Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: "Elysium"

"Elysium" isn't an awful movie, but it could've been a really good one. Its high potential only seems to underscore its failings.

It's a politically-themed science fiction drama about a dystopian future where the divide between the haves and the have-nots has quite literally grown into an impenetrable chasm between two worlds, with the elite floating serenely above the Earth's surface in a massive eponymous space station. The political stuff is obvious but effective, and seen as a straight-ahead chase picture it's quite engaging for stretches.

Its problems arise from a combination of heavy-handedness and bone-headedness. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who made the wildly original "District 9" a few years ago, asks us to invest in a story premise that makes absolutely no sense, no matter how you turn it around to peer at it. He would have us believe that the world's rich and powerful have lost every trace of humanity, even to the point of condemning billions of people to die when they could easily save them with little effort.

Furthermore, they would stubbornly hold onto this life-saving technology even if sharing it could solve all of the problems on their little slice of utopia, too. So they're both selfish and stupid.

In the year 2154, the planet has become one big garbage dump filled with disease, violence and overcrowding. Max DeCosta is a born troublemaker, a legendary car thief now trying to go straight as a factory worker that builds the robots that brutally enforce law and order. We get to see just how brutal in the opening minutes, when Max has his arm viciously broken by a robot cop for no reason while he's on his way to work.

With his boyish, wholesome looks, Matt Damon is a bit unconvincing as a sarcastic badass. Even with a shaved head and multitude of tattoos and scars, he still looks like a choir boy wearing his Halloween get-up. As near as we can determine through flashbacks to his childhood, Max's only dream in life has been to get to Elysium, since it represents something more than his squalid little life.

After an industrial accident at his plant leaves him irradiated with only five days to live, Max's urgency to reach Elysium grows urgent. That's because there they have these miraculous medical beds that can instantly heal all injuries and cure all wounds. Unless Max gets to one of these Magic Cure Boxes, he'll die.

But the rich and haughty do not like the downtrodden to use their Magic Cure Boxes because ... well, we're not really sure what their objection is. They're so common on Elysium that every house and public building has one. The residents use them constantly, not only to heal themselves but to keep their (almost entirely Caucasian) flesh looking young -- even cosmetic alterations like hair and eye color, and little scar designs they seem to favor.

Meanwhile down on Earth, deadly disease and injury still reign, so it doesn't take a whole lot of guessing to deduce the people would like to get themselves up to Elysium and hop inside one of the Magic Cure Boxes for what ails them. The steely Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) shoots down as many incoming shuttles as she can, but still many "illegal immigrants" get through. (Subtle enough for you?)

Max strikes a deal with Spider (Wagner Moura), a hacker/crime boss, to do a job for him in exchange for a trip to Elysium. To help him survive his radiation sickness and be more effective in combat, he's outfitted with a clunky exoskeleton that's literally screwed into his body, making him fearsomely strong. He's even got a little TV screen and computer on the back of his head for mining "brain data."

They're supposed to kidnap a highly-placed Elysium executive (William Fichtner) who's on Earth for business, and tap his brain for financial data. Little do they know he and Delacourt have hatched a plan to stage a coup of Elysium by rebooting their entire computer system, and that rebel code gets zapped into Max's brain, too.

The rest of the movie plays out as one big long chase, as Max attempts to get a ride to Elysium while being hunted by Delacourt's hand-picked operative, a cackling bad guy named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). We're told that Kruger is mentally deranged and responsible for a bunch of war crimes. He's supposed to be maniacally evil and bombastic, but with Copley letting his South African accent unfurl at full speed, it's hard to even understand much of what he says.

(It's the "Bane" problem all over again: It's difficult to be really scared of someone when you can't comprehend their nefarious mutterings.)

Movies like this often have a totally unnecessary romantic interest, and here it's supplied by Alica Braga as Grey, a childhood friend of Max's who is now a nurse and mother of a little girl who -- wait for it -- is dying of end-stage leukemia. Soon their destinies are linked.

These characters never really seem to mesh together. Delacourt in particular is an impenetrable puzzle, with Foster supplying her own odd accent and mannerisms. She regards the Elysium leadership as spineless mamby-pambies who won't do what's necessary to fight the illegal infiltrator scourge.

Here's the thing, though: If the only problem they have on Elysium is the unwanted immigrants, and the only reason the Earth residents want to get to Elysium is so they can use the Magic Cure Boxes, why in the world wouldn't they just install a few planetside? Forget the idea that Elysium-ites are completely selfish and self-serving -- what do they lose by sharing their technology if it keeps out the riff-raff?

As he showed with "District 9," Blomkamp is a talented and original director who comes up with great ideas -- it just seems like he didn't think this one through very well. He's also one of those filmmakers who's good at staging action scenes from a distance, but when it gets down to hand-to-hand combat everything becomes a blurred mess. (Hand! Foot! Elbow! Fist! Knee! Knee! Knee!)

I think "Elysium" wants to be an allegorical tale about how the problems of the future mirror our own today. But it's trapped inside the body of a summer action movie, setting up characters and plot paces that are momentarily engaging but don't make a lick of sense when you take two steps back.

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