Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Elysium" (2013)

Starring Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley and Jodie Foster
Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Rated R - Violence, strong language
Running Time: 109 Minutes

Max (Matt Damon) is a young orphan who grew up to be a petty thief. His entire life, he's scrabbled and stole to build up enough wealth to one day make his only dream come true: to get to Elysium, a massive orbital habitat where humanity's wealthiest citizens reside in total luxury.

Max lives on Earth, in a dilapidated, overcrowded slum called Los Angeles. The air quality is terrible. There's little work to be had. And for someone with a criminal record like Max, a job in and of itself might just be a miracle. Max works at a robotics factory, brushing off requests from his old friend Julio (Diega Luna) to help him steal some cars and make quick cash. He tries to reconnect with his childhood friend and crush, Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse at a nearby hospital.

But one day, Max receives a lethal dose of radiation. The company's robot doctor tells him he has five days to live, and the CEO, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), orders him let go with only a single bottle of pills as treatment.

Max and Julio find Spider (Wagner Moura), a smuggler who specializes in getting people illegally onto Elysium. Max, willing to do anything to get to the advanced medical technologies on Elysium that could heal him, agrees to pull a job for Spider - intercept Carlyle's shuttle and steal vital information from the man's brain.

The job goes south when Elysium's Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) sends in a team of agents led by the vicious, unstable Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Now Max is on the run in Los Angeles, with Kruger on his trail, while Spider discovers that the information downloaded from Carlyle could be the key to changing the future of human civilization, both on Earth and on Elysium.

I was a huge fan of Blomkamp's "District 9," so I had pretty high anticipation for "Elysium." Going in, I could tell the rest of the audience in the theatre did, too. Coming out was rather a different story.

Firstly, the film lacks the keen progression of "District 9." It feels much more like a string of things that happen and then it ends. "Elysium" spends a lot of time introducing its characters and the wonderfully designed world in which they exist, but then doesn't spend a lot of time showing us why they change. Damon's Max is motivated by his own desire to live, but only in the film's final climactic moments finds a nobler cause, and through means of the screenplay that are suspect.

For all the heady ideas "Elysium" throws at you, there's very little exploration of them. One might say that's fine because, in the end, it's a summer action film. And it's generally a good thing when a movie leaves you thinking afterward. The problem is that, given the film's ultimate resolution, there are more unanswered questions than answered.

"Elysium" deals with heady and timely ideas such as immigration reform, healthcare and the class divide. But it doesn't really have much to say about those things other than simply bringing them up. If we accept the way the movie ends, there are serious repercussions that aren't addressed. There's just a swell of the music and everything's happy, but when you think about it, what happens when the first elation and visceral reaction wears off?

Lastly, Jodie Foster's subplot feels comparatively slight compared to other things going on. She only appears in a few scenes, trying to affect a coup that she thinks will ensure greater security aboard Elysium and the continuation for that opulent lifestyle. But the bigger problem is the fact that Foster's performance is, in a word, atrocious. She's attempting some kind of, I think, French accent. The ultimate effect of this is that nearly every one of her line readings is outright laughable, and she fails to come off as believable in any way. There's probably a reason they didn't really feature any of her dialogue in the film's advertising campaign. Considering the president they set her against is played by Faran Tahir, I'd gladly have accepted a trade in roles.

Matt Damon is his usual likable self. There's nothing really unique about his Max. There's a short scene where he fools around with some neighborhood kids before going to work that shows off that warmth that Damon is so known for. He has fine chemistry with all the other castmembers that he interacts with, including Braga and Trembley - though their scenes together are limited.

The gem of the cast, though, is Sharlto Copley. After playing a couple of nice-guy characters in "District 9" and "The A-Team," Copley appears here as the vicious Kruger, and he nails it. Practically unrecognizable under a scraggly beard and thick mop of dirty hair, Copley disappears into a man who has no problem, say, kidnapping and raping a woman in the course of getting his job done. His superiors can barely control him, and the wild glint in his eyes and the glee he takes at causing others pain is wonderfully played.

As part of the future that Blomkamp has created here, Los Angeles is a very multicultural mix. Problematically, at least for me, were the number of heavy accents involved. Spider, in particular, was often difficult to understand. I had to guess at some of the lines he was saying based on context, which is rarely fun. This may be the result of a character who speaks in excited and animated manner; he may have been better served by speaking Spanish and having the film subtitled - Max is fluent, as we can see in earlier scenes, so that might have even helped.

But enough grousing. What does "Elysium" get right? Rather a lot. In terms of constructing a world, the film is marvelous. I loved the look and feel of "Elysium" just as I did Guillermo del Toro's gorgeous "Pacific Rim." The future Los Angeles feels incredibly well-realized, with technology that seems scrambled together from decades worth of parts scavenged from multiple sources. Likewise, the glistening Elysium station itself has some gorgeous designs to it. An industrial setting for the film's climactic fight between Max and Kruger actually has flower petals swirling about in the air.

The action sequences are cool, though occasionally the camera is too energetic. The weapons of the future are pretty nifty, especially the modified AK-47 Max uses to take out Carlyle's robotic bodyguards. The robots themselves are really awesome, both in their great effects work and very natural-looking movements. Max's assault on Carlyle's shuttle is a great scene.

There's an air that "Elysium" is generally entertaining. The cast has good chemistry, and there are a lot of great scenes. The action and special effects are first rate. But the script stumbles in a few places, and one key performance is practically a joke. I liked the film, had a good time being wowed by the world and the effects, but I was let down by it. For all the the thought that went into the setting, the story itself feels like it didn't really know how to get where it wanted to go.

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