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Elysium (2013)

August 12, 2013



written by: Neill Blomkamp

produced by: Neil Blomkamp, Bill Block and Simon Kinberg

directed by: Neill Blomkamp

rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout) 

runtime: 109 min.

U.S. release date: August 9, 2013


When writer/director Neil Blomkamp debuted four years ago with his first feature-length film, the sci-fi thriller “District 9” set in the dystopian near-future of his hometown Johannesburg, he injected some deliberately political allegories to a gritty film that included an engaging lead performance immersed in a visually creative environment. That film became a sleeper hit and went on to earn an unlikely Academy nomination for Best Picture. So, how does one follow-up such an impressive introduction? With more of the same, unfortunately.

The bad vibes for “Elysium” started early on when we’re introduced to yet another dystopian Earth. Can’t anyone ever envision a future on Earth where the world’s problems are solved and we’ve actually improved our lives? No. It’s apparently better that we continuously destroy ourselves again and again. These movies have to remind us that there’s no hope for us, that even if there is a Chosen One, destined for greatness, we’re still screwed.

Earlier this year, many were saying that another sci-fi movie, “Oblivion”, too closely resembled a handful of other sci-fi movies. Although its future setting and storyline where humans destroyed Earth and colonized off-world felt familiar, at least the sound and vision of it all was something to behold (at least, on an IMAX screen). But I guess I must have hit my threshold for “bummer future” sci-fi movies, because much of  “Elysium” had me annoyed and frustrated.

In the year 2145, our planet has been ravaged by environmental catastrophe and overpopulation, making it a literal hell on Earth, with the upper class living in a floating utopian wheel called Elysium above the planet. On that man-made paradise, both aging and sickness can be reversed, while the poor and sick below remain oppressed by an abusive robot force employed by the rich. Travel attempts to Elysium in hopes of a better life have been shot down (literally) by defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), whose harsh methods have drawn criticized from Elysium president (Faran Tahir) and his peers. That’s fine with her though, since the cold-hearted fascist is planning a presidential coup with manufacturing executive Carlyle (William Fichtner), using a computer virus that will give her full control of Elysium.




Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), a former thief living in a predominately Spanish Los Angeles, has dreamt of living on Elysium since he was a boy, when he promised his childhood friend, Frey, that he’d take her there one day. He lives in a slum along with his only friend (Diego Luna) as he tries to keep on the straight path by working in a robot manufacturing plant overseen by Carlyle. After a work accident radiates his body with cancer, Max is told by a robot aid that he has five days to live and is given medication to take until his demise. Determined to try anything to survive, he employs the shady methods of his former employer, Spider (Wagner Moura, so great in the “Elite Squad” movies) and Frey (Alice Braga), now a nurse with a terminally ill child. Spider, the local crime lord has Max surgically outfitted with a powerful robotic exoskeleton that’s drilled into his mind and nervous system, providing him superhuman strength and the capability to download information directly into his brain.

When Delacourt learns that Max and Spider’s goons have attacked Carlyle to retriever the sensitive intel she covets, a dangerously unstable mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley, “District 9”) is called summoned to take out Max and obtain the billion-dollar download that could forever disrupt the idyllic Elysium life. Frey and her daughter are soon caught in the middle of a violent cat-and-mouse battle between Max and Kruger, crash-landing all of them on Elysium, destroying everything in their path with both immortality and power to gain for the one who gets what Max has uploaded into his head.

Rather than going in a totally different direction, Blomkamp treads the familiar waters of “District 9”. This sophomore effort may consist of a more recognizable assembly of actors and most assuredly a larger budget to work with, but it regurgitates the same themes like immigration, corporate greed and economic/social clash, as it refrains from the subtleties and intriguing character-building of his previous film. Its look and tone even feel like it could be a sequel or spinoff to “District 9”. Blomkamp has undoubtedly made a visually impressive film, but unfortunately it gets dragged down by a painfully predictably script, largely populated by distractingly silly characters.

Here’s a sci-fi film that wants to comment on society and possibly grasp at high concepts, but the gadgets and weaponry of a summer action flick carjack that approach and take off with the movie. The same could be said for the last half hour of “District 9”. (Ordinarily, I wouldn’t compare and contrast a writer/director’s films, but these two are so similar). Maybe I would’ve appreciated an all-out action movie from Blomkamp, since those scenes are so well done and ultimately more memorable than the bland obviousness of the storytelling and world-building.




There are a few choice character moments that stand out, all of which involve Max. One scene that specifically comes to mind is his interaction with his parole officer. That role could’ve gone to some character actor, but instead we watch as Max waits in line to talk to what looks like an automaton from an old fortune-teller machine. Just like the abrasive security guard robots patrolling his hood aren’t programmed to listen to explanations, Max’s parole officer doesn’t allow any him to divulge any details as to what behavior brought him there. Watching Max’s resigning expression and the graffitied robot he has to report to is indicative of the controlled environment in which he lives. It’s one unique atmospheric element that Blomkamp offers in a future-Earth that is otherwise all too familiar.

The story is just too basic, injected with a storyline so disappointingly predictable. In flashbacks, we see Young Max looking up from his squalor, dreaming of that wheel in the sky. He’s told by a nun in the orphanage that he’s destined for greatness, that he’s special “and one day he’s gonna”…..ugh, you’ve heard it all before. You think his childhood friend, who’s now a nurse is gonna help out a radiated Max? You think he’s gonna do whatever he can to get Frey and her daughter into a medical chamber on Elysium? If you didn’t see all that coming, than this must be the first movie you’ve ever seen.

It doesn’t help that Damon does all the heavy-lifting here. As he has in the past, he shows a solid commitment to physically and emotionally investing in his role. The tattooed Max, with his shaven-head is not just a cool look for the actor, it’s a good fit for him too. He’s an anti-hero, initially motivated to help himself, but eventually realizing the undeniable responsibility and power he has. Sure, Damon has assistance from that awkward exoskeleton, but his work here seems to be in a movie all his own, far removed from the distracting stereotypes of the other actors, while displaying jarring degrees of under and overacting.




So, on that note….Jodie Foster is pretty bad in this. I knew going in she was going to be “the bad guy”, but she discards any nuance or sympathy for the motivation of her character. Maybe that’s Blomkamp’s fault, but Foster, with her over-annunciation and confusing attempt at an accent, does her character a disservice. Any way Blomkamp shoots her, we’re just given a huffy, beady-eyed caricature of an actual person. It’s at times quite funny albeit unintentionally, especially considering Foster and Fichtner (a “Contact” reunion) spend most of the film with a furrowed brow and pursed lips. It’s enough to long for Jodie Foster: director.

And then there’s “District 9” lead Sharlto Copley, who starts as somewhat of a mystery as Kruger and in the end, winds up as a bugnuts cartoon character. He’s just as (if not more) thinly realized as Delacourt and he’s the movie’s physical antagonist. The more I saw of Copley, the more perplexed I was. Was I supposed to laugh at him? Or was I supposed to just watch as a talented actor behaves like a live-action Tasmanian Devil in a Paul Verhoeven movie? At first, I was fooled and thought Copley may just be zealous or possibly channeling a hybrid of insane Jim Carrey and psycho Nicolas Cage, but after a while I just wanted him to die.

Again, for all its faults, “Elysium” is a good-looking movie and if sci-fi action is all you’re looking for, then here you go. Unfortunately, with its heavy-handed messages, often indecipherable action sequences and overall noisy execution, “Elysium” winds up reminding us that looks will only gets you so far.







Metropolis - Final

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