Review: Preachy political agenda trips up 'Elysium'


After his brilliant debut in 2009 with the sci-fi blockbuster "District 9," writer-director Neill Blomkamp is back with "Elysium," a futuristic populist tale hampered by its overtly political narrative. While it's not necessarily a piece of space junk -- from a technical standpoint, "Elysium" is expertly made -- there's no doubt that some audience members will find the preachy tone of the movie polarizing.

"Elysium" is actually the name of a man-made, pinwheel-shaped space station two miles above the Earth -- a safe haven in 2154 where the rich live in luxury after fleeing an over-populated, decaying and disease-ridden planet.

Although Elysium is governed by President Patel (Farin Tahir), the person who wields the most power behind the scenes is Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), an ice-cold and calculating figure who has no qualms about blowing up "undocumented ships" loaded with illegal citizens from Earth before they reach Elysium's atmosphere. Despite the peril the illegal citizens face, there's still a big incentive in reaching Elysium, and it's more than about living in a pristine atmosphere: The station also contains "Med Bays," which can cure cancer and virtually every other malady known to man in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, struggling to make ends meet in a decimated Los Angeles is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con robot factory worker who's been dreaming his whole hard-knock life to find a way to live on the space station. But when he's exposed to a lethal dose of radiation on the job and given five days to live, Max makes a deal with a powerful smuggler to steal valuable information downloaded into the brain of robotics magnate John Carlyle (William Fichtner) in exchange for safe passage to Elysium for a cure.

Soon, though, Max finds out there are far greater implications tied to the information he's carrying. Successfully transferred electronically from Carlyle's brain into Max's, the data holds the hope of creating total equality between the masses on Earth and residents of Elysium.

See my review of "Elysium" on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Diana Pierce below.

While some moviegoers will be OK with the film's unapologetic socialist agenda -- it argues for an open border immigration policy, universal health care and the deconstruction of the class system -- others are bound to fume, wondering why they are paying to see an allegorical tale that essentially mirrors today's hottest of hot-button political issues. After all, it's one thing for a filmmaker to layer in personal views with subtlety, and another to beat viewers over the head with it -- and "Elysium" unabashedly does the latter. As for me, I can't stand it when any filmmaker vomits up their political views on the screen, no matter what side of the aisle they're on.

Narrative aside, from a filmmaking standpoint, there's no question that "Elysium" is brilliantly executed. Blomkamp is a gifted and creative filmmaker, and the film's intense pacing, harrowing action sequences (look out for exploding bodies!), unique environments and thrilling special effects mostly rival what he did with "District 9."

And much like the South African filmmaker's Oscar-nominated alien tale, even the non-human characters are inspired. Law enforcement officers are now all powerful robots, and the parole officers -- Damon is forced to consult with one in an amusing scene early in the film -- are creepy, retro-looking mannequins that resemble something you'd see encased in an old carnival fortune-telling attraction.

Most of the characters in "Elysium" are engaging, too, namely Damon, who brings swagger to Max; and Sharlto Copley (who played the doomed hero of "District 9"), who turns in a vicious and frightening performance as a mercenary hired by Delacourt to take out illegal citizens with extreme prejudice. Alice Braga is also good in a key role as Max's longtime friend whose daughter's health is worsening by the minute.

Foster shares top billing with Damon in "Elysium," although neither of the actors have any scenes together. While orchestrating a power play with Fichtner's character, Foster -- who is far more talented than what she displays here -- doesn't really bring anything special to the role. Most baffling, Foster speaks with a bizarre British accent, and the reason for which is never really explained. She would have been far less distracting if she had just gone with her own voice.

Perhaps Foster's uneven read on the character ultimately represents "Elysium" as a whole. Following "District 9," it's a film with tremendous promise, yet a film of tremendous disappointment.

"Elysium," rated R, 2 1/2 stars out of four.

See the trailer for "Elysium" below.

What other local critics are saying ...

Star Tribune contributing critic Rob Nelson gives the film 3 1/2 stars, saying "it invites and even encourages discussion and debate while delivering proficiently at the levels of plot, action and special effects."

Pioneer Press critic Chris Hewitt also gives the film 3 1/2 stars, calling it "thrilling, emotional and provocative" and "the movie this summer needed."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he also reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11.” As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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