Friday, August 9, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium

After three months of this tedious shooting gallery of a summer, in which (nearly) every anticipated blockbuster has arrived with a lackluster thump and limped stoically out of our memories, it's been hard not to look at Elysium – the followup to director Neill Blomkamp's gangbuster District 9 – as a sort of white knight.

It boasts an original sci-fi premise – something practically unheard of in today's climate of comic-book adaptations, reboots and remakes – a compelling cast and the pedigree of an auteur filmmaker with a pension for blending popcorn thrills with a subtext of social commentary and an uncanny knack for integrating gritty realism with CG trickery.

Faced with those lofty expectations, Elysium delivers. While it falls short of its predecessor's ingenuity and balls-to-the-wall bravura, Elysium is nonetheless a wholly satisfying roller coaster ride and the summer movie we've been waiting for.

Sharing a lot of the political DNA of District 9 – in which a bureaucratic office drone finds himself transforming into the alien underclass he has worked to oppress – Elysium finds us in a dystopian future where the Earth has fallen into polluted decay and the privileged have relocated off planet to the titular space station where the air is clean, the trees are green and all physical ills can be cured with the push of a button.

We meet our hero Max, played by a bald and tattooed Matt Damon, an ex-convict trying to make an honest living at a robot manufacturing plant and who, after a workplace accident, is faced with finding away onto Elysium to cure himself or dying in five days.

To get his ticket to the sky, Max agrees to pull a heist job for an underground criminal/revolutionary named Spider – played with manic excitement by the largely unknown Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who starred in the Elite Squad franchise that you should all stop what you're doing and watch right now. That job goes south, embroiling Max in an attempted coup to seize control of Elysium and finding our hero pursued by the mercenary Kruger – played by Blomkamp muse Sharlto Copley – and racing against the clock of his own decaying body.

Blomkamp has clearly been handed the keys to the studio kingdom after the runaway success of District 9, which came out of nowhere in 2009 and rode a wave a critical acclaim and box office success to a Best Picture nomination. With Elysium, the director trades Apartheid-inspired inter-special class warfare for a tale of Occupy Wall Street in space and has the flashy toys of a 9-figure budget to do it.

Some of the charm gets lost in that trade, as District 9 relied on scrappy low-budget tricks to create a fanboy actioner with the soul of an art film. But Elysium, while showing it's mainstream Hollywood scars, doesn't fall victim to the disease that has plagued contemporaries The Lone Ranger, After Earth and R.I.P.D.

It has its faults. The fact that Max should get his fatal dose of radiation at the same time Jodie Foster's steely Secretary Delacourt is attempting to seize control of the floating paradise is a little convenient, as is the sudden appearance after years of absence of Max's childhood friend Frey and her cancerous daughter – who tells a cute metaphorical story about a hippopotamus to Max with all the subtlety of a prostate exam.

You could also argue that both Damon and Copley's characters would require Wolverine's healing power to withstand the exoskeleton-enhanced kicks, stabs, and punches to the face that they endure. And Foster's accent – French? Dutch? South African? – whatever it is, is distracting.

But those gripes are minor in scale to a production that boasts a critique of immigration policy and income disparity cloaked with eye-popping action (literally?) and a genuine sense of tense storytelling.

Taken independently, Elysium is a better-than-good movie. Taken in context of this ho-hum 2013 summer, Elysium is just short of outstanding.

Grade: A-

* Elysium opens nationwide on Friday, August 9

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