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Review: ‘Elysium’

Max (Matt Damon) attempts to help his former childhood friend Frey (Alice Bra...

Credit: Sony Pictures

Above: Max (Matt Damon) attempts to help his former childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) in "Elysium."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Elysium."


It’s a crowded field of movies opening this weekend with R-rated films ("Elysium," "We Are the Millers," "Lovelace") facing off against family friendly fare ("Planes," "Percy Jackson"). "Elysium" (opening August 9 throughout San Diego) is the biggest and noisiest of the lot.

If you’ve been going to the movies recently you might think the planet is in constant peril from aliens ("The World's End"), zombies ("World War Z"), and even a Biblical apocalypse ("This is the End"). “Elysium” serves up an earth so polluted, ravaged, and diseased that all the rich folks have moved to a resort-style refuge on a space station known as Elysium. It’s a class system where the citizens on the space station chat in French, but the non-citizens struggling to survive below speak mostly in Spanish. The world we are presented with looks like an exaggerated version of present day sweat shops, bad (or in this case non-existent) medical care, and a socio-economic system designed to keep the poor in poverty and the rich in a bubble.

The non-citizens also try to cross the "border" by buying illegal passage on shuttles that try to sneak onto the space station. But ruthless Elysium's Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) isn't about to let anything land on her outer space paradise. The only problem is that when you create a class of people so desperate and downtrodden that they feel like they have nothing to lose, they will risk anything that holds the slightest promise of change. That's where Max (Matt Damon) comes in and challenges the status quo and its class divisions.

South African director Neil Blomkamp painted a similarly divided future in his first film “District 9.” That’s probably what prompted Hollywood to tap him for this summer sci-fi actioner. But while “District 9” raged with originality, “Elysium” smacks of little more than trite formula. You pretty much know everything that will happen within the opening minutes of the film. The heavy dose of Western Christian (and specifically quite Catholic) ideology of the opening lays out the sacrifices that will be made. We have the angelic Alice Braga and her daughter on one side, and the evil trinity of Jodie Foster (representing the government), William Finchtner (standing in for corrupt, uncaring corporations), and Sharlto Copley (as a symbol of military extremism) on the other. And since this is designed as a summer blockbuster, we can pretty much figure out what will happen.

Photo caption: Sharlto Copley as a crazed mercenary/agent in "Elysium."

Photo credit: Sony Pictures

Sharlto Copley as a crazed mercenary/agent in "Elysium."

Set in the 22nd century, the film has some nice effects but nothing to rival the clever futuristic design of “District 9,” which had less than a third of this film’s $100 million budget. But then on "District 9" Blomkamp didn't have to budget for personal chefs for any of his actors, he could just focus on the film and its story. Sadly, talented directors who come from independent filmmaking often falter when given a big budget. The increased funds result in less creativity and more suits watching over what's happening on the set. Neither of which is good. Blomkamp delivers a serviceable film but one that lacks the energy and freshness of his first project.

The only spark of interest to carry over from Blomkamp's freshman effort is Sharlto Copley. Copley had the lead in "District 9" and plays the wacked mercenary Kruger in "Elysium." Copley's scenes (as well as the ones with Finchtner) are the only moments when the film has any fire in its belly and can hold our interest. The rest of it is lame, predictable, and puffed up with a misplaced sense of seriousness. I have to admit that ever since seeing the "Elysium" trailers, I kept thinking of how Guy Pearce would have been a much better choice than Damon. Not only does Damon's Max have tattoos that remind me of Pearce's character in "Memento," but Pearce's recent performance in "Lockout" just seems to be the perfect prep for this role. If Pearce had taken the lead here, we might be talking about a very different film.

But “Elysium” does tap into the very real anger about the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. So it may be a popcorn movie but it hits a nerve about the discontent growing among the have-nots, a discontent that could lead to civil unrest. But not to worry, it’s just a movie. Right?

"Elysium" is rated R for for strong bloody violence and language throughout.

Companion viewing: "District 9," "Children of Men," "Lockout"

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