Elysium


Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

(2013) Science Fiction (TriStar) Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, Adrian Holmes, Jared Keeso, Valentino Giron, Yolanda Abbud L, Carly Pope, Michael Shanks, Ona Grauer, Christina Cox. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

When the world becomes too overpopulated and too polluted to live comfortably, where are the super-rich going to go? Why, to outer space of course.

In 2154, the same year Avatar is set in – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the Earth has become one gigantic favela – a kind of super-barrio that has appeared in Brazil and are ultra-violent. The wealthy, whose corporate interests have destroyed the Earth and enslaved the population, have fled to Elysium, an idyllic space station which looks a whole lot like Boca Raton except for the humidity. There the rich live in peace, quiet and plenty living indefinite lifespans due to an automated medical bay that cures pretty much anything short of death.

Of course, no such machines exist on Earth for the general population who overcrowd hospitals using 20th century technology for the most part. This is the world that Max (Damon) lives in. An orphan who became a legendary car thief and was imprisoned for it, he’s trying to scrape together a life on the straight and narrow building robotic police officers. Somewhat ironically, one of the robotic cops ends up breaking his arm when he gets lippy during a routine bus stop hassle. However, the silver lining here is that the nurse who cares for him is Frey (Braga), a childhood friend and fellow orphan who Max is sweet on. Frey is reluctant to get involved with an ex-con though, especially since her own daughter (Tremblay) is in the end stages of leukemia.

However, Max gets accidentally irradiated in an industrial accident caused by an uncaring and sloppy corporate bureaucrat. He has five days to live before the radiation kills him. His only chance at survival is to get to Elysium. His only chance to get to Elysium is through Spider (Moura), which Max’s good friend Julio (Luna) warns him against but nevertheless supports him for. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium but first he must do a job for Spider; to download the codes and passwords from a citizen of Elysium so that Spider’s shuttles can successfully get through the formidable defenses of the station without getting blasted into atoms. Max chooses Carlyle (Fichtner), the uncaring and callous owner of the robotics factory.

Unknown to either Spider or Max is that Carlyle is conspiring with Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) to stage a coup from the satellite’s somewhat milquetoast president (Tahir). Carlyle has created a program to reboot all of Elysium’s systems and effectively give control of the entire satellite to Delacourt. When Max gets that information from Carlyle, he immediately becomes the most dangerous human on Earth. Delacourt sends her brutish operative Krueger (Copley) and his thugs to collect Max and download that data. Krueger doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get that information and Max doesn’t care what he has to do to get cured. The results of their struggle will shape the future of two worlds.

Blomkamp is best known for directing District 9, the surprise South African hit that was nominated for four Oscars. He showed a real flair there for fusing social commentary with an all-out action movie. He also showed a unique visual sense that is also very much in evidence here – this is one of the most stunning movie this summer visually in a summer full of great visuals.

There are a lot of modern parallels here from the Occupy Wall Street class war scenario to Obamacare. Clearly Blomkamp has some liberal sympathies; I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t compared this movie as a thinly veiled love song to Obamacare which it isn’t – it’s far more liberal than that. If anything, the filmmaker seems to be advocating a single payer system in which health care is free for all.

Matt Damon is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable actors both from a box office standpoint (a recent study revealed that his films make more money per every dollar he is paid than any other major Hollywood star) but also from a quality standpoint. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Matt Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation, the everyman who triumphs over adversities large and small. Here even though his character has an overly-developed sense of self-preservation (so much so at times that he is willing to throw friends and loved ones under the bus for his own gain) he’s still so thoroughly likable that you end up rooting for him anyway. I doubt if any other star in Hollywood could get away with a role like this.

Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico so there is a healthy dose of Mexican talent in the film, including Diego Luna who is growing into as compelling an actor as there is in Hollywood. Alice Braga, a Brazilian, is lustrous and shows why many consider her one of the most promising actresses in the world. Copley is a bit over-the-top as Krueger, more brutish than anything. He would have been more compelling a villain had his character been fleshed out a little (no pun intended – for those who have seen the movie already you’ll know what I mean). Foster, an Oscar-winning actress and one of the finest performers of her generation, throws us an oddly lackluster performance which gives me the sense that she really didn’t understand or care about her character at all. It makes me wonder if her experience on this film may have led her to announce (in a roundabout way) her retirement from acting. If so, I hope that she reconsiders; I’d hate this movie to be her acting swan song.

