Friday, August 16, 2013

In Theaters: ELYSIUM (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp.  Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Emma Tremblay, Faran Tahir.  (R, 109 mins)

South African writer/director and Peter Jackson protégé Neill Blomkamp follows his acclaimed 2009 hit DISTRICT 9 (does anyone recall that actually getting a Best Picture Oscar nomination?) with another politically-charged sci-fi epic.  ELYSIUM is definitely indicative of a Hollywood blockbuster side of Blomkamp, and the points it makes are much less subtle.  But it's still an engrossing film that shows a slightly more disciplined director (the biggest flaw of DISTRICT 9 is that he never seemed to settle on shooting documentary-style or as a straight narrative) and other than one fight scene that briefly utilizes some ill-advised PS3 camera moves, it's the kind of relentlessly-paced, hard-hitting sci-fi actioner that someone like a James Cameron or a John McTiernan would've made in the 1980s.  Like his mentor, Blomkamp is a director who knows how to use CGI so it doesn't draw attention to its artificiality.  ELYSIUM looks great, the action is non-stop, and while its metaphors are a bit simplistic and not everything in it stands up to hard science logic, it's one of the most entertaining films of the summer.

ELYSIUM opens in a 2154 Los Angeles that makes the 2019 L.A. of  BLADE RUNNER look like the good old days.  Sometime in the early 22nd century, Earth became such an overpopulated, crime-and-disease-infested shithole that the world's wealthiest people (read: the one-percenters) headed to the space station paradise of Elysium, which hovers above the planet.  The privileged of Elysium live in a safe world where there's no crime and things like cancer are easily detected and eradicated upon signs of the first trace by in-home MedPods.  Elysium is off limits to the people of Earth, essentially populated by one massive underclass who live in shantytowns and bombed-out buildings.  Any attempts by refugees to enter Elysium's atmosphere--usually to get to a MedPod to cure a terminal illness--result in immediate apprehension and return to Earth.  That is, until one day when intolerant Elysium defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) decides to make an example of three ships trying to get to Elysium by having them blown up with drone missiles activated by her psychotic Los Angeles-based Elysium sleeper agent Kruger (DISTRICT 9's Sharlto Copley), which gets her on the shit list of Elysium's President Patel (Faran Tahir).  Meanwhile, in L.A., ex-con Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is trying to live a normal life, working on the assembly line at the Elysium-owned Armadyne factory, which manufactures robot security drones to keep order on Earth.  Due to a bullying manager and workplace negligence, Max is exposed to a massive dose of radiation while on the job, and a robot medical tech gives him some painkillers to stay somewhat functional and informs him "You will be dead in five days.  Thank you for your service."

Knowing he can be cured if he can get to Elysium, Max teams up with old crime cohort Julio (Diego Luna) to pull off a job for powerful, fast-talking smuggler/hacker Spider (Wagner Moura).  A gravely-ill Max is fitted with a surgically implanted neurological exoskeleton, wired into his spine and head, which gives him strength and allows him to receive data directly into his brain.  Spider wants Max to retrieve data from Armadyne boss Carlyle (William Fichtner), who possesses a "reboot" code for Elysium that Delacourt wants to use to stage a coup against the sympathetic Patel and run Elysium her own way.  Spider has his reasons for wanting the reboot code, and Max just wants to get to Elysium to cure the cancer rapidly growing inside of him, and both have to deal with an enraged Kruger, who just wants everyone dead.

As you can see, you've got your unsympathetic, selfish one-percenters, the war-mongering defense secretary, critiques of workplace abuse and lack of access to quality health care, and a revolt of the disenfranchised.  Blomkamp's politics are pretty obvious (if, for instance, you think Delacourt is the hero, you might not be Blomkamp's target audience), but he never lets things get too polemical once the action kicks in.  DISTRICT 9 immediately elevated Blomkamp to the big leagues, and he delivers with impressive set pieces, masterful handling of visual effects, and managing a much bigger cast of established actors compared to his previous effort, and it's nice that he brought his pal Copley along with him.  Damon is in fine BOURNE mode once things get serious, and Copley and ELITE SQUAD's Moura (a huge star in his native Brazil) really have some fun chewing the scenery.  Only Foster seems uneasy, due mostly to her performance being re-looped in post-production.  It's her voice, but apparently test audiences didn't like the accent she was using.  Despite her above-the-title billing, Foster doesn't have a lot of screen time, and it's glaringly obvious in some of her close-ups that she's revoicing herself because there's several bits where the words are out of sync with her lip movements.  Maybe there was a script change that necessitated changing some of her dialogue, but it's very uncommon for dubbing in a big-budget American movie to be that sloppy (this was also the case with Svetlana Khodchenkova's performance as Viper in THE WOLVERINE), especially when it involves someone of Foster's stature.  She certainly looks the part, but she just doesn't seem comfortable in the role.  Maybe it's that she probably didn't get to work with most of the major stars except for one brief scene with Copley and Alice Braga--Damon and Foster have no scenes together, and their characters never meet.  It's ultimately a minor quibble about an otherwise fine film--with its release date delayed multiple times by Sony after being shot two years ago--from someone who's all but guaranteed to become a major genre leader in years to come.

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