Monday, August 12, 2013

BuboBlog Reviews 'Elysium'

"Elysium" opened in theaters on Friday, joining a wave of recent movies about nearly uninhabitable Earths. (I reviewed "Oblivion" in April.) In this variation on the theme, set in 2154, the wealthiest citizens have fled the dusty, windblown planet and built an orbiting community called Elysium — a giant space station with its own atmosphere and terraformed landscape.

Elysium strongly resembles Orange County, with Spanish-style villas and manicured lawns. But the film's protagonist Max (played by Matt Damon) lives down on Earth in Los Angeles, which looks more like a sprawling Latin American slum. (The film, in fact, was shot in Mexico.)

On Elysium, the citizens speak a mixture of French and English, while Max and the other Earthlings use a patois of Spanish and English. It's surprising that Chinese doesn't make greater inroads into our language over the next 141 years. You also have to wonder how French manages to regain its footing among the elite. (Currently only 4 percent of the world's richest people are French.)

Elysium's biggest perk is access to a "med bay" — a system that resembles a tanning bed. When you lie down on one, the med bay automatically heals whatever ails you, whether it's cancer or a bashed-in skull.

Max works at a factory making robots that will ultimately serve the citizens of Elysium. This provides a note of irony, though it seems odd that a factory in 2154 (making robots!) has a lower level of automation than a typical Hyundai plant. Equally curious: Elysium's entire infrastructure and government appear to depend on a hand-coded MS-DOS computer program.

Anyway, Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory and has to make it up to one of those Elysium tanning beds to be healed. Of course, getting up there is a lot harder than crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. And he's soon pulled into a web of interorbital intrigue that puts the fate of both Earth and Elysium in his mecha-suited hands.

I generally enjoyed "Elysium," though I think it suffered from some of the same failings as director Neil Blomkamp's earlier effort, "District 9." Like that film, it had a great first act and then occasionally stumbled. The film appears to start off as a statement about segregation and income inequality, but by the end the main message seems to be about providing universal health care. (Is this one big ad for Obamacare?)

The movie was set in Los Angeles, but it makes no effort to represent the city. Unlike "Oblivion," which gave fun glimpses of wrecked New York landmarks, there are no remnants of today's L.A. here. (I was curious if the Hollywood sign had been allowed to deteriorate again.)

You also don't learn much about life for typical Elysium dwellers. It's a gated community on steroids, so I have to think it has the most insufferable goth teens imaginable.

Boing Boing's Colin Berry criticized the film for its hackneyed dialogue, and I would tend to agree. (Jodie Foster's character even utters the ol' "we have a situation here" chestnut.) But it's perhaps helped by everyone other than Damon speaking in an odd accent.

As the deranged villain, Sharlto Copley delivers a lot of shopworn lines ("This is my house," "You want to play? Let's play."). But his nasal South African accent helps make everything fresh — or at least barely understandable.

In the end, Blomkamp keeps things moving along swiftly. And while the ending wasn't as satisfying as it could have been, you appreciate that he had something to say — even if he wasn't quite sure how to say it.

BuboBlog Rating: 3 asterisks (out of 4).