By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 10, 2013)
It’s tempting to take the political allegory in Neill Blomkamp’s new sci-fi action adventure Elysium and run with it. But I am going to take the high road. I’m not going to shoot you a Palin-esque wink as I tell you the year is 2154, and the human race is reduced to two classes: the super-rich, who have ensconced themselves in a glorified gated community called Elysium (a gargantuan bio-domed space station in Earth’s orbit) and the rest of humanity, who have been ghettoized back on Earth, which has fallen into ecological and economic ruin.
The Earth rabble try to infiltrate the 1 per-centers’ big wheel in the sky via “illegal” shuttle crafts, but those lucky enough make it past Elysium’s formidable Star Wars missile defense system and land are captured by police droids and deported back to Earth (note I’m still keeping a straight face). Screw it. I reveled in the political allegory.
I especially reveled in Jodie Foster’s turn as Elysium’s icy Secretary Delacourt, who usurps the President’s ineffectual requests to take it down a notch on these strident Homeland Security measures (and if she didn’t base her characterization on Governor Jan Brewer, then Stephen Colbert actually is a conservative pundit).
Meanwhile, back in the States, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works at a dreary droid manufacturing plant in L.A. The Los Angeles of 2154 resembles a giant favela (it makes the Blade Runner rendition of the City of Angels seem Utopian). Nearly everyone speaks Spanish (now…settle). Those lucky enough to have a job are mercilessly exploited by their employers (I said: settle!). While there are hospitals, they are understaffed and ill-equipped to treat catastrophic illnesses; whereas on Elysium, every mansion come equipped with a miracle medical appliance that seems to cure everything from paper cuts to cancer via cellular regeneration.
All of these mitigating factors are about to converge into a perfect shit storm for our protagonist. A work accident exposes Max to a lethal amount of radiation. He’s told he has 5 days to live and given a bottle of painkillers. His only chance for a cure is on Elysium.
Desperate, he reaches out to an old acquaintance (Wagner Moura), now a successful smuggler, to see if he can arrange passage. As Max is somewhat short on funds, the smuggler offers a trade deal. If Max does a special “job” for him, he’ll get him on a shuttle. Max agrees, but the gig goes south, and he’s on the run from an odious mercenary (Sharlto Copley) who does covert operations for Secretary Delacourt.
What ensues is a mashup of Escape from New York with Seven Days in May (granted, Max is no Snake Plissken, but he’s in the same ball park). As he did in his 2009 feature film debut District 9, Blomkamp deftly delivers a strong political message and slam-bang sci-fi action entertainment all in one package. While Damon is unquestionably the star, I think Copley (who seems to be establishing a Scorcese-De Niro/Herzog-Kinski type partnership with the director) nearly steals the movie with his deliriously over-the-top performance (his character is the best scene-stealing sci-fi heavy since Dennis Hopper and his eye patch played to the back of the house in Waterworld).
Oh, by the way…the best part about this film is that the real show hasn’t even started yet. There is an unmistakable, marvelously unapologetic pro-Obamacare message in the denouement that is surely going to leave the “Aha! It’s another piece of Hollywood lefty socialist propaganda!” crowd apoplectic and sputtering with impotent rage. They are going to go absolutely spare (if they haven’t gone so already). Personally, I can’t wait. Pass the popcorn…
Film makers who aim to create “realistic” sci-fi dramas are faced with a conundrum: While it may be true that “It’s not about ‘destination’, but rather the journey”, an inconvenient truth remains…real life space journeys are tedious (Apollo 13 aside). Even our nearest interstellar travel destination (the Moon) takes 4 days (I don’t know about you, but I get antsy after 4 hours on a plane). So if you want to do a realistic film about a Jupiter mission, how do you add drama? OK, Kubrick did it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that set a high bar.
To their credit, for about two-thirds of their hyper-realistic sci-fi drama Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero and screenwriter Philip Gelatt seem headed for that bar. Framing the narrative with the “found footage” gimmick, the film is a faux-documentary that “reconstructs” a privately-funded mission to Jupiter’s moon of Europa to probe for signs of aquatic alien life beneath its ice pack. The six crew members have each been chosen for expertise in their respective fields. Shipboard footage capturing the workaday mission minutiae is interspersed with somber “present day” interviews telegraphing that it all ends in tears (don’t worry…not a spoiler).
Most of the filmmaker’s effort focuses on making us believe that this is all really happening, and indeed the overall “look” is right. Special effects are seamless; all the hardware, the radio chatter, EVA procedures etc. etc. suitably authentic and convincing, but there’s one thing missing…an interesting story. There’s simply no “there” there, and the sudden 180 into The Blair Witch Project territory in the third act cheapens the film and destroys all credibility.
The cast (which includes Michael Nykvist and the ubiquitous Sharlto Copley) do the best they can with woefully underwritten parts, but the resultant lack of emotional investment on my part as a viewer made it hard for me to care about what happened to whom once the mission (and the film itself) began to go horribly, horribly awry.