Aug 10, 2013

It is August, after all; the movie could be much worse . . .


Grade: B-

Director: Neill Blomkamp (District 9)

Screenplay: Blomkamp

Cast: Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs)

Rating: R

Runtime: 108 min. by John DeSando

Elysium is a Kubrick/Clarke-like 2001 spoked wheel hovering over and tormenting the L.A. underclass still suffering in the environmentally-challenged earth of 2054. Writer-director Neill Blompkamp has another gritty, chaotic future like his acclaimed District 9, only this time he hews closer to traditional sci-fi with bald political parallels to 2013 and pervasive fighting to the exclusion of the more cerebral possibilities of the intriguing premise. Put simply, the have’s are flying high while the have not’s are miserable in an underworld recalling the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

“Cerebral” is how I would characterize Kubrick’s sci-fi; “visceral” is what I see in Blomkamp’s. Like our dreams of paradise, that place must be better. In Elysium it is manifestly so: The rich have set up a gated community in the sky where all their needs are taken care of, especially medical because they can be cured immediately by their individual health-care machines and virtually live forever—not available on earth.

The didactic implications of stern immigration laws on Elysium coupled with a lack of universal health care on earth provides Elysium with enough allegorical ammunition to keep three of these movies going. Alas, violence dominates as it usually does in contemporary sci-fi.

Those allegorical implications are almost heavy-handed: Earth is over-populated, minorities are now the majority, and the rich have become so rich they can abandon earth and live isolated from the woes of working people and an over-burdened planet. Enter hero Max (post-apocalyptic Mad Max?), played by the durable and always intelligent Matt Damon, a good-hearted ex-thief on the right path, who needs to get to Elysium to stop his imminent death from radiation. Saddled with a desire to help the ailing daughter of a life-long friend, Frey (Alice Braga), Max has a reason to subvert the ruling class on Elysium and enfranchise him and the rest of the abandoned earth.

The premise is 2001-worthy, but the execution is dominated by the old chase motif with accompanying fisticuffs that last forever. Why not, like 2001, have a few fighting apes and then an ominous monolith or two? Suspense and satisfaction don’t need to rely on violence. Nor does Jodie Foster as defense secretary Delacourt need to rely on a French accent so flawed as to be distracting from her thespian excellence (remember agent Starling?)

While hand-to-hand combat still seems absurd in a world where a scanning machine can cure you of what ails, even death, Blomkamp falls into the modern CGI obsession of combat rather than wit. Still, this is August, and an intelligent actioner with figurative possibilities is a minor gift. I’ll take it and dream of an Elysium where Oscar-worthy films appear each month, not just in December.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at