“Elysium” Movie Review

     There’s a lot of not so subtle political commentary going on during the story told in writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s new film “Elysium”, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.  While Damon himself has attached himself to films made with a specific cause occupying the overall tone (“The Green Zone”), it’s no surprise to see Blomkamp’s sophomore effort engulfed with many issues taken out of today’s headlines, just as he did in his debut feature, “District 9”.  In that film, Blomkamp exploded on the scene with an original take on racism with his humans and aliens held captive story.  “District 9” found it’s way to an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and captivated viewers spanning the globe with an honest look at how we tend to treat those who we see as different.

     More or less, “Elysium” tries to follow a similar path.  It’s as if Blomkamp, after one feature, has created a sort of style to filter his material through.  Grungy and uncomfortable surroundings in a dystopian future populated with characters desperate for hope and survival.  Where “Elysium” falters, and where “District 9” did not, is it’s insistence on moving into standard summer action film conventions, rather than sticking to it’s original motivations and high concept.  The entire third act is devoted to a number of really bad guys chasing the film’s heroes through the hallways of the space station the film is named after.  They fire guns at each other and lash out with manly tough guy speak laced with the same profanity we use today, only to end with the same one on one fight sequences a top the same ledges and cat walks you would see in most superhero movies.  All this only to conclude with one of the most blatant in movie political ads for universal health care I have ever seen.

     In the year 2154, we are told as the film opens the world has become overrun with disease (probably because so many people didn’t have health care) and poverty.  The Los Angeles cityscapes we are shown are not too different than the compounds the aliens in “District 9” lived in, but here the joke is on the human race or at least those who can’t afford the pricier alternative.  The rich and powerful have fled Earth and now live in a massive space station called Elysium.  There, the elite of the human race live in a resort lifestyle, free of disease and sickness thanks to a special machine each home is equipped with that can apparently cure anything from a broken bone to cancer.  For the people down below, getting to Elysium for that kind of health care is priority number one.  Early in the film, we see the extensive lengths the sick and poor go to on what seems to be a daily basis by flying stolen spacecraft from Earth to Elysium only to be shot down by order of the station’s evil Defense Secretary, Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster.

     On Earth, the story centers around Max (Matt Damon), a worker in a robot factory with a criminal past.  We see his living conditions up close, a run down concrete shack covered inside and out with dirt and mold.  The Los Angeles interiors reminded me of the wet, brownish mildewy look of Fiorina 161 in “Alien 3”.  While working a routine shift, part of the assembly line malfunctions and Max finds himself trapped in a room that subjects him to a lethal dose of radiation.  Given five days to live, Max goes to his former employer, a hustler named Spider (Wagner Moura), and pleads for a ticket to Elysium.  Spider obliges, but asks Max to be part of a team to take down a business man who is carrying secret codes to Elysium in his head.  To download this information, Max is fitted surgically with a metal exoskeleton suit that is hardwired into his nervous system.  This will allow the team to plug into Max’s brain and put the information in his head.

     After a tour de force of an action sequence involving the heist of the information and the responding military sent by Delacourt to get the information back, the film than loses it’s footing and becomes nothing more than a villain and his ego versus the good guy.  All the cleverness used to set up the first two thirds of the film are wasted giving into the same mindless action that was the undoing of “Man of Steel” earlier this summer.  When the action takes over for the acting, there will always be a problem.

     Many directors like to have actors who appeared in their previous films have roles in their newer ones.  Both Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have been known to do this and most of the time it works.  Sharlto Copley was the lead in Blomkamp’s “District 9”  and his vulnerable, often comic performance was one of many reasons that film was successful.  Here Blomkamp casts him as Kruger, an Earth based assassin working for Delacourt, who as a character needs to exude toughness, but falls way short with his frail skinny body and constant one liners.  He’s the dirty work villain in the story and doesn’t possess the screen presence necessary to match Damon’s already established credibility.  This proves to be a major error since the third act depends so much on Kruger’s ability to menace and instead he merely comes off as cartoonish and easily defeated. Though Damon’s performance is, as expected, spot on, I have to wonder why an actress as accomplished as Jodie Foster would accept such a meager role in a film which clearly wastes her talents.

     The design work and technical aspects of “Elysium” are flawless and full of detail.  Both the realized vision of the lush and bountiful surroundings the wealthy people live with in are in stark contrast to the slums the impoverished live in on Earth.  As I watched the story unfold, knowing the year depicted is 2154, I felt as though the film could easily have passed for today.  There are pockets in every major U.S. city that have living conditions similar to those in the film’s version of Los Angeles and certainly plenty like it in other countries as well.  The film’s “have” versus “have nots” theme is one taken right out of the headlines of the last presidential election with the “1%” arguments brought forth, loathing those who control the majority of this country’s wealth.  When it comes to these political overtones and obvious social commentary, “Elysium” speaks loud and clear.  I only wish Blomkamp would’ve continued his message to the end, rather than stopping in the middle to make room for needless popcorn film action.  GRADE: C