Chuck Koplinski: Action in 'Elysium' muddles foray into dire future

Chuck Koplinski: Action in 'Elysium' muddles foray into dire future

In 2009, writer/director Neil Blomkamp got the film world's attention with "District 9," a powerful sci-fi allegory that examined the vagaries of apartheid, the policy of racial segregation that plagued his native South Africa for nearly five decades.

Inventive, uncompromising and a reminder that the best futuristic fiction deals with issues of today, the movie scored an Academy Award nomination and set the bar high for the director's next project.

Expectations have been running high for that film, "Elysium," as the summer has been devoid of big-budget films that actually have something to say. To be sure, Blomkamp has an agenda: The movie takes on the ever-widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, the disparity in health care coverage and the distinctly American problem of illegal immigration. Each of these subjects is worthy of a pointed big-screen indictment, and the director does a fine job driving home the most obvious points. But these themes become obscured by Blomkamp's inclusion of standard action film elements.

From Fritz Lang's classic "Metropolis" to last year's "Total Recall," the premise of a society drastically divided by class has been a model for many dystopian science-fiction stories. "Elysium" takes place in the mid-22nd century, and Earth has become diseased and overpopulated.

The 1 percent have left terra firma behind and reside on Elysium, a rotating space station where they live in palatial splendor, work is non-existent and disease is obliterated through advanced medical technology.

Everyone else has been left on a planet that has been overrun by despair and poverty.

Max (Matt Damon, in another fine performance) is a cog in the corporate machine doing his best to survive. Living in a hovel on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which now looks like a third-world country (many of the scenes were shot in Mexico), he has an assembly line job that puts him in grave danger every day. Still, he knows he's lucky to be employed and senses a ray of hope in his personal life when he's reunited with his childhood friend and would-be girlfriend Frey (Alice Braga).

Tragedy strikes when Max is exposed to a deadly level of radiation while on the job and is told he only has five days to live. Reasoning that he has little to lose, he agrees to go to Elysium at the behest of Spider (Wagner Moura), a black marketer who outfits him with a metal exoskeleton and brain interface that will allow him to carry vital information that has been obtained to the station that will lead to its downfall.

As if traveling to this outpost isn't dangerous enough, Max has Frey and her daughter, who is suffering from leukemia, in tow with hopes to find a cure for the young girl's condition.

There's much more at play here, which is part of the film's problem.

Jodie Foster, sporting one of the worst film accents in recent memory, is featured as Elysium's ramrod Defense Secretary Delacourt, a French diplomat who is planning a coup of the idyllic civilization. A barely recognizable Sharlto Copley is Kruger, a soldier of fortune who helps her get things done.

That Max and this brute end up going mano a mano during the film's climax isn't so much a surprise as it is a profound disappointment. After all, Blomkamp has far more important themes on his agenda than to get bogged down by standard action fare, which is hard to follow what with his insistence on filming with a handheld camera.

Equally troubling are the numerous narrative gaffes that result in our scoffing at many key elements in the story. Max endures far more than any man should be able to — and that he's still walking around after absorbing a massive dose of radiation and later being stabbed in the stomach defies logic.

While Blomkamp should be praised for tackling the illegal immigration issue, I couldn't help but wonder why the folks at Elysium didn't take steps to make it more difficult for unwanted visitors to drop by. While they have missiles to shoot down unwanted shuttles, Delacourt is chastised for using them.

And the reason for Kruger's abduction of Frey and her daughter late in the film is predicated by narrative convenience alone.

In the end, "Elysium" isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is — or as I hoped it would be — which is a shame as Blomkamp is obviously a director with a vital agenda of issues he wishes to cover.

Here's hoping he regains the nerve to examine them as they should be and eschews the action film tropes that obscure them here.

'Elysium' (2-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Sharlto Copley, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay and Faran Tahir.

Written and directed by Neil Blomkamp; produced by Simon Kinberg.

