Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Competent But Uncompelling ELYSIUM, This Week's Sci-Fi Summer Flick

Now playing at nearly every multiplex in America:

ELYSIUM (Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his 2009 Oscar-nominated DISTRICT 9, a late addition to this summer’s sci-fi spectacular sweepstakes, is #1 at the box office right now. It’s also received better reviews than the likewise themed OBLIVION, and AFTER EARTH (that last one wasn’t too hard), but it still felt all too routine to me. 

Set in the dystopian future (is there ever any other kind of future in the movies?) of 2154, in which Earth has become a third world planet, with the rich people having relocated to the luxurious orbital habitat of the title. “Elysium” looks like the bicycle-wheel shaped space station in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY, except that it contains a lush green utopia in which violins are always playing, while well dressed people lounge around sipping wine all day.

Sporting a shaved head, and careful not to flash his blinding grin too often, Matt Damon stars as an earth-dwelling ex-con who has dreamed of going to Elysium since he was a kid played by Maxwell Perry Cotton. Damon pines for Alice Braga as a nurse with a daughter (Emma Tremblay) dying of leukemia. Braga wants to take Tremblay to the luxurious city in the sky, because every mansion there is equipped with Med Pods, magic medicine machines identical to the auto-surgery machines in PROMETHEUS, that can cure any disease.

After getting radiation poisoning from an accident at his factory job, and learning he will die in 5 days if not treated, Damon makes a deal with a shaggy smuggler (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura), that involves stealing valuable info from the mind of evil Elysium CEO (a suitably chilling William Fichtner).

The real villain of this bloated action exercise is Sharlto Copley, who was the hero in DISTRICT 9, but here is an over-the-top mercenary agent, working for a ruthless Jodie Foster as the power-hungry Secretary of Defense.

Running around in a role that doesn’t require a lot of acting, Damon puts in a workmanlike performance (much of it outfitted in a heavy robotic exoskeleton), but the energetically ragged Moura steals the show as the smuggler/revolutionary “Spider.” If only the movie had the passion and edge to equal Moura’s.

In noisy MAD MAX-style fight-scenes and chases, the sun-splashed CGI is convincing, but the story that’s supposed to immerse us into all this spectacle is sorely lacking. Nothing that Damon, Moura, and Braga face when they get to Elysium amounts to much, and Sharlto’s yelling of his simplistic and clichéd dialogue kept getting on my nerves.

Foster’s odd accent that made me think she may have studied Carrie Fisher’s weird half British, half American accent in STAR WARS (still not calling it A NEW HOPE! Never!), and her character’s arc is really underdeveloped.

That’s another element that makes it seem like Blomkamp should’ve written another draft of the screenplay before going into production. The political perspective is nowhere as polished as in DISTRICT 9, and the over-formulaic feel of the narrative is hard to shake.

Still, in Moura’s performance, the fast frantic pacing (it certainly isn’t boring), and the effective imagery, there may be enough pluses to make it worth matinee admission.

ELYSIUM is a competent, but uncompelling popcorn picture, but in these Dog Days of summer, it may be one of your best bets at the multiplex.

More later...

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