'Elysium': A smart summer spectacular
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Splitting the difference between powerful and ham-fisted, "Elysium," director Neil Blomkamp's follow-up to his highly praised 2009 sci-fi hit "District 9," is one of the more striking sci-fi spectaculars of the summer. Unlike most such pictures, "Elysium" isn't a superhero story, nor was it adapted from a graphic novel. But that's not to say that what "Elysium" offers isn't familiar. For one thing, its I-have-seen-the-future-of-our-planet-and-boy-is-it-ugly premise takes a page or 10 not just from "District Nine" itself but a host of other bad-future visions, particularly the George Miller-directed movies that began with "Mad Max" back in the late '70s.
In "Elysium," our planet in 2154 or so is so wracked with pollution and garbage that the so-called 1 percent has decamped from it entirely, inhabiting a verdant giant space station called, yep, Elysium. Star Matt Damon plays Max, a working stiff who's got a fairly compelling reason to flout Earth law to get up there. Compelled by a crass boss to put himself in harm's way at the robot factory, Max absorbs a lethal dose of radioactivity and has five days to visit an Elysium all-healing medical bay. What's standing in his way? Only every damn thing. On Earth, it's the former car thief's onetime partners in crime, who include a human smuggler and a data thief who's willing to send Max up if he does One Impossible Job for him. On Elysium, it's a ruthless secretary of defense (Jodie Foster, speaking in a deliberately outrageous accent that forges French and Boer) who sneers at the rule-of-law whinges sometimes emanating from her superiors (as well she should, as they're clearly not in the least sincere). She thinks nothing of shooting sick-kid-filled space shuttles out of the air or using the services of terrestrial lunatic Kruger, who, played by Sharlto Copley, comes on like a South African cross between iconic genre film characters played by Rutger Hauer and Richard Kiel.
As if these obstacles weren't enough, writer-director Blomkamp adds further complications in the form of Max's childhood love from the orphanage where he was raised, Frey (Alice Braga), who's now a nurse and who, surprise, has a terminally ill daughter who herself could benefit from Elysium's miracle health coverage. And then there's the fact that Max, kitted out in a painful-looking exoskeleton by his former friends, in addition has in his brain the data that can "reboot" the entire Elysium operating system, data that both sides of the class war are very eager to get their hands on.
Like "District 9," an aliens-among-us parable concerning Blomkamp's home country of South Africa, "Elysium" is a sci-fi allegory, obvious enough that it's already causing affected sniffles of disapproval from "Avengers" partisans who want to demonstrate that they are so kind of smart. Whatever. As loud and overpowering as the movie often was, it got its hooks in me, and I found Blomkamp's effects and action chops vital enough to keep me engrossed even as I cerebrally registered my irritation at yet another reluctant-hero scenario. It doesn't hurt that Blomkamp is a filmmaker who seems as inclined to quote "Zabriskie Point" as he is "2001: A Space Odyssey" and that, for as much as he indulges in the least likable tendencies of so-called "chaos cinema" in his action scenes, he also imbues those scenes with sufficient emotional juice to suggest that he's trying to have things both ways in a good way. So while the movie's finale didn't move me in the way it clearly intended, I still bought it on a certain level, and left the theater more satisfied than I have under similar genre circumstances all summer. And with my ears ringing.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.