Greatness eludes ‘Elysium,’ but Blomkamp is getting better

Film review

This film image released by Columbia Pictures-Sony shows director Neill Blomkamp, left, and Matt Damon on the set of "Elysium." The film, opening nationwide on Aug. 9, is a rogue burst of originality _ a futuristic popcorn adventure loaded with contemporary themes of wealth discrepancy, immigration and health care. (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures, TriStar, Kimberly French)

Associated Press image

Writer and director Neill Blomkamp directs Matt Damon on a set of “Elysium,” Blomkamp’s second big entry into the sci-fi genre.

Like his “District 9,” writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” is a worthwhile and entertaining but imperfect sci-fi venture in which Blomkamp takes the opportunity to inject social justice.

“Elysium” hits much closer to home here in the United States than “District 9,” which is set in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, did, however.

“Elysium” takes on at least four large American sociopolitical issues: immigration, class-based access to health care, the environmental degradation of planet Earth, and the phenomenon of the gated community, which is a euphemism for what actually are becoming privately militarized compounds as the filthy rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer and the rich want to keep the shit that they’ve stolen from us safe from us.

Set in the year 2154, in “Elysium” Matt Damon plays Max, a member of the poor working class in a future Los Angeles whose residents speak both English and Spanish. Most of Max’s companions, including his best friend Julio (played by Diego Luna) and his love interest Frey (played by Alice Braga), are Latino.

Like poor Mexicans attempt to get into the United States (although not nearly with the same frequency since the U.S. economy crashed and burned, like everything else did, under the watch of George W. Bush), poor and desperate Earthlings attempt, via spacecraft, to get into Elysium, the name of the gargantuan wheel-like space station that orbits Earth in space like the moon, and that like the moon, is visible on Earth. (The full backstory of the construction of Elysium is not given in “Elysium”; like the moon, it’s just taken as a given, which is OK, since we don’t really need the backstory anyway, since we already have a very good sense of how Elysium came to be.)

Protecting Elysium from the poor and desperate Earthlings who wish to reach it — the “illegals” — is the space-station plutocrats’ defense secretary, the sometimes-French-speaking Delacourt (an icy Jodie Foster) and legions of humanoid robots that keep the “illegals” (who even on Earth are deemed “illegals,” because they are not allowed admittance to Elysium) in line, mostly on Earth but also on Elysium should any of the “illegals” actually make it to Elysium.

Max, whose job is in a factory that manufactures the robots that keep the “illegals” in line, is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while on the job — there is no OSHA in Blomkamp’s dystopian Los Angeles — and is given five days to live, and he finds out that Frey’s daughter has terminal leukemia.

The elites on Elysium have the automatized technology to cure a human being of any malady (as long as he or she is still alive, anyway), and Max’s underground associate Spider (Wagner Moura), who is a futuristic coyote, has a plan that could take Elysium down, and so the film takes off from there.

True, as others have noted, “Elysium” does go off the rails a bit, as it goes from a social-consciousness movie into a typical Hollywood action flick, but then, it more or less saves itself at the end, when it returns to its social-consciousness beginning.

Matt Damon carries “Elysium” well. He is a reliable workhorse of an actor. And as his own sociopolitical views lean strongly leftward, my guess is that he infused his performance with the sense that with Blomkamp he is furthering good causes (because, methinks, he is).

I found Jodie Foster’s performance, however, to be remarkably stilted and lifeless. I mean, she was nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar and won twice. Foster’s character is supposed to be icy, I get that, but Foster nonetheless seems to have phoned it in. Some of this might be Blomkamp’s fault, however; as we get no backstory on or real development of Foster’s character, perhaps the two-dimensional portrayal is about the best that she could do.

And while Blomkamp apparently likes Sharlto Copley enough to have put the star of “District 9” in “Elysium” as well, Copley’s villainous Kruger, a mercenary who is on Delacourt’s payroll, is, as others have noted, over the top. Indeed, this villain, when compared to the other characters in the film, even that of Delacourt but perhaps especially that of Max, seems to have been cut and pasted from another film entirely… (Ditto for Kruger’s immediate associates, who also seem like refugees from a “Mad Max” movie.)

And like “District 9” does, “Elysium” suffers from some inconsistencies and some explanations that don’t make sense, as though Blomkamp hadn’t really thought all of it out.

The ubiquitous humanoid robots that keep the “illegals” in line on Earth suddenly go mostly or even entirely missing when the action moves from Earth to Elysium, and while our protagonists and antagonists battle it out on Elysium, I found myself asking myself, “Where the hell are all of the robots? They’re all over Earth, but they’re missing in action on Elysium?”

Apparently a “reboot” of Elysium’s “core” (its central computer) somehow is going to remove President Patel (Faran Tahir) — whom the right-wing, merciless Delacourt despises because she considers him to be too soft and too merciful toward the “illegals” (whose spacecraft she just wants to blow from the sky as they try to reach Elysium, without exception) — and, presumably, put Delacourt in the deposed Patel’s place.

How, exactly, the mere rebooting of a central computer would achieve that change of guard, Blomkamp doesn’t explain. Nor does he explain how the mere reprogramming of Elysium’s “core” to recognize all Earthlings as citizens of Elysium would magically mandate that all Earthlings automatically are to receive the level of medical care that the denizens of Elysium get.

I mean, it’s not like reprogramming a computer, no matter how powerful it is, is the same as reprogramming human beings. (That said, the craniums of the denizens of Elysium apparently are linked with implanted, wireless circuitry that at the least allows them to communicate hands free [Google and/or Apple is/are working on this right now, right?], and there is a character [a CEO whose corporation Max works for, played by William Fichtner] who, much like how R2-D2 held the plans to the Death Star, holds the plans to “reboot” Elysium inside of the small computer that is implanted in his head, where he has downloaded the plans, but, presumably, the over-privileged denizens of Elysium cannot be reprogrammed into believing that they actually had elected someone else as their president or that the destitute denizens of Earth suddenly now are their sociopolitical equals.)

Also, if we are to buy the central premise of “Elysium” — which is that the rich and the powerful tiny minority (the 1 percent, if you will) have fled the increasingly overpopulated, diseased and polluted Earth for their own mega-gated community in the sky, and that they have done this in order to protect and to preserve the limited, apparently scarce reserves of life-enhancing things for themselves — then how can we buy “Elysium’s” ending, which apparently portrays the 1 percent’s hoarded resources, or at least their hoarded medical-care resources, as being enough to serve at least the entire area of Los Angeles, but apparently even the entire Earth?

This does not compute…

Still, despite “Elysium’s” flaws, it’s a more than watchable film, it’s an improvement over “District 9” (and so Blomkamp seems to have a promising career ahead of him), and it’s great, of course, to see a mainstream film take a socialist-y stance on current hot topics such as immigration, access to medical care, environmentalism, and, of course, the ugly phenomenon of the gated community, which is but a manifestation of the insanely great class division that we see in the United States of America today.

I don’t expect American wingnuts to love this film, and that’s a great thing.

My grade: B+  

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