A Sony Pictures release. 109 minutes. Rated R (strong bloody violence and language throughout). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Hunt" a gripping look at an epidemic of fear. (3 stars) The oft-quoted phrase "Perception is reality" has never been more true than in Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt," a gut-wrenching thriller that finds one man trying to clear his good name in a community where judgment has been clouded by fear.

Grounded by a haunting and powerful performance from Mads Mikkelsen (the villain from the James Bond film "Casino Royale"), the film does a masterful job of examining how quickly a mob mentality can develop when the worst is assumed of a person who never before has given reason to be considered anything but moral and sound.

Attempting to reconstruct his life after a recent divorce, Lucas (Mikkelsen) has taken a job as a kindergarten teacher in a small rural town. He has close friends there, the best among them being Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), a bear of a man who drinks too much, argues with his wife too often and, while not negligent, could be a better father.

His young daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp, giving a remarkably unaffected performance) happens to be a student in Lucas' class, and because of a simple misunderstanding and a bout of hurt feelings, she makes a statement to the school's principal that is misconstrued as an accusation of sexual abuse.

It doesn't take long for this statement to gain traction in the town, and soon Lucas finds himself a pariah among those he thought were his friends.

Vinterberg, who also wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, accurately captures the way a sense of fear and paranoia can run rampant and overtake a community.

What makes the film intriguing is the perspective from which the story is told. While our sympathies are always with Lucas, as they should be, the motives of all the other participants are sound as well. Who among us wouldn't act as the principal does when she hears what she does from Klara? The reactions of her parents are justified as are those of the ones who stick by Lucas.

In this way, it's an inherently powerful human drama as the behaviors on display, both right and wrong, are so recognizable.

The film begins with an annual hunting ceremony, which effectively sets the tone of the story as it identifies the mindset of the community. They are close-knit — they are persistent — they are bloodthirsty. Equally present thematically is the notion of lines — those of a physical, social and moral nature that are unassumingly crossed with unforeseen ramifications.

Though the film is a bit too long, there's no question that this is an accomplished, multi-layered piece of work that unflinchingly looks at how an innocuous act, an innocent assumption or a false word can have a ripple effect that grows exponentially every time it is recounted.

"We're the Millers" only half a movie. (2 stars) There's a good idea rattling around in Rawson Thurber's "We're the Millers." Unfortunately, it's a premise that only makes for about half a movie, and it's an ironic state of affairs what with four credited writers.

Yeah, there are a few laughs along the way — a couple of them of the "very big" variety — but there's no denying that by the one-hour mark, this generic comedy is spinning its wheels.

Jason Sudeikis is David Clark, a low-level drug dealer who finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He has lost the money he owes his supplier Brad Gurlinger (Ed Helms) and has no way to pay it back. So he reluctantly agrees to go to Mexico to bring back a "smidge" of marijuana.

Realizing that he would do nothing but draw attention to himself when crossing the border alone, David decides to hire a family to lend this operation a facade of normalcy. Of course, doing so is easier said than done, but he manages to convince Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a stripper he has a crush on, to pose as his wife. Kenny (Will Poulter) a lonely, awkward teenage boy who lives in his building takes the role of his son; and street urchin Casey (Emma Roberts) reluctantly decides to pretend to be his daughter.

It doesn't come as big surprise that these four eventually take to these parts like a puppy to a chew toy, coming to embrace roles that they never had the opportunity to assume in real life. The sentiment doesn't quite jive with the ribald humor that's the film's bread and butter.

While none of the gags skirt the edge of tastelessness as in "The Hangover" films — though seeing the result of a tarantula bite in the worst place possible approaches it — the language is coarse throughout and at times pays off with hilariously crude jokes. (Watch out for a game of Pictionary that goes horribly wrong.) However, they're isolated throughout, and as result, the movie never builds up a head of comedic steam.

However, when the "Millers" have to contend with two nefarious drug dealers as well as a couple of middle-age squares (Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn) again and again, it's obvious that the script is out of ideas and that the movie is simply spinning its wheels.

Yep, there's a good idea in "We're the Millers." Too bad the writers couldn't find a couple more to go with it.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski and on his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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