Elysium

Mommy, I've got wuekemia
★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2013
Director: 
Neill Blomkamp
Starring: 
Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
The Setup: 
The class divide rendered in juvenile science fiction allegory.
Discussion: 

Now, something is screwed up, because I KNOW I saw the trailer for this in 3D, while the movie itself is NOT in 3D. That's false advertising. This is the next movie by Neill Blomkamp, who directed the nicely-diverting District 9, which also featured an us-vs-them allegory that somehow worked a lot better there, and also had a nicely dirty, impeccably-integrated special effects. Here, the metaphor is even MORE on the surface, even MORE obvious, leading to reviews saying that the message is "rendered in bold italics, underlined and highlighted," as well as my favorite, that the film is "like having lunch with Sean Penn."

The year is 2154. Because of overpopulation and stuff (climate change is not mentioned), the rich have repaired to the titular space station, which is uniformly covered with mansions and manicured lawns, looking like a vast country club, and L.A., which is covered as far as the eye can see with run-down shacks. We open with flashbacks to Max, who will grow to become Matt Damon, confiding his dreams to go up there with Frey, who will grow to be Alice Braga. In the present day, Max is a former criminal now making an honest living in a repair shop. He is accosted by robot police on the way to work, and is snide them, and receives a sadistic beating. This was the first misstep, and it comes in the first ten minutes: why would robots be sadistic? Because they're COPS, that's why! Evil fuckin' pigs, man, android or not! And also, why would Max be smarting off to the sadistic robot cops that he deals with every day? Is he stupid? Apparently.

Meanwhile, we meet Jodie Foster as Delacourt, secretary of defense of Elysium. You see, everyone on Elysium has these glorified tanning beds that cure their every health problem, while the poor on Earth have virtually no health care. Adding insult to injury is the fact that only the people of Elysium, called "citizens," can use the beds, and any "illegals" who get there from Earth are denied care. And why does all this happen? Because the rich are fuckin' DICKS, man. They HATE the poor. Anyway, three "undocumented" ships make a run for Elysium, and Delacourt has them shot down by Kruger, her sexy agent on Earth, whom she employs in secret. Delacourt is then brought before the council, where we learn that her methods are considered far too extreme and violent by the governance of Elysium, marking her as the Dick Cheney of the skies. But then, what does the council think? They just want to throw the doors open? And if so, why don't they? Thing is, we don't know what their position is, because the whole angle is massively underdeveloped, creating a huge hole in the complete picture this metaphor would require in order to be effective.

So Delacourt calls Carlyle, played by the sleazy smarminess of William Fincher, a defense contractor on Earth, and offers him years of contracts if he engineers a coup on Elysium that will allow Delacourt to seize control. I wish they had called Carlyle's company Walliburton or Shalliburton, but that is the rare touch Bompkamp restrained himself from. Max, it would hap, works for Carlyle's company, assembling robots--the very same robots that oppress him! How does the truth feel IN YOUR FACE?!? There is an accident, where Max is ordered to go into a dangerous area because his boss cares about PROFITS, not HUMANITY, and Max receives a deadly dose of radiation. WHY would the company need to douse its robots in radiation? Kindly refrain from asking. Now, Max has five days to live. The one touch I liked is when Carlyle comes down to talk to the evil manager and barks "Don't breathe on me!" Max is given a bunch of pills and told "See ya!"

So Max goes to his old underground buddy to get up to Elysium and pop in one of those healing tanning beds. In exchange, they want him to wear this mechanical exoskeleton that will let him download what's in Carlyle's head, which will help them do something, something important, no doubt, and also give Max super-strength for any awesome action scenes that may follow. They promptly shoot Carlyle's handsome red spaceship down, and have this cool laser they can change shapes from rhombus to trapezoid on, and have it burn through the hole in that shape. They get Carlyle, but who should arrive but Kruger, and as a shootout commences, Max downloads what's in Carlyle's head. More shootout and fight, and most are killed except Max, who escapes. In here, you've seen Max crush a car door with his super-hand, but here's the thing: if you had a machine pushing your hand to the point that it bent steel, wouldn't it crush your hand in the process? Just rhetorical, although the question hangs over the entire movie.

