Space Class Struggle

It’s like Charles Dickens in orbit, with roboDamon

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Elysium

Elysium
Galaxy
3.5 out of 5

The frustration of Elysium isn’t that it’s bad, because it’s not.

It’s that it could’ve been great but it isn’t.

With District 9, writer/director Neill Blomkamp proved he has a knack for creating dystopian societies that are grimy, tangible and realistic. Elysium fits the bill, but Blomkamp ends up downplaying the setting — not to mention the movie’s core message — rather than using it to its fullest.

The year is 2154, and Earth is a massive, shitty slum. Overpopulation and environmental abuse have turned the planet into a semi-arid, extremely unpleasant place to live for most of mankind. A lucky few, however, gets to live in Elysium, a ginormous satellite that offers every comfort imaginable to its very rich inhabitants.

Obviously, the have-nots want in — and just in like every gated community in the real world, the elite are horrified at the idea.

Max (Matt Damon) is one of the hopefuls on the outside looking in. A former-thief-turned-blue-collar-worker, Max isn’t particularly adept at dealing with authority. An ill-timed joke at the expense of the robocops keeping the peace triggers a series of events that places him on a collision course with Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium’s despotic secretary of defense.

Delacourt believes the president is too soft on illegal immigration. (Makeshift spacecrafts can get you to Elysium, but the tickets are pricey and your chances of success are close to nil.) She engineers a coup along with a corporate drone (William Fichtner), all the while apparently blissfully unaware of the power of a pissed-off immigrant in immediate need of healthcare.

The setting of Elysium is its strongest suit: from the dilapidated shantytowns everywhere to the industrial high-tech measures that keep the population under control, it’s engrossing to watch and it’s easy to believe this may well happen (and quite possibly far sooner than 2154).

Elysium is almost Dickensian, and not just because it treats poverty as the origin of every social malaise. Damon’s character’s arc goes from selfish criminal to saviour-like figure, for example, and it feels like a plausible transformation. (I could’ve used a bit less foreshadowing, though: not a single event occurs that wasn’t hinted at minutes earlier.)

I wanted to know more about the sociopolitical organization of the opposing sides, but instead we get far-too-lengthy sequences with a barely intelligible mercenary chasing a half-machine, half-Matt Damon concoction. The villain in question is Kruger (Sharlto Copley, Wikus in District 9), Delacourt’s go-to guy when dirty work is necessary. From the moment Kruger appears, the film loses the corrosive social assessment that set it apart. Worse, Kruger’s role grows to be more prominent than right-wing nutjob Delacourt, wasting a perfectly good performance by Foster.

Blomkamp’s potential as a filmmaker is clear, but he could use help in the writing department. The dialogue in Elysium is clunky, and the characters apparently never have a single thought they don’t feel like sharing. (We don’t need to be reminded how psychopathic Kruger is: we just saw him murdering half a dozen people while flashing his rotten teeth.) Also, for a colony built to keep others out, Elysium’s security is terrible.

In spite of all its shortcomings, Elysium is a movie with ideas, reminiscent of the humanistic-minded sci-fi dramas of the ’70s.

It may even make the one percent a little nervous — just not as nervous as they would’ve been if it fully lived up to its potential.

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THE SPANIARD WHO FORGOT TO BE FUNNY

I’m So Excited
Opens August 15th, RPL
2 out of 5

Before becoming Douglas Sirk’s heir apparent and the only modern filmmaker skillful enough to do melodrama, Pedro Almodóvar was known as a boundary pusher. His early work wasn’t as drench in sentimentality. In fact, it was daring, sexually charged and often scandalous. I would watch Matador (the one with the bullfighting fetish) over Volver any day of the week.

I’m So Excited has been touted as the director’s return to his roots, but truth to be told, it feels more like a pale imitation, a lazy exercise that doesn’t come close to the vitality of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Law of Desire.

I’m So Excited is an ensemble movie that chronicles a flight to Mexico City that suffers a catastrophic technical failure. Facing mortality, the highly intoxicated crew and the first-class passengers attempt to deal with their unfinished business — namely newfound sexual interests, loved ones left behind and the mark they are expected to whack. (Economic-class travelers have been knocked out via sleeping pills and don’t deserve screen time.)

While I’m So Excited has the ingredients for a wacky good time, the outcome is ridiculously dull. The flamboyant crew provides most of the laughs (their over-the-top rendition of the title song is the highlight of the movie, and the whole thing was in the trailer), but the passengers seem extracted from the director’s most heartfelt dramas. In fact, many Almodóvar regulars are at hand to portray some random tragedy, including cameos by prodigal sons Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz.

If nothing else, at least the Oscar winner dips a toe in the economic crisis that is battering Spain. Almost everybody on board is stuck in a situation they wouldn’t be if money was available. Aren’t we all. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

2013-08-08