It’s the old Hollywood story: Foreign-born director makes a dazzling debut in his native land, comes to Los Angeles, quadruples his budget and restricts his uniqueness to appeal to studio bosses and audiences of every possible stripe.
“Elysium” still outstrips summer’s mindless mediocrities, from “The Lone Ranger” to “Pacific Rim.” But after the brilliance of the Oscar-nominated “District 9” four years ago, South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp has come down a peg.
Both films start in similar territory: A man who’s infected with a horrible ailment gets cast out by society and fights to stay alive, while members of the government hunt him down.
Both are about the spiritual decay of a ruling class that quarantines “inferiors” – space aliens in “District 9,” ordinary poor people in “Elysium” – and lets them live in squalor and disease.
But what made “District 9” special was attention to details: You believed in the characters, their society and their surroundings. The big effects in “Elysium” – from the expensive hardware, to the computer-generated imagery sets, to the ambitious general concepts – work fine. But the people never become individuals, and the vagueness and coincidental nature of the storytelling undermine its structure.
Blomkamp sets it in 2154, when the world’s wealthiest people have escaped to a Mecklenburg County-sized space station called Elysium. There, medical devices cure leukemia and reassemble exploded limbs in seconds. Inhabitants, all but one of which are apparently heartless Caucasians, sip champagne and listen to Bach. (Bach! One of the most devout, big-hearted, lovable composers of all time! His heirs should sue.)
Down in Los Angeles, now apparently crammed with brown-skinned people living in filth, reformed ex-con Max (Matt Damon, the token white hero) absorbs deadly radiation in an industrial accident. He determines to go Elysium to get healed but hasn’t money enough to pay Spider (Wagner Moura) to fly up there on an illegal shuttle service.
Max agrees to steal data from the brain of an armaments manufacturer (William Fichtner) so Spider can finance his illicit business. Max accidentally uploads something more valuable into his cerebrum: codes that could allow everyone on Earth to be treated as a citizen of Elysium. Now Elysium’s Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster) and a black-ops hit man (Sharlto Copley) come after him.
Because the characters are so shallow, Blomkamp uses shorthand casting: Foster as an icy powermonger, Fichtner as a sneering swine, Damon as the dogged but decent victim. (Damon infuses Max with personality, nonetheless.)
At the same time, Blomkamp ladles on clichés: a childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) now imperiled, a child at risk, vengeance against rulers who killed Max’s best friend. Copley, so memorable as the stricken bureaucrat in “District 9,” becomes a raging, unmotivated psychopath. (His thick South African accent makes him hard to understand. The Brazilian Moura faces the same problem.)
Blomkamp believes Earth is headed toward ruin, if not overt class warfare: He has said that, in his mind, this movie is a metaphor for current conditions. Even if you agree, it would be easier to believe in Elysium if he explained it more thoroughly, if it seemed like something more complicated than a vast luxury resort in the sky.
Objections, if any, may arise afterward. Blomkamp hasn’t lost his skill in cutting and pacing; Trent Opalach, his director of photography on “District 9,” does an equally good job here depicting blighted urban landscapes; the exceptionally bloody battle scenes have grisly authenticity. (But I did laugh when an Elysian examined a soldier whose entire face had been blown off by a grenade and reported, “No brain damage.”)
In an era when so few big-budget directors have anything to say, Blomkamp still runs ahead of most of that pack. Hollywood-itis does wear off, so I hope he’ll limit his exposure to the moguls and checkbooks of L.A.
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