Movie: Elysium; Director: Neill Blomkamp; Studio: TriStar Pictures; Rating: R; Flint's finding: 3 out of 5 stars.
For some reason, I was hugely excited to see "Elysium."
A few hours after seeing it, though, the entire plot and major messages contained in Neill Blomkamp's second feature had already seeped out of my brain. That's a testament to the problems with style over substance on display here. It's disappointing, too, because Blomkamp has great visions for his movies.
In 2009's "District 9," the native South African director created an extremely memorable allegory to the apartheid that ravaged his country for so long by casting aliens as the oppressed rather than the native Africans. They were rounded up and put through concentration camps and were controlled in every way.
But there was fun to be had there nonetheless.
Satire and passion seemed weaved through every scene. The same can't be said about "Elysium." This film is a deathly serious take: this time, on how different classes are treated (the so called "have and have nots," right?). In addition, it is viewed through the lens of the injustices of harsh treatment of immigrants.
The Los Angeles of 2154, according to "Elysium," looks quite like the slums of places like Sao Paulo, Brazil, or Dubai, India. Endless little houses that all appear cast from the same lifeless gray and dull brown that excites nobody.
The city, which speaks in a mixture of Spanish and English, suggests an un-escapable poverty. And that's what it is, because all the people fortunate enough to have the means to escape the extreme pollution and overpopulation that has largely destroyed the beauty of the surface of the earth have all already moved.
Their new home is Elysium, a
beautiful ring world constructed as a space station on the outside, with imported earth and plant life within the ring that produces a breathable atmosphere. Every home is a beautiful marvel of modern and classical architecture, all overlooking perfectly maintained lawns and crystal clear waters.
Some of the richest people on Earth now don't enjoy the amenities lazily lapped up by these residents. They have the greatest medical care ever dreamed of on a day bed in each home. Whether crow's feet on the eyes showing your age or cancer eating away your insides, all can be taken care of within seconds on the medical marvel machine.
The children left on Earth watch that floating ring above with envy and an unwavering dream of also getting to live there.
Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a heavily tattooed laborer with a past history of violence and theft convictions, was one of those children when he was raised in an orphanage run by nuns. He once promised Frey (Alice Braga, of 2007's "I Am Legend") that he would move them both there after she wrote "M + F" forever on his hand between childhood reading sessions.
But that dream, like everyone else's shared dream, seemed to die as the world brought them down.
Frey is now a nurse in one of the run-down Earth hospitals and Max works a dangerous factory job creating the very same security robots that beat him down at the slightest hint of disobedience or even a sarcastic attitude.
That playfulness is a trademark of Damon's that has helped to make him one of the top movie stars of today. A likeable everyman through and through is what he is, but, save for a few key scenes, Blomkamp deprives him of his trademarks and makes him so dark and dour as to make him nearly unrecognizable, personality-wise.
Of course, if your body is juiced to the brim with radiation as Max's is, you'd be pretty dark and dour, too. It's the death sentence of the radiation that renews his dream of getting to Elysium at all costs.
So he goes to Spider (Wagner Moura, of Brazilian television), a crime lord and hacker that can provide shuttle service to Elysium for a heavy price.
That's how Max becomes entangled in a massive conspiracy conducted by a bloodthirsty secretary of defense for Elysium, Delacourt (a misused Jodie Foster), and the founder and CEO of the robotics company Max works for (William Fichtner, playing a much more clean villain than he did in this year's "Lone Ranger") to instate Delacourt as the President of Elysium.
She feels the current president is too soft on immigration, and apparently the CEO doesn't like the idea of human bodies littering the pristine lawns of Elysium after being shot down by Delacourt's henchmen while in transit. He'd prefer to just send them back.
So, Spider has Max make his payment in service. He is to have a computer implanted in his brain so he can upload mentally stored information carried by the executive before he makes his return to Earth. Despite some pills to keep Max's body from deteriorating too fast before he succumbs to the radiation, he is still weak and needs a robotic exoskeleton installed to help him with his quest.
This is the nastiest part of the movie. This delicate procedure, in which the nasty metal is grafted into his brain and spine, is not done by actual surgeons but by Spider's filthy hired guns and old greasy tools.
These first two acts of the film are absolutely gorgeous in the way they are shot and paced, but the movie does eventually succumb to the same dumb action sequences needed in order to produce a certifiable blockbuster. It's too bad that the third act, where we get to see just how awful Jodie Foster is at playing a war-hawk bureaucrat, doesn't keep with the grittiness of the first two, which were all about character.
Sure, there's awesome grit in which someone gets their face blown off with a grenade and also when a grafted exoskeleton is ripped from the brain, but the rest is all hand-held fighting and plot holes.
The movie is certainly recommended as an enjoyable action movie but it fails to meet the heights it wanted to set. It simply pales in comparison to "District 9." Let's hope Blomkamp regains his sense of humor.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts & Entertainment section.)