Thursday, August 8, 2013

Strong start, then collapse for 'Elysium'

Elysium could have been so much more than it is.

Recently, I was riding my bicycle through one of the Denver area's more expensive neighborhoods, the kind in which once modest homes have been conquered by mini-mansions that probably are priced in multiples of millions. Who, I wondered, can afford to live in such places? What do the residents of these palaces do that enables them to take literally the old axiom that a man's home is his castle?

The growing divide between the rich and the rest of us is the basis for Elysium, a sci-fi spectacle from director Neill Blomkamp, who made waves with his gritty first feature, 2009's District 9.

Set in the late 21st century, Elysium imagines a time when the rude and scoffing multitudes live on devastated planet Earth. Those with major money have moved to Elysium, a giant, circular space station that orbits the Earth. Think of Elysium as the ultimate gated community, a refuge from hardship.

Elysium's residents live well, and have access to medical technology that can cure just about anything.

Of course, someone eventually was bound to crash the high-end party. Enter Matt Damon as Max, an Earth-bound factory drone who receives a massive dose of radiation at work. Max is given five days to live. The only way he can save himself is to sneak into Elysium, and avail himself of its life-saving technology, machines that look like CAT scans, but can diagnose and cure a person in one go-round.

Max's predicament brings him into contact with Spider (Wagner Moura), a criminal who knows how to smuggle folks into Elysium. Of course, there's a condition: Max can go to Elysium only if he agrees to a scheme in which he'll download data from the brain of a wealthy businessman (William Fichtner).

This requires Max to have a coding device of some sort implanted directly into his skull. Spider wants to use the data Max obtains to undermine the two-tier system that has separated humanity into two major groups -- the super-rich and everyone else.

On his initial visit to the hospital after he's radiated, Max reunites with Frey (Alice Braga)) a doctor who had been a childhood pal. As it turns out, the doctor has a terminally ill daughter (Emma Tremblay). Frey hopes that Max will take her child to Elysium, where she can be saved.

Blomkamp does a better job depicting an earthly dystopia than in showing Elysium's abundance, but he does outline the political structure of Elysium. The place has a president, but the real power lies with a ruthless security official (Jodie Foster).
I didn't keep precise track, but I'm guessing that for about an hour Elysium really clicks. At its best, the movie qualifies as an unusually smart helping of sci-fi, a convincing picture of an economically fractured future.

The visual environment (Max lives in a ravaged Los Angeles) is vividly imagined, and, in general, the special effects have top-of-the-line appeal.

Once the movie reaches Elysium, though, it starts to fall apart, sacrificing its intelligence for a more typical payload of futuristic gunplay and violent mayhem.

The performances are uniformly good, although Foster's character is so one-dimensional that she tends to come off as brittle, a woman with a close-cropped haircut and a disapproving look, as if an impudent journalist has dared to ask Foster about something she'd rather not discuss.

Damon does a good job as the sort of everyman who has special qualities of character and a bit of soul.

By its conclusion, Elysium leaves you disappointed and bemused; there's plenty of talent on display and enough obvious intelligence to have elevated the film had the obviously gifted Blomkamp -- who also wrote the screenplay -- been able to follow his best instincts to the finish line.

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