I like that the movie gives us something to think about, although conservatives may find the film to be unpalatable to their viewpoints. Some of the film is a bit wild in terms of the potshots it takes, sacrificing believable story to make its political points. Liberals may be more forgiving of its sins in this area however.

In a fairly tepid and disappointing summer blockbuster season, this is one of the brighter lights. While the box office to date leads me to believe that it will have to rely on overseas revenue to make back its production costs, this is still a compelling movie that you might want to see on a big screen for some of the awesome visuals (a shuttle crash on Elysium is simply amazing). Hey, in the heat of August an air-conditioned multiplex might be just the thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful science fiction. Nice performances by Damon, Braga and Luna. Sweet special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems scattershot at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlyle’s shuttle bears the Bugatti Automotive logo.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100; more positive reviews than negative but not by much.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zardoz

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Red State

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Red Riding Hood


Red Riding Hood

Gary Oldman reacts to charges that this is Twilight with werewolves.

(2011) Romantic Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Julie Christie, Lukas Haas, Shauna Kane, Michael Hogan, Adrian Holmes, Cole Heppell, Michael Shanks. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

The woods are deep and dark for a reason. There are things there that defy the world we know and keep to the shadows, leaping out only when some helpless unsuspecting maiden passes by.

Valerie (Seyfried) lives in a bucolic village in the woods surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is winter and the woods have become dark and threatening. It is full moon night and a sacrifice is being left out for the wolf that has beset their village for generations.

She has been in love with Peter (Fernandez), a woodcutter who works with her father Cesaire (Burke) who mostly drinks. Her mother Suzette (Madsen) however has promised her to another – Henry (Irons), the blacksmith’s boy and considerably well-to-do in a village like this. It’s a great match – only Valerie loves Peter, not Henry.

Things start to go wrong when Valerie’s sister turns up dead at the hands of the wolf. The townspeople go out to hunt the beast dead. It turns out the hunters killed a beast but not the beast. They call in Father Solomon (Oldman), an expert hunter who asserts they have a werewolf at work – and the beast lives among them in their human form.

Suspicion turns on everyone, from Valerie’s quirky grandma (Christie) living out in the woods by herself to Valerie herself. At first the villagers pooh-pooh the good Father but when the werewolf crashes their celebration, there is no longer any doubt that they are dealing with a diabolical beast. But which one of them is it? And can they stop the beast in time?

Director Catherine Hardwicke last did Twilight and obviously this is the kind of thing that is in her comfort zone. It has all the elements that made that movie a hit; a virginal lead forced to choose between two hotties that have a secret that involves the supernatural. However, what this movie lacks is that sense of tragedy that makes the hearts of teen girls go pitter pat. Twilight works because there’s that knowledge that Bella and Edward can never be together and because if they do, they will both be changed forever.

That’s not here at all; there’s nothing epic about the romantic angle at all and say what you will about the Twilight series, that quality is there in spades. You have to care about the couple in a romantic fantasy or else it doesn’t work. Here, the sparks never really fly. Seyfried is a fine actress and Fernandez and Irons are both pretty good in their own rights, but the chemistry fails here.

The location is really beautiful which is inevitable because it’s mostly computer generated. Majestic snow-capped mountains, endless dark green swaths of forest and quaint vaguely-Germanic villages make it a fantasy setting right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In a sense, the location is too perfect, too bucolic – at times the sense of menace that should be palpable is overwhelmed by the charm of the setting.

The werewolf itself is also a bit of a letdown – it’s more of a big shaggy dog than anything else and the wolfish side which should be wild and untamed is suborned by a silly ability to communicate telepathically with Valerie. He comes off like a talking animal and less of a ferocious monster. So as a horror movie, this doesn’t really work either.

So it boils down to suspense, figuring out who the werewolf is. Quite frankly, it’s not that hard – Da Queen figured it out pretty damn quickly, even more so than her movie-loving husband. Still, it’s not difficult to spot the wolf, as it were – and that is also a problem.

It’s a movie that needed more guidance from the writer; it’s almost as if three different studio executives with three different ideas for the movie were telling the writer “More romance. No, more horror. No, it’s gotta have suspense.” In trying to be something for everybody it ends up being nothing to anybody.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful-looking sequences. Some of the music is impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Isn’t terrifying enough to be horror; not sentimental enough to be romance; too mundane to be a suspense film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sensuality, along with some creature feature-like thrills.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Max Irons is the son of Jeremy Irons.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the wide CGI vistas are best seen at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Inugami