Film: Elysium

The problem with Neill Blomkamp movies, in my little two-film sampling, is that he doesn’t know when to quit. Like his debut District 9, Elysium (2013) is about thirty minutes of a good film surrounded by an hour and half of relentlessly brutal sci-fi action. It’s a visual feast, but I got so bored with its monotonously frantic battle scenes that I started writing this review just to give myself something else to do while the plot played out.

In the future, Earth is a Mad Maxian cyberpunk dystopia, so the rich, mostly white people build the space habitat Elysium, a One Percenter utopia. Downtrodden orphan Max da Costa (Matt Damon) always dreamed of making it to Elysium some day, but with the cards stacked against him, he fell in with a criminal crowd. The film opens as he’s trying to walk the straight and narrow, working the line at a robotics factory. When appalling safety conditions at the plant illustrate the film’s heavy-handed class warfare theme — uh, he gets a lethal dose of radiation — he suddenly finds himself with five days left to live. Only the magical autodocs of Elysium can save him: but how can he get there? Fortunately, he’s got a criminal hacker connection named (of course) Spider (Wagner Moura), who might be able to make it happen. Provided, of course, he does One Last Job. But oh, what a brutal job it is, and with unexpected complications.

When a film wears its metaphors on its sleeve this baldly, it’s kind of hard to take things seriously. But Elysium, with its tragic injustice and fraught, victimized heroes, takes itself very seriously indeed, bludgeoning its obvious message home with a sledgehammer. Fortunately, it’s fun to look at: from its nightmarish vision of a future Los Angeles that had me scrambling for Craigslist, to its perfected orbital suburbia, to all the little skiffy details in between, it’s got eyeball kicks to burn. And it’s got Matt Damon, who’s pretty good at the whole nonstop, violent action hero business. I wanted to like it.

But, uh, no. The plot is, alas, a succession of well executed but hollow combat sequences that use plot coupon duct-tape to integrate Max’s fight for survival with the efforts of a nefarious Elysium overlord named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to initiate a coup and really ramp up the fascist awful. Foster is Razzy-worthy here, trying on a weird British accent to prove her villainy — and if that doesn’t work, she throws in the odd French phrase. But wait, doesn’t she stand in for the ruling elite of western capitalism? Surely, she should have stuck with American; this metaphor is broken! Anyway, also on hand is Blomkamp veteran Sharlto Copley, who plays a villain named Kruger so comically ruthless he might as well be a Borderlands 2 boss. Seriously, he carries a sword and has a forcefield. I can see the cut-scene now:  KRUGER! (Like Freddy Kruger…but worse!) Oh, and by the way, there is one other female character, if you were wondering: Frey (Alice Braga) is Max’s childhood sweetheart who, of course, has a sick kid and gets captured by the bad guys.

It’s pretty much a vacant, bombastic skiffy spectacle, then, with ill-fated symbolic ambition, a contrived, unconvincing plot, and a random grasp of its SFnal mechanics. I would love to have seen its production values applied to a different movie entirely.

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