In the sci-fi thriller Elysium, tattooed ex-con Max (Matt Damon) is detained and beaten by robotic police officers while on his way to work. Once he gets to the job its revealed his assembly line duty involves making robotic police officers.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
That sums up South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamps relationship with Hollywood. Blomkamp earned Oscar nominations for his visionary 2009 epic District 9. But now accountable for a $100 million budget and A-list stars, hes been pounded into cookie-cutter submission by the industry.
Despite some terrific action scenes, Elysium is held back by its predictable plot, questionable casting and overly glossy presentation. It feels like an enormous missed opportunity.
In Los Angeles of 2154, Earths wealthiest inhabitants have fled the planet to protect their way of life. They enjoy that life in the circular space station Elysium, free from crime, poverty or disease. Meanwhile, the surface world is a sprawling ghetto.
The population is constantly attempting to access the utopia, much to the annoyance of frosty Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has no problem shooting down shuttles filled with illegal aliens. Whenever a problem needs to disappear, she merely has to call rogue sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
After radiation exposure at his job leaves Max a walking dead man, he vows to invade the citadel to access its medical advances. Complicating matters is childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse with a terminally ill daughter (Emma Tremblay).
Can this one man bring equality to the whole planet?
If the setup feels a tad familiar, its because an episode of the original Star Trek series called The Cloud Minders is nearly identical. Then again, District 9 owed a lot to the movie and subsequent TV show Alien Nation. But Blomkamp (a former 3-D animator) found a way to present District 9 as a fresh allegory about racism. Although flirting with anti-immigration themes, Elysium follows a multiplex road map that never veers from what its 30-second trailer implies.
The hero (a morose Damon trying his best to play a streetwise thug) sticks to his mission and does what heroes are supposed to do. So do the bad guys. None of the characters are revealed to be different from who they initially appear to be.
This works against Foster and Copley the most because they are introduced as cardboard villains. In her power suits and a haircut that looks styled by a robot, the customarily amazing Foster grasps for meaning to her character. Copley (who played the lead in District 9) is simply miscast as the wide-eyed psycho sleeper agent. Hes inexplicably bent on tormenting complete stranger Max, even when this course offers no benefit for the operative.
District 9 implied Blomkamp was best suited to exploring social issues in a futuristic setting. After Elysium, its clear his greatest forte is staging gunfights. The films standout centerpiece involves Max and some neighborhood crime buddies attempting to hijack a shuttle containing a Mitt Romney-esque executive (William Fichtner) and his robotic bodyguards. This chaotic matchup offers a marvel of guerrilla tactics vs. future-tech might. Its worth the price of admission.
The sequence proves Blomkamp is comfortable with grittiness, yet much of Elysium wastes time on artsiness. Multiple slow-motion flashbacks to Max and Freys orphaned upbringing kill the forward momentum. Sweeping orchestral flourishes create distance instead of intimacy. Like the floating satellite of the title, the movie provides a beautiful, safe emptiness.
Elysium boasts three times the budget of District 9, but it has a third of the passion.