8/15/2013 - The Haves live in a world of peace, good health and nicely manicured lawns while the Have Nots fight a losing battle against illness, crime and an unfair system in Elysium, a science fiction movie.
Totally science fiction; I mean the idea of a world in which the poor can’t treat medical problems the wealthy can easily take care — why, that’s just crazytalk.
It’s some 150 years in the future and Earth, specifically Los Angeles, is a grimy, Dust Bowl hell-scape of slums, policed by robots. Naturally, rich people don’t want to live there, so they’ve moved to Elysium, a near-Earth space station where they can have blue skies and green lawns and sparkling glass houses that contain handy tanning-bed-like machines that can cure pretty much any ailment including, say, cancer and major limb injury. Back on Earth, people still have to fight it out for limited and cruddy-seeming standard medicine at overworked hospitals. That’s where Max (Matt Damon), a recent parolee, finds himself after a run-in with a police robot leads to a broken arm. There he sees Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood sweetheart who is now a nurse. She agrees to meet him for coffee a few days hence, but Max might not be able to make it. After an accident at the factory where he works leaves him exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, Max is basically shown the door and given a bottle of drugs to keep him from being in too much pain until all his organs shut down in about three days. He sees the big boss John Carlyle (William Fitchner) unsympathetically wave him away, like he’s consigning to the dumpster a pile of disposable parts. For all his talk about staying out of trouble, Max decides he’d rather live and turns to Spider (Wagner Moura), a mostly unsuccessful smuggler who gets people illegal passage to Elysium.
Get me up there so I can be cured, Max demands. Spider agrees, but as payment asks Max, whom he decks out in a robotic exoskeleton, to participate in a little robbery. The plan is to steal data from a rich person’s head. Spider’s thinking he’ll find bank PIN numbers and the like but when they pull this trick on John Carlyle — Max’s choice of a mark — they find something much more valuable. Working with Elysium’s evil mwah ha ha ha head of security Delacourt (Jodie Foster, whose accent sounds like Princess Leia imiitating Grand Moff Tarkin), Carlyle had created a program that could reboot the computer network that runs Elysium. Delacourt plans to use it to take over, but Spider sees its possibility for sneaking more people into this paradise.
Soon, Max finds himself on the run from Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a nutcase mercenary Delacourt has hired to keep Elysium illegal-immigrant-free, while desperately trying to find a way up to Elysium to save his life. Meanwhile, he turns to Frey for help, inadvertently putting her and her daughter, Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who is dying of cancer, in danger.
Get ready for a spoiler and also some sacrilege: two unkillable/unbreakable robots fighting each other is boring. That’s right, I said it. Now, before you accuse me of liking only black and white French movies about the meaning of life, let me say that I loved Live Free or Die Hard. Kinda loved those The Expendables movies. Have liked each sequel of Fast and Furious more than the movie that preceded it. I enjoy some crap cinema, is what I’m saying. But this summer — The Wolverine, Pacific Rim, White House Down, Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, etc. — has completely worn me out for fights where this superhuman whatever fights that superhuman whatever (or specially trained special ops guy fights that specially trained special ops guy... same, same). Yeah, probably someone will eventually win, but I know that during the fight 40 minutes into the movie Superhuman Bad Guy is not going to kill Superhuman Good Guy, nor vice versa, and all of these fights are shot with what feels like the same boring beats, scored with the same boring “battle royale” thudding scores. I want to like dinosaurs fighting robots or Sharlto Copley fighting Matt Damon but I can’t find a single thing to care about, even at the end of this movie, when the big showdown ostensibly had so much at stake. Here, each man, enhanced by a steel-supported exoskeleton and supermeds, is fighting for the course of human history. But all I could think is “can someone please just die, already, so we can get this plot-show on the road?” Because I know that they are going to fight the exact same way that a hundred other ultimate warrior/ultimate villain pairings have, with occasional quips if anyone involved is human, pummeling each other to the last possible moment when the score halts for the final blow or sword thrust or bullet and then the someone — but let’s face it, usually the villain — falls.
Copley, who played the heartless bureaucrat in District 9, the first film from this movie’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp, gives his psychopathic solider a nice creepiness. You’re never really sure what his motivator is — money? promise of reward on Elysium? the thrill of violence? But rather than turn him into a truly terrifying villain by letting us see more of his character, the movie just weaponizes him, giving him guns and a robot exoskeleton instead of giving him emotion or dialogue. As in District 9 (where alien refugees end up as persecuted prisoners in South African slums), Blomkamp sets up in Elysium a very neat and tidy political allegory (almost a little too neat and tidy). But then, he just whomps down very standard action movie fare — hero with a deadline, nutbar henchman, all-but-cackling suave villain, child in peril. One of the nice things about District 9 was that Copley’s character started off as sort of the villain himself — he is a bureaucrat who casually and heartlessly participates in general subjugation of the aliens. It gives some layers to the way his story plays out and how it transforms his character. Likewise, there is something promising about the way Damon’s character is set up as a not particularly heroic guy, just a guy trying to get by in an unfair world. But there is no subtlety about how the story unfolds, no chance for any of the actors to do anything really interesting with their characters. Foster in particular is sort of needlessly hamfisted. Rather than really say something about our modern world — which Blomkamp so clearly is trying to do — the one-dimensional nature of his characters makes them more removed. Had he tried to work some nuance into the story — keep the explosions but add some character arcs — Blomkamp might have created a masterpiece of smart science fiction. (And Matt Damon is the perfect actor when it comes to pulling off the blend of brain and brawn; he more or less created the type with his Jason Bourne movies.) Instead, Elysium gathers all the elements of a film that mixes action fun and thinkier themes but does little interesting with them. C
Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is an hour and 37 minutes long and distributed by TriStar Pictures.