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Elysium: District 9 from Outer Space

by Angel Cohn August 9, 2013 6:00 am
<I>Elysium</I>: District 9 from Outer Space

In a cinematic landscape that is currently riddled with visions of Earth at its worst, Elysium rises to the top. That said, it doesn't quite ever reach the emotional heights that writer/director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (about aliens forced into slums) managed with ease. It seems that in order to do flashier effects for this big blockbuster feature, Blomkamp lost the magic that made his first feature film so impactful. Still, if we had to pick a recent film about a dystopia to sit through again, Elysium would definitely beat out the likes of Oblivion and After Earth. If only for the most kick-ass Matt Damon fight scene since that time he beat someone up with a rolled-up magazine.

As a child, Max (Maxwell Perry Cotton, who might have actually been cloned from Damon's genetic material given the striking resemblance) is quite aware of the fact that he lives on the crappy remains of what's left of earth after its been mined of all its resources. He lives in a rundown orphanage and the overcrowded and impoverished community is just dusty and depressing. He befriends fellow orphan Frey (who teaches him to read) and together they dream that someday they will be able to afford a trip to the sky paradise known as Elysium. The protected circular community floats out in Earth's orbit, almost like a second moon, and is filled with the government and all of the richest people who live in the lap of luxury while the poor people are forced to exist in trying conditions. It's not the most subtle metaphor, and done far more clumsily than the far more eloquent social commentary in District 9.

In 2154, Max (Damon) dreams less and works more. He went through a phase of stealing cars and is now miserably accepting of his dead-end job creating androids. Trouble still seems to find him, especially with his police-issued tracking device, and he ends up with an injured arm for being slightly sarcastic to a robotic cop. After an interaction with a robotic parole officer, he heads to the hospital and is reunited with Frey (Alice Braga) who has recently returned and is being over-worked as a nurse in a packed hospital. He's thrilled to see his old friend, but she's guarded and short with him because of her secret young daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who is fighting a losing battle with cancer.

While struggling to work with his injured arm, Max ends up getting a lethal dose of radiation after he's trapped in a locked room while the droids are undergoing processing. For his trouble, he's given some potent medication that will help with the nausea symptoms, but told it will only be a matter of days before he's dead. Big boss man John Carlyle (a perfectly slimy William Fichtner) is far from sympathetic and has Max escorted out. Carlyle has bigger things on his mind, mostly in the form of helping Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) create a program that will stage a coup of Elysium and oust the existing president in favor of Delacourt.

Max realizes that his only hope of survival is getting to Elysium, where they have these magical tanning bed-looking things that can fix any illness or injury in about five seconds flat. He enlists the help of his loyal friend Julio (Diego Luna) and approaches the shady Spider (Wagner Moura) to arrange transportation. But the cost is high, and comes with the risk of their transport vehicle being shot down by Elysium, so Spider wants Max to hijack some information from the brain of an Elysium resident. Max quickly agrees, so long as that brain belongs to Carlyle. In order to do this, a weakened Max needs an exoskeleton in order to support him. After a risky plan, with some casualties, Max gets the information, but Delacourt is pissed about it. She gets rogue Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt down Max and retrieve the valuable reboot code that is currently residing inside Max's brain.

Max finds Frey at the hospital and begs for help, she takes him to her house, and introduces him to Matilda and begs for him to find a way to get her young child to one of those invaluable medical beds to cure her cancer. But Kruger quickly finds him and the action amps up dramatically in some pretty visually impressive ways.

Damon's acting and action abilities are the glue that hold this film together, but the uneven and confusing relationship between Max and Frey lacks any real chemistry, and even the unnecessary replaying of them together as kids doesn't improve that fact. It was easier to be more invested in the friendship between Julio and Max than it was to muster enthusiasm for anything between the childhood chums. Meanwhile, Foster's character is extremely underdeveloped -- she's merely there as a megalomaniac villainess who wants control over Elysium at any cost, and her minion Kruger is also just hell-bent on his mission statement without a lot of backstory behind him.

In addition to the character development, we'd have appreciated more time spent on the science-fiction aspects of Elysium (like why it was created in that particular shape, if the high rollers live forever and why the residents speak sporadic French). And while Earth looks just like a barren wilderness from above, on the ground the conditions don't look all that significantly different that many current places on the planet. Perhaps that was Blomkamp's point, and given the heavy-handedness in which all the other Robin Hood-esque storylines play out, it wouldn't surprise us. And though we enjoyed Elysium for what it was for the duration of the film (which is blissfully just at two hours and not a minute over) and even admire portions of it, it isn't the sort of film that is going to resonate with us long-term . Hopefully for his next work, Blomkamp can find a way to more seamlessly blend his particular brand of science-fiction/social commentary with the demands of a summer blockbuster.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

Check out Elysium: The Art of the Film from Titan Books.

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