Monday, August 19, 2013
Written and Directed by Neill Blomkamp
There is a sincerity within Elysium that's hard to fault. It really wants to be about something - socioeconomic classes, South African apartheid, brutal federal government - but has a bit of a lazy way of being about it. It wants to be hard-hitting and sharp, filling the audience with rage at all of the injustice and how goddamn unfair everything is. But the template with which Elysium tries to make us feel all that injustice is hackneyed and uninteresting, a standard Hollywood action movie with all of its pieces moving in highly predictable ways. It wants to make you feel uncomfortable about the way of life presented, but makes damn sure that you don't feel uncomfortable with your viewing experience, with all of the good guys and bad guys ending up exactly where you want them to be. It wants it both ways, to be edgy and safe. This is material that could have really been challenging, but it settles for being something that wants to make everyone smile.
Elysium comes from Neill Blomkamp, who also made 2009's District 9, a surprise hit and an eventual Best Picture nominee (which was an even bigger surprise). District 9 referenced Blomkamp's life as a South African citizen during the Apartheid. That film was slimmer and less complicated, the allegorical nature of the story was less heavy-handed. It lacked the movie stars and Hollywood obligation to make battles of good and evil black and white. Elysium also has District 9's hint enraged feelings toward international diplomacy, but there's something about it that just feels more manufactured than it wants to be, and it creates an identity crisis that it's never able to overcome. As its lead, it chose Matt Damon, who is probably the greatest movie star of his generation, but gives him one of the least interesting characters of his career. He plays Max, a man who's second only to Reservoir Dogs's Mr. Orange in suffering terribly from fatal injuries but never actually, you know, dying.
Max is a resident of Los Angeles in 2154, which is no longer christened by the Hollywood Hills but is instead a dilapidated shantytown. Earth, in whole, has become a dangerous wasteland where the only hope comes from Elysium, a government-produced space station which hangs up within space, fully visible from the surface of Earth. It's crafted like a gigantic silver steering wheel, populated only by the world's richest and most privileged (and - it seems - only white people). More than anything, Elysium is cherished most for its "Med-Pods", which is a sort of space age massage bed that eliminates all disease and aging for Elysium citizens, allowing people to live forever. As a child, raised by a nun in L.A., Max dreamed of getting up to Elysium, only to have his illusions shattered - Elysium just isn't made for people like Max, those who are unimportant and impoverished. As an adult, Max works for the Armadyne Corporation, a sort of sci-fi Halliburton, responsible for mass producing the robot officers who rule over Earth like a fascist regime at the behest of those trying to keep those on Earth from reaching Elysium.
Max is working at Armadyne to try and earn a better reputation, after serving prison time for being a car thief. The assembly line factory is like something out of an Upton Sinclair nightmare, factory workers working with precarious dangers everywhere, willing to do anything to keep one of the few jobs available in the world. But when Max is exposed to a lethal amount of radiation at work, he's told that he has five days before his organs shut down and he dies. He's given a small bottle of pills to help him deal with the pain. Max knows that his only chance to survive is to get into one of Elysium's med-pods, so he calls his friend Julio (Diego Luna) and his former partner in crime Spider (Wagner Moura) to help him get a ticket. For his mission, Spider equips Max with a homemade supersuit that is surgically installed into Max's nervous system and ends up looking like Robocop cosplay.
One of Elysium's highest ranking government ministers, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, in what is probably the worst performance of her entire career), is in charge of keeping Elysium "clean" (or white, whichever adjective you prefer). Delacourt is not above shooting down ships trying to reach Elysium, even if its filled with civilians guilty only of trying to heal sick children on the med-pods. When she catches wind of Max and Spider's plan, she employs her most gruesome agent, a bearded sociopath named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who looks like a hellish character out of Mad Max. Kruger assassinates with extreme prejudice, not caring about the lives of woman or children, not even seemingly caring about any compensation, seemingly motivated by total bloodlust. Elysium builds towards the eventual showdown between Kruger and Max, and I wish the movie had a tighter focus on that.
Instead, Elysium gets hung up on several subplots and minor characters that never pay off in any satisfying way, because they're not actual characters but walking mouthpieces for the film's supposed meaning. Among them is Frey, Max's friend from childhood and played in adulthood by Alice Braga. Braga is an actress known for great work with Brazilian director Fernando Merielles (City of God, Blindness) and subpar supporting performances within the American action movie machine. Frey has a young daughter with leukemia, and when she hears of Max's plan to get up to the wheel in the sky, she wants him to help her and her daughter as well. What's meant to be a sweet sidebar to film's harsh reality, acts only as an anchor to the movie's already bloated plot. Not to mention the character of Delacourt, who's meant to be the cold evil behind the utopian Elysium, is neutered by the energy of Kruger. Kruger is the real villain we want to see, and by the film's end there's not a whole lot of justification for Delacourt being such a major character, other than the fact that a movie star like Jodie Foster is playing the part.
And does Jodie Foster ever "play the part", with a performance so affected, mannered and just distractingly bad. Foster, a two-time Academy Award winner, is one of the finest screen actresses of her generation, but she seems clueless here. She's either taking too much direction in the formation of this character, or she's going rogue a la Nic Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married, but Foster seems to be from a different movie. Delacourt gives Foster the chance to speak in French, which is good enough, but also in a form of accented English that's hard to place ("What accent is that?" I asked my girlfriend when I first heard the character speak; "Rich people" she answered me). As bad as Foster is, Copley's embodiment of Kruger is one of the most terrifying villains I've seen in a movie for a very long time. Copley became a name by playing the nebbish protagonist of District 9, and he does a complete turnaround here. If anything, Elysium confirms that Blomkamp and Copley are a terrific actor-director tandem.
You can punch Blomkamp's latest film with so many holes, which would be fine if the film was interesting enough to get past it, but it's not. It's tough to see Damon in a role that's so boring and not tapping into his incredible charisma. But playing a man who's organs are apparently deteriorating, he marches through most of the film like an indestructible monster, only occasionally falling to the ground pained so we're reminded of his condition. That his small bottle of blue pills seems to work like Popeye's spinach, helping him carry what I assume is an oppressively heavy body suit while his body functions are failing, can probably be written off as a product of future advances in medicine. But it's done lazily here, perhaps because there's so much focus elsewhere, like watching Frey's daughter tell a heart-tugging story of a hippo that will have metaphorical significance later.
I have no problem with the way American action movies choose to tell their stories, that they all essentially happen in the exact same way. But most of those movies don't condescend to also be important and try to guilt you and make you feel indifferent to international injustices. In a lot of ways, Elysium reminded me of Nicolas Winding Refn's film Only God Forgives. Both films were made by talented filmmakers, both were failures in different ways, and both were follow-ups to great successes (District 9 for Blomkamp, Drive for Refn). Both films are also great examples of how thin the line is between a great film and a mediocre one. Elysium has the same sincerity of District 9, but the execution is much more clunky, stuffed with a lot more shiny, sugary things to keep the audience satiated. Parts of Elysium are great fun because of how much fun Copley has with his villainous role, but even Kruger is marginalized by the end. There are roots of an entertaining film here, but I don't know if Blomkamp is willing to sell his message short for the story.