Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Four years ago, director Neill Blomkamp surprised the cynical-minded spectrum of summer escapism with the gripping and grandly entertaining South African import District 9.  Blomkamp cleverly invented a lithe, concise allegory about his native's Apartheid shaped around a crisp alien science fiction movie.  In retrospect, it's not so much that the film was necessarily anything stronger than a solid grade-B science fiction diversion, but the fickle nature of expectation is a funny beast in itself in selling mass produced material.   District 9 felt like a breath of fresh air and for it's surprise attack on numb summer moviegoers proved an underdog worthy of rooting for-- especially considering the low budget out-of-nowhere film looked immaculately sharper with a crystallized narrative of the likes Hollywood can't seem to make too often anymore.  The film even managed to earn four Academy Award nominations that year, including one for Best Picture, rare, huzzah feat for a genre science fiction film and culmination of it's surprise, underdog status.

Now we arrive at Elysium, and the nature of the game for Blomkamp is a bit different.  Again the sometimes fickle game of expectation must rear its unforgiving head.  The surprise attack of District 9 dissolved now that Blomkamp is invited to play with major studio money and all that that encompasses, including movie stars.  It feels wrong from the start, or even at all, to spit upon Elysium if nothing more for the fact that it's a big studio-approved science fiction film not at all based upon a superhero or a toy.  It also is a high-minded, well-intentioned, socially conscious movie filled with ideas-- perhaps too many ideas and not enough cohesively developed, but ideas nonetheless.  In fairness, Elysium even in its messy, shaggy, unfiltered state is a gamble that Hollywood should be willing to bet on a lot more than it actually does and I will gladly take one messy Elysium any day over thirty Iron Man 3s.  That being said, Elysium doesn't quite work.

The year is 2154 and Earth is a miserable place.  Due to the usual hazards of viruses, environmental woes, overpopulation, etc., the divide between the haves and havenots is ever more expanded-- so much to the point that the one percenters have jumped ship altogether for a swanky, South Hampton resort like planet called Elysium.  So far, this sounds about right.  Our hero, Max (Matt Damon) is unfortunately a ninety-nine percenter, toiling in the apocalyptic hell that is Earth-- more specifically, Los Angeles.  The great City of Angels is presented as a rotting cesspool of wild fires and shanty town skid rows-- again, that sounds about right.  The nifty devices of the best science fiction tales gently tweak and exaggerate the concerns and woes of contemporary mores.  Part of me kept playing a little movie swap game of how Jasmine, Cate Blanchett's searing and once uber-rich character in Woody Allen's new Blue Jasmine might have reacted to being ousted out of Elysium to the all fire and brimstone of Blomkamp's imagined poverty, a far cry from the tony "working class" San Francisco she is forced to reside.

A young boy Max dreams of nothing more than to go to Elysium, leaving behind the debris-filled misery of Earth.  The early passages of Elyisum show a mischievous, but hopeful towhead scampering about the doom and drudge staring into the stars.  He even has a comely gal pal named Frey to indulge his dreams.  The movie goes through an entire grab bag of cinematic tropes through its journey to get him there, so much so that the character himself doesn't exhibit much of an interior life whatsoever, no matter how much Everyman charisma that an engaging actor like Damon can summon up.  Max begins as a reformer of sorts, a former bad boy felon gone straight-- he works at a miserly factory job making robots to the ensure the safety and security for the upper class he will seemingly never become a part of.  The miseries and the tragedies pile up on top of one another, setting up a very dour first hour where our hero has all but become martyr-- the Christ symbolism was certainly check marked.  It's fortunate that Damon possesses a seeming self-aware puckishness as while his character remains somewhat elusive, the actors draws in much needed lightness to a film that has considerable odds to overcome becoming yet another in this summer movie seasons sea of Christopher Nolan-induced heavy handedness.

Faced with a death sentence after becoming contaminated in a work-related tragedy, Max's eagerness to go to the land of the rich deepens.  Especially since on Elysium, there's this heal-all tanning bed gadget that can fix the ails of anyone; well only the rich-- the Earthbound sickly are reduced to grade-Z health care in over-flowing and under-stocked clinics.  With nothing to hold onto but his past dreamer ways as well as the return of Frey (Alice Braga), now a saintly nurse with a sickly young child, Max returns to his former life of crime for a ticket to that tanning bed.

It's the murky, mid-section of Elysium where Blomkamp and team seem to lose any focus as the movie seems to evolve and devolve into completely differing and cliche-ridden projects simultaneously.  There's nothing wrong with bits of social, economical or political commentaries that run parallel with the narrative, however it's when the narrative becomes wayward, the well-intentioned commentary slides back marking Elysium a sort of Transformers-for-the-thinking-man type of film.  As Max goes in for one last job, the cliches and liberal stealing from other movies runs rampant-- the old con job, a trope of thousands, the old mind-steal-- Elysium nearly turns into Inception for the better part of a few sequences, and the old let's-render-a-ridiculous-suit for a hero-routine.  And along the way, let's just throw in a whole lot of weapons for good measure.

The mass weaponry is necessary, I suppose, because the villains of the piece are easily the worst component of Elysium.  Jodie Foster plays Elysium's secretary of defense, a prissy cartoon character finely coiffed but mechanical-- unfortunately she utilizes an accent so ridiculous any credibility for fear-mongering is washed away in a performance that felt like it needed a black cat to stroke (or strangle.)  She's in an entirely different film, as is her rogue henchman Kruger (District 9's Sharlto Copley), a maniacal loose canon with agendas of his own, seemingly concocted from a completely different, but terrible cartoon.  Elyisum's all-over-the-map puzzle pieces are wedged together to a conclusion that doesn't particularly make sense, yet it's strangely the only time the film makes any compelling prick towards the emotional.  Had it been earned, it might have elicited a genuine response, despite the shortcomings.

And yet despite the daffiness in storytelling and the crooked narrative strokes, there's a beguiling handsomeness to Elysium, even as the title planet is for the most left unexplored and is kept as an oasis on which one will never actually inhabit.  C+

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