Monday, August 12, 2013

Escape from "Elysium"

There aren’t many laughs in “Elysium,” a sci-fi thriller with an activist conceit that takes itself too seriously to allow its protagonists the Hollywoodian luxury of zinging a nemesis.

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp envisions a 22nd century world where the Earth has become the wrong side of the tracks and where the rich have moved into the ultimate gated community – in orbit.

Matt Damon’s character Max, a paroled car thief, is living in the squalor of a Los Angeles slum where android cops stop and frisk. Max reconnects with childhood friend Frey from their days in foster care, a girl we are supposed to believe Max has been pining for ever since. When Frey tends to a wounded Max, she discovers he has a tattoo replicating a rudimentary drawing she once made on young Max when they were six or seven and which meant “Max and Frey forever.” Blomkamp reprises the earlier scene in what amounts to a brief, yet annoying, example of cinematic overkill. Hey, Blomkamp: We remember. We get it. No need to insult our intelligence.

There is plenty of action in “Elysium,” and even a few scenes guaranteed to make moviegoers misty. Such is the sentimental shlock served up in the guise of science fiction: Max, the car thief with a heart of gold, still true to a childhood crush.

Not only was the filmmaker unsure of the average moviegoer’s acumen, he apparently could not decide how to make an original piece of cinema. Instead “Elysium” resembles a cinema scavenger hunt, cobbling together “Robocop,” “Terminator,” “Iron Man” and even “Escape from L. A.”. By attempting to ape those franchises “Elysium” hamstrings its own screenplay and guts its flawed forays into social commentary.

A buff and blonde Jodie Foster plays the heavy while Faran Tahir, an actor of Pakistani ancestry, embodies the ineffective voice of reason. But Foster is boring in her role here. Ditto Damon. The scene-stealers are Sharlto Copley, a sociopathic CIA agent, and Wagner Moura, a coyote whose operation shuttles nonresidents up to the orbiting habitat. Diego Luna gives a palpable and rich performance in a minor role.

The lingua franca of 22nd century Los Angeles is pretty much español and many of the early scenes feature this language exclusively. While that certainly also has its mercantile considerations, it remains an insightful touch and likely the most plausible aspect of the L.A. depicted in “Elysium.”

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