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'Elysium' looks pretty, lacks depth

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Associate Editor, Weekender

AUGUST 08, 2013

The last time we saw Neill Blomkamp, he was fresh off the success of “District 9,” the 2009 summer sleeper hit that combined slick visuals and action with biting social commentary. Four years ago seems like an awfully long time.

“Elysium” is a good movie the same way “Twilight” is a classic novel — which is to say it’s not.

Set in 2154, the future of humanity is grim. Well, grim is relative; if you’re one of the unlucky proles stuck on Earth, then you live in a desertlike world that looks like a mixture of East Jerusalem and set pieces from “Mad Max.” If you’re of the wealthy upper crust, then you live on Elysium — a biosphere qua space station whose immigration czar and defense secretary is played by an unusually dull Jodie Foster.

There is no subtlety in either “Elysium” — the fictional space palace nor the film writ large. In the movie, “undocumented ships” routinely try to break through the atmosphere and drop off their cargo. I say “cargo” here because there are no actual people in Elysium or on Earth. Instead, we have sacks of flesh that traverse the screen, brandishing tricked-out weapons and spaceships that compete for our attention with the oh-so-awful plot.

Our story begins before 2154, when a young Max (Matt Damon) and Frey (Alice Braga) hold hands and attend Catholic school in the ruins of Los Angeles. Max promises to take Frey to Elysium one day, and the rest of the movie is spent unpacking the consequences of this promise. Reinserted decades later, Max is a reformed car thief looking to move up at his assembly-line job, and Frey is a nurse. Max is in an accident and needs to go to Elysium for a cure, and Frey gets roped in with the allure of healing her daughter, who is sick with leukemia.

Yes there are all the annoyingly obvious class-war, Occupy-style plot devices. And yes, it is possible that you went into the wrong theater and have sat down and begun watching the most recent Michael Bay “Transformers” installment. But at its core, and despite its best efforts to distract from those tangential details with poor plotting and marvelous special effects, Elysium is really just another distinctly Hollywood take on post-apocalyptic Earth.

For instance, on Elysium, there are MRI-like beds that you can climb onto that will heal all of your ailments in about 30 seconds. To use them, you’ll need a handy-dandy citizenship stamp, which people who have never been to Elysium apparently know how to forge on Earth, but never mind that minor detail. What’s really irritating here is that somehow, a planet that was able to cure all diseases with a futuristic Sealy also let itself slide into ruinous inequality and war. OK.

I’d ordinarily let a small thing like that slip by (it’s sci-fi, duh), except the movie is filled with them. The upper classes on Elysium interchangeably speak French and English, as if the former is uniquely a language of sophistication and the Spanish-English spoken down below is the real language of the people. Moving past the medical technology issues, it also appears that reducing entire languages to crude cultural stereotypes (French fancy, Spanish gritty, English common, etc.) is a sufficient way to illustrate differences between the lives lived below and up top.

And so on.

“Elysium” was made for $100 million, money surely thrown at Blomkamp after the success of “District 9,” which made him the toast of the film world. And although I’m not pleased to say this, “Elysium” is hardly a follow-up worth watching for a filmmaker with the potential of Blomkamp.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected].

AUGUST 07, 2013

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