SPOILERS > > >
Max goes to Frey's house, and finds out: she has a daughter! She also has rather nicer digs than I would have expected, and a car, so it seems some people on Earth are doing okay. When she turned on the tap I noticed that this film hasn't addressed climate change and the all-but-certain water scarcity we'll face by 2154, and is certain to be a special problem for L.A. Frey wants to take her daughter, who has Leukemia, up to a tanning bed, and fix some thing so it'll recognize her as a citizen, and says no, but then the daughter whips out her freshest "heartrenderingly adorable pitter-patter," and he relents. She's not insufferable for the rest of the movie, but every time she appeared onscreen I expected her to say "Mommy? I have Weukemia."

Then! The rebels realize the enormity of the download they got from Carlyle! Then! Max signals to Kruger's ship, and allows himself to be captured. And some how Frey and daughter are on board, too? As well as key rebels? I forgot how. Then! Max lets off a grenade and they crash-land on Elysium (whose sky remains open and yet retains atmosphere, somehow). Delecourt has some sharp attitude for Kruger, but frankly, I'd watch the sass with a sadistic psychopath with a reason to want you dead, as she soon realizes. And: bye, Jodie Foster! Too bad you had almost nothing to do in your role except speak in a fucking dumb accent.

Kruger is the all-too rare desert-dwelling, filth-encrusted renegade psychopath whose smile gleams with the radiant light of pearly white teeth. He is rendered as a pure force of sadism, and with his nice thick black beard and snarling enjoyment of just being mean, he's pretty much boyfriend material. Anyway, Frey takes the girl to the tanning bed, and Max tries to log in, but is distracted by having to have rock-em, sock-em fights with Kruger. There's also a dash of samurai honor and swordplay, just it's just an accent. Then Max makes the ultimate sacrifice, only since he was going to die anyway? Oh, I guess he was hoping to hop into a tanning bed himself. Anyway, he makes everyone on Earth a citizen, which immediately dispatches ships to Earth with twenty tanning beds each, at which point the triumph is undercut by questions of: so why were the rich hoarding all these machines? Because the rich are MEAN, see?
< < < SPOILERS END

Well, I was hoping for more. What could have been a juicy satire undoes itself by merely coming off as juvenile and simplistic. The rich have endless health care, and they deny it to the poor out of pure cruelty. Why does every home on Elysium need a tanning bed? And if they have so many extras, Earth literally can't have even one? Because the rich are just mean-spirited? And the whole thing brings up so many questions: like what do the inhabitants of Elysium feel about this? It's often the rich who are the most bleeding heart liberals--and none of them care about the people on Earth? We don't know, because we never get to know an Elysium inhabitant or what they think. Aren't they bored? Do ALL of them like country-club style mansions? Not one of them prefers shabby chic? If they all live forever, can they have kids? What do the kids think? We briefly glimpse a council that doesn't want Earth people shot down, but what, then, do they want?

This is the rare movie that needed to be longer because it just packs in so much it doesn't take the time to deal with. We've barely grasped the social situation before Delacourt is trying to take it down, which then isn't drawn in enough detail for us to grasp the stakes. Then there's Max's revolutionary friends, and what are they trying to accomplish? How does Frey have a job and a house and a car while everyone else lives in shacks? There's just so much going on and while some movies can coast on suggestions that let us fill in details, this movie just has so many threads and conflicting motivations they just continue to raise questions, and by the time it's wrapping up, one has lost interest instead or growing more involved.

So, a disappointment. Blomkamp does continue to expertly integrate special effects into a shabby world in a convincing way, and he tantalizingly sets up a number of visuals and situations... that he then doesn't take the time to flesh out or deal with. It's a bummer and there's no reason to rush to the theater to see it, and really not much reason to see it at all.

Should you watch it: 

You can skip it.