My hopes couldn’t have been higher. But “Elysium” is the major disappointment of the movie summer.
It’s by no means a bad film, mind you, only a movie that doesn’t begin to stack up to what it could have been – and should have been.
Anyone who saw Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi horror film “District 9” had every reason to anticipate gleefully a new film by the man who made the wildest and gutsiest fantasy of 2009’s movie summer – in which visiting extraterrestrials are treated by South Africans as badly as any earthly minority group.
Blomkamp has brilliantly simple ideas for his sci-fi fantasias – space aliens as just another despised and ghettoized minority group and now, a future world (the year 2154 to be exact) in which Earth is a foul, filthy pestilential hell whose privileged classes have long since abandoned it for ageless lives of perpetual health on an idyllic and verdant space station called Elysium.
“Elysium” stacked up as a kind of sci-fi fantasy that was a brother to the Occupy Movement, i.e. it was a world where 99 percent strive and suffer and 1 percent flourish with all the advantages a future world can concoct. (Most importantly, machines which instantly eliminate ill health of all sorts. A quick insertion into a CAT scan or PET scan-type device, for instance, and a leukemia victim is healthy again. A man whose face is blown off by a grenade has his vile and ugly original face restored to all its native ugliness in seconds by another machine – or the same one with merely a different program. Hard to tell about future doodads, you know?)
Yes that basic idea is reminiscent of so many films from the early part of the summer which gave us all Apocalypse Fatigue (“Oblivion” anyone?). But there was a residue of genuine anger in this fantasy.
And then when you look at the cast, you can’t possibly expect anything but something very special indeed. Matt Damon as an earthling who will die of radiation poisoning in five days unless Elysium’s machines cure him, Jodie Foster as Elysium’s frigid secretary of defense all bedecked in white (looking, in Elsa Lanchester’s immortal line about Maureen O’Hara, as if “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth – or anywhere else”) and director Blomkamp’s South African friend Sharlto Copley, whose performance as a Satanic bureaucrat was so unforgettable in “District 9.”
Also in the film, as the mother of a child dying of leukemia, is Alice Braga, the beautiful niece of Brazilian star Sonia Braga.
And no, it’s not merely a continuation of the miseries of this summer’s virulent Apocalypse Fatigue that account for the disappointment of “Elysium.”
It’s, in fact, the almost complete muffling of the outrage that is implicit in the movie’s very plot. What’s left is a lot of narrative about people on disgusting, overcrowded, polluted Earth struggling against their robot keepers and trying to migrate to Elysium – that star inside a giant wheel in the sky – to live, prosper and flourish.
We spend 70 percent of the film amid the strivers, battlers, conspirators and custodians on Earth – the latter of whom are sensitive and completely humorless mechanical constables who resemble Paul Verhoeven’s old Robocop.
In one good early scene, a shaven-headed earthbound factory functionary and former car thief (Damon) is asked by a constable what’s in the bag he’s carrying. “Hair products, mostly” he answers, and has his arm broken for his wise guy efforts.
When the beautiful but fatally sick child tries to tell him a story about a jungle meerkat who needs to ride on the back of a hippo, he interrupts her – “what’s in it for the hippo?” “The hippo gets a friend,” she answers – one of the few lines in the film that has emotional resonance of any sort.
Blomkamp can be quite brilliant with the details of his vision of a bifurcated future for our species – the fact that Spanish seems to be the second language, for instance, after English. (Don’t ask what, in heaven’s name, accent Foster is using.)
And look at what Blomkamp imagines helicopters in the 22nd century to look like. His ideas about future hardware and urban congestion aren’t bad.
Though almost no one remembers it now, it was George Lucas who first gave us in the movies the idea that the future would be as dirty as the present. That was in his first film “THX-1138.” Now, all these decades later, Blomkamp gives us a future Los Angeles that is a combination overcrowded penal colony and giant petri dish.
For all the invention in the details of Blomkamp’s future vision, it’s the narrative that bogs down in sci-fi cliché. Most importantly, all that filthy strife on Earth for most of the film eliminates the smoldering outrage possible for a story of fugitives set in the pseudo-paradise of Elysium. It’s as if the whole movie has the wrong focus.
Nor does it help in the slightest that the music for the film has all the pounding and boring bombast of a “Conan the Barbarian” sequel. (Not the original “Conan.” That music by Basil Poledouris was extraordinary.) It’s the first film of composer Ryan Amon, whose work before this was to compose music for movie trailers. It is, to understate, not an auspicious beginning. If anything, it only emphasizes how clichéd the narrative can be.
There’s enough invention in “Elysium” to watch, as well as enough by Damon, Braga and Copley to watch among the actors (NOT Foster, though, sadly).
But it’s as if the film were conceived in outrage and then was allowed to cool off into mere professionalism, even tedium. It’s as if it had been made by the ageless, deathless and empathyless citizens of Elysium.
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: R for much violence and rough language.
The Lowdown: In the year 2154, the poor and powerless suffer on a dying Earth and the privileged live on a nearby space station.