dream.

This worldview also comes out in the ‘worker’s struggle’ vein as our anti-hero, Matt Damon’s Max, is an ex-gang banger turned honest worker who gets screwed over by the boss on a robot production line, receiving a fatal dose of radiation for his efforts.
With the help of underworld contacts he’s assigned the task of kidnapping the CEO of his ex-employers company for his brain-implanted ID details, with the aid of an exo-skeleton grafted to his body. Thus begins his struggle against adversity and ultimately a tale of self-sacrifice.
There’s also a childhood friend and potential love interest, another cipher for cliche as she encompasses being a single mother and a nurse as well as a focus for Max’s efforts.

This back-story serves as a stable basis to weave a tale based on effects and set pieces, with a rather fetishised view of military hardware and a number of gory moments.

Matt Damon continues his run of star turns in the Bruce Willis role of the everyday shmoe in extraordinary circumstances who racks up a list of injuries, Alice Braga does well in the inevitably sketchy love interest part and Jodie Foster delivers an atypical performance as the ruthless politician/military type, but the stand out performance here is Sharlto Copley, back working with Blomkamp after his star turn in District 9.
In the role of Kruger (what a bad guy name!) he shines, in a dirty, brutal way, given that the character is that of a sleeper unit mercenary, part of a larger South African team who are called on to do Elysium’s dirty work. It’s in the confrontation between this crew and Max that most of the weapon idolisation takes place as we are treated to the effects of future guns and grenades.

Both action and story complement each other and push each other forward in a satisfying (if expected) way.
It’s good to see sci-fi based on ideas again, even if those ideas are recycled.


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