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Entries in Elysium [2013] (1)

Friday
Aug092013

Elysium (2013)

Carving Up that Pie in the Sky

Of all the summer's sci-fi blockbusters, I looked forward to seeing Elysium the least. I'm one of maybe ten people who didn't care for writer/director Neil Blomkamp's sleeper hit, District 9--but I'm not alone in thinking we've burned through an entire generation's worth of deserted-Earth thrillers in one season. To my surprise, I walked out of Elysium thinking it was gorgeous, politically wrong-headed, and terribly miscast--but still entertaining enough to recommend.

Matt Damon stars as Max, an ex-convict-turned-factory-worker in the year 2154. He has no aspirations beyond reconnecting with childhood crush Frey (Alice Braga) and staying out of trouble. Neither are easy prospects, considering he lives squarely in the middle of a disease-and-crime-ridden planetary ghetto. Decades earlier, the elites of the world figured out a way to move all of their families and possessions onto a luxurious, orbiting habitat called Elysium. A massive monument to excess, the ruling council awards its citizens a seemingly endless life free of disease--while the poor struggle below, building the very robot sentries that keep them under an unseen thumb.

Following accidental exposure to lethal radiation at his job, Max decides to smuggle himself aboard Elysium and take advantage of its life-saving technology. This necessitates crawling back to his former boss, a greasy warlord named Spider (Wagner Moura), who outfits him with a metal exoskeleton (it looks like the contraption Tony Stark wore before putting on the first Iron Man suit). The details of Max's journey are many and complicated, and I won't spoil them here. Suffice it to say, Elysium's head of security, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), becomes very interested in capturing the doomed worker, and sends a three-man squad of off-the-books mercenaries (led by the fiercely magnetic and nigh unrecognizable Sharlto Copley) to retrieve him.

Like Joseph Kosinski's OblivionElysium has a lot going for it, visually, and its premise is very interesting. Both films are like live-action concept-art animatics, showcasing wild imaginations and the breathtaking digital and practical artistry that bring them to life. From a distance, Elysium looks like a Kubrick-inspired hood ornament, but as the camera flies closer, revealing complex layers of atmosphere and architecture, the imagery implies a back-story far more compelling than the movie's "A" plot.

The filmmakers also take great pains to contrast the dusty, over-populated Earth with Elysium's Laguna Beach-of-the-future aesthetic. During the initial fly-overs of Los Angeles, I assumed the city had been hit by a nuclear bomb, so ravaged were its buildings. On further examination, I realized the population had simply built a series of shanty towns on top of existing structures, creating a livable space in dingy Babel towers high above the streets.

As for the story, I love the idea of Max fighting through weird, dangerous obstacles on his way to a cure. I don't remember where I read this, but someone suggested Elysium would have been a terrific Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle twenty-five years ago. In many ways, this is a perfect, high-tech rehash of Total Recall and The Running Man, complete with gruesome practical effects, thrilling action set pieces, a feisty Latina love interest, and a free-the-people message that most anyone can get behind.

But this is not a Schwarzenegger movie, and here is where our problems begin. Matt Damon is simply not believable in this role. He brings with him the baggage of a Serious Actor's career, and is ill-equipped to light the spark Max desperately needs in order for us to root for him. I could buy a Schwarzenegger, a Stallone, or a Willis as an ace ex-car-thief, an orphaned badass who saw the light after years of incarceration. Damon comes off as alternately monk-somber and Lebowski-whiny, the kind of bumbling, insecure baby who has no business running in criminal circles.*

Damon isn't the only one who struggles with characterization. Though he's supposed to be a ruthless crime boss, Moura's Spider sounds and acts like Pepe the King Prawn--even going so far as to switch to the side of virtue (or something like it) towards the end, becoming, I suppose, a cuddly mob boss. Blomkamp's story would have been better served by transferring Max's dramatic weight to this faux bad guy who, as portrayed, would have been killed in his sleep by week two of playing gang boss.

But in terms of outright terrible performances, no one can match Foster's caricature of rich-speak--an accent best described as dinner-theatre British, crossed with New England Posh. This choice does nothing to elevate the character or inform the audience, and I couldn't help but think of Kristen Wiig's failed-Broadway-actress character from Saturday Night Live. This is truly a career low for such an esteemed and talented actress.

Elysium's only winning turn is Copley's as the dirty, psychopathic bounty hunter, Kruger. He's like a Kiwi-gibberish-spouting Boba Fett, a relentless, egotistical force of nature who won't let a small thing like a grenade to the face stop him. Sure, his character doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the end, but next to the visuals, he's the real reason to watch this movie.**

Had Elysium just been a light homage to 80s action films, I might have been able to forgive the weird acting and direction. But a dense air of Hard-hitting Social Allegory hangs over the picture like L.A. smog. In his decision to make Elysium About Something, Blomkamp loses his way. Don't misunderstand me: I love well-put-together Big Idea movies, but they have to work as both movies and ideas. In failing one aspect, careless creators inadvertently fail both.

Blomkamp never gives us a reason to hate the people of Elysium. We're supposed to, because they live carefree above the clouds, while millions of unwashed slaves toil away below. The problem is, we never get a sense of Elysium as a society. Sure, the high council is comprised of assholes and political opportunists. But as a member of a first-world country, I would hate for an outsider to think I'm no better than the sleaziest member of congress. How interesting would it have been if Blomkamp had revealed that only a handful of people on Elysium even knew of Earth's existence?

Conversely, the movie becomes about Max's quest to make every citizen of Earth a citizen of Elysium, allowing them to benefit from its life-saving technology. A noble cause in theory, but it's unclear to me that most of Earth deserves vast wealth and immortality. After the billionaires left, the remaining populace apparently continued to pollute the environment, kill each other, and value theft as a worthwhile career. Aside from the orphanage in which Max was raised, there is not a single example of a forward-thinking, virtuous organization or movement on the planet. Not to sound harsh, but Max's plan is kind of like handing out amnesty and truckloads of cash to death-row inmates.

Of course, that's a broad generalization, but it's all Elysium has to offer. I'm never shown a resistance movement that might try to overthrow Earth's remote oppressors. Nor am I given a reason to want to see Max succeed in giving thugs free reign of strangers' mansions (towards the end, as a ship plows through Elysium's atmosphere, destroying the property of people we never meet, it's honestly easier to get behind Kruger). There really is a rich-equals-bad/poor-equals-good message at play here, one whose bleeding heart obscures the greater underlying issues of social responsibility on both sides of this extreme class struggle. Ultimately, Elysium succeeds at being a message movie--but it's neither a good movie nor a good message.

It sure is pretty, though.

*Every time Max said "maaaan"--which he did a lot--I imagined Jeff Bridges in a bathrobe fighing robots.

**If you really want to sit in awe of the actor's range, make a double-feature of Elysium and Europa Report.