^ Sharlto Copley in Elysium, with Jodie Foster and Matt Damon
For blockbuster fans out there, still hungry for a real summer hit to carry you into the fall, I’m sorry to inform you that “Elysium,” Neil Blomkamp’s follow up to “District 9,” isn’t the answer– perhaps about as worthy an answer as was “Pacific Rim.”. What the South African wunderkind, who wowed audiences with his stark, inventive first film (it garnered several Oscar nods, including a Best Picture bid) now has conjured is something that’s less a new, grim re-envisioning of the not so distant future (it’s 2154) than a retooling of the film that made him an A-list name. Unfortunately, the new movie is addled, by everything bloated and boxed up that Hollywood brings to such a project when it gets its hooks deep into an upcoming auteur.
The plot moves like a whiplash. LA is now a wasteland reminiscent of the South African ghettos that the wayward aliens in “District 9” inhabited, while the rich reside on the lush, luxury ring-world (thank you Larry Niven!) of the title that’s just a twenty minute shuttle ride up into the sky. Up there, universal health care is a reality, they have medi-pods that can heal anything — cancer, the clap — and can even rebuild your face should it get shot off : that’s if your brain still works. To get a medi-pod to heal, you must be a barcoded citizen of Elysium, so if you live on Earth, you’re living in the new Third World, and there’s no grand social program to cover your ass.
Forget any type of political deeper meaning as in “Logan’s Run,” or even “Oblivion.” The perfect outer ups and the ugly underneath are just plot garnish, a notch above McGuffin status. Max (Matt Damon), the intrepid hero du jour, is an ex-con with a heart of gold (yes that cliché) who accidentally gets irradiated on the job and, without much remorse from his employer, is given a vial full of pills and five days to live. Most people would roll over or go out with a bang, but not Max. To get up to one of those cure-all tanning beds, all he’s got to do is get a Robocop exo-skeleton welded to his frail body, shoot down a shuttle with an RPG, download the contents of a billionaire’s brain and save the poor. Not so easy, but also not so tough, as the few people we do see up at Elysium are candy-assed effetes, with the exception of Jodie Foster’s icy ministry of defense, a gal who’s, pretty much, an unfortunate blend of Donald Rumsfeld and Tilda Swinton.
The real trouble comes in the form of Kruger (Sharlto Copley, the star of “District 9”) a covert assassin, who, while at the beck and call of the Elysian powers, would just as happily slit their throats. He’s the wild one in an otherwise predictable house of cards. The film looks great, and I hope that the next time Hollywood out Blomkamp, they take the gloves off and let him get to it.
It’s tired and clichéd, but “in space no one can hear you scream,” is a cinematic truism–and even if someone could hear you, what could they do? “Alien” defined the maxim and many over the years, for example the macabre, but mediocre “Event Horizon” (1997), have tried to follow Ridey Scott’s trail with little success. “Europa Report” goes into that charted territory, employing a battery of “Blair Witch Project” cams, except they’re not hand held by an imperiled victim-in-waiting, but by various affixed video surveillance equipment in a space craft on a deep space mission to explore a distant moon orbiting Jupiter.
The crew’s a generic, international smorgasbord. They’d all barely be discernable if it weren’t for their various nationalities and race (among them Sharlto Copley, who gets his second space mission this week). Director Sebastián Cordero nicely uses quartered screen imagery to jazz up the action, and on Earth there’s Embeth Davidtz barking out orders and giving background from the confines of mission control. The journey out feels like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and when they get to Europa it turns “Blair Witch”—yeah there’s something out there on that frozen hunk of ice. “Europa” begins promisingly, but sails off an arty, jacked-up version of the “Lost Tapes” faux-documentary TV series that explores modern myth (blood suckers, sea monsters and poltergeists, oh my).
—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies