Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blomkamp Comes Back Down to Earth With "Elysium"

Elysium finds Matt Damon in badass mode. 
District 9 was a real shot of adrenaline when it hit theaters back in 2009. In an era in which so many blockbuster types are sequels, remakes or so derivative that they might as well be, here was a complicated, raw and original piece of science fiction.

Like many films of the genre, it was a full-on political allegory, and it attacked societal tendencies of xenophobia and social segregation in a way that was intellectually stimulating, pulse-poundingly thrilling and emotionally affecting. The film used a cinema verite mockumentary style to deliver its atypically personal and rough-edged story, but it still managed to deliver impressively large-scale special effects.

In short, it was one of the best films of that year, and really, one of the greatest science fiction films I’ve come across.

Because of this, I was anxiously anticipating Elysium, the sophomore outing from writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who once again teams with actor Sharlto Copley for an original science fiction film. With Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and an increased budget in tow, expectations were undoubtedly high.

So, it’s with a great deal of disappointment that I write that Elysium is about as ho-hum as it gets. It’s visually stimulating and Copley makes some interesting choices with his batty bad guy, but the action’s not all that memorable and the narrative is a passably clichéd effort.

With this, District 9 and 2015's Chappie, Copley and Blomkamp
are clearly keen collaborators.
The film is another Occupy Movement parable. Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have moved to Elysium, a utopian space station in which all sicknesses can be cured by med-bays that seem right out of Prometheus. The rest of society remains on Earth, which has become an overpopulated slum policed by oppressive robot forces.

Damon stars as Max Decker, an ex-con who works on an assembly line creating police robots just like Douglas Quaid did in Total Recall. His long-term dream of visiting Elysium becomes a vital necessity when he is exposed to lethal radiation on the job, and his effort to get to Elysium and into a med-bay leads him to join forces with some anarchic smugglers. They fit him with a powered exoskeleton and promise him a ride to Elysium if he can boost a sort of access card to the space station from the brain of one of its citizens working on Earth.

In doing this, Max stumbles into possession of a program that can override Elysium’s defenses, drawing the attention of Elysium’s power hungry secretary of defense (Foster) and her homicidal goon (Copley). Thrown into the mix is Max’s childhood friend (Alice Braga) whose daughter has terminal leukemia.

Throughout all of this, the plot relies on a mounting number of coincidences. The worst of all is Max’s insistence that the smugglers go after the guy whose brain just so happens to hold the key to overthrowing Elysium simply because he’s mad at him for owning the plant where he was exposed to radiation.

Worse than that, the story doesn't give viewers anybody worth caring about. Damon does what he can, but Max’s character arc is a telegraphed string of clichés with an endpoint that isn't really earned.

Blomkamp’s take on the divide between the haves and have nots is not nearly as moving or gripping as his exploration of apartheid in District 9. If that’s an unfair standard, I’ll go a step or two lower and confirm it’s not even as good as Oblivion, 2013’s other derivative “original” science fiction entry (reviewed here).

Still, it is superior to the similarly themed In Time (which I reviewed last year), and the space station is neatly realized.  Ultimately, it functions as an OK palate cleanser as we await the next big thing from a filmmaker with clear talent to burn. C+