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A Movie That Asks You To Think ... Just Not Too Hard
on November 17, 2013
I don't mind brainless sci-fi. Sometimes it's nice just to have something cool to look at for awhile. Also, I have no problem with movies that moralize. It's great to question things, propose new ideas, or just point at injustices in the hopes of raising awareness. I DO, however, have a problem when a movie ends up being both, especially since a lot of the time it ends up accidentally trivializing something I usually already care about. Case in point: Elysium.
The story concerns Max, a reformed criminal who lives in a futuristic, devastated Los Angeles. The world, ravaged by pollution and overpopulation, is now filled with nothing but the poor and lower classes. If you're lucky, like Max, you have a job. In his case, he works for Armadyne, the company that produces the robots that police and monitor the world. All of the wealthiest people in the world, meanwhile, have created Elysium, a utopian space colony in orbit high above Earth, where they live in unbelievably crystalline splendor. They also have these magical beds that can instantly cure any disease or ailment in a matter of seconds. The poor folk on Earth, of course, must deal with second-rate health care that, while seemingly public, is dismissive and half-hearted. When an accident at work gives Max less than a week to live, he dons a superstrong exo-skeleton and undertakes a mission to make it to Elysium to get to one of those magic, medical beds. During the course of his mission, he finds his own selfish views challenged by corrupt senators, mind-bogglingly cute kids with leukemia, and a helter-skelter style military strong-arm named Kruger.
Visually appealing with some stunning action sequences, the movie is a popcorn muncher from nearly the first frame (although I'm leaving out the first five minutes of clunky Hallmark-style exposition and character development, much of which involves a nun). Directed by the same guy who gave us the rousing and engaging District 9, the pacing, framing, and cinematography is pretty much top-of-the-line.
The problem is that the script is about as heavy-handed as that big stone guy from The NeverEnding Story. The symbolism has got all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and when you step back and really think about the story, there's a whole lot that doesn't make sense. For instance, it's never clear why these medical beds are hoarded on Elysium. Do they use an excessive amount of power or resources? Is it considered economically or socially better to have the bulk of your citizenry in a state of malnourishment and filth? Do they break down easily? It automatically classifies the Haves of the movie as heartless and selfish for no real, good reason. Furthermore, the Haves are totemized in the cold, unforgiving character of Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster doing ... well, whatever kind of accent she was aiming for, the result was awful and distracting). Ms. Delacourt's machinations tend to be completely nonsensical as well. I won't give too much away, other than to say that some of her behavior hinges on the fact that Presidents, in this future, can be displaced by rebooting computer programs. It'd be like waking up one day and discovering that Sarah Palin is the President instead of Obama. "But how? Why?" we'd ask. "This computer says she is," they say. "Oh. Okay, then."
Obviously a morality play about apartheid, social divisions, the economic gap, and human rights, the movie takes a message that I tend to agree with and makes it so cartoonish and implausible that it almost seems to be making fun of it. The action, the 'splosions, the cool fight scenes, and the various swooping, wooshing, clanking destruction of it all makes for some fun, mindless viewing, but when the movie tries to prove that it does have some kind of brainwave, it gets both in-your-face and nearly incomprehensible. In other words, the seriousness of the film has as much brassy, crazy fire as the shallower elements, making it all seem rather patronizing.
Try not to think too hard about it, and you might enjoy yourself, but be warned. When it's not dazzling you with its pyrotechnic skill, the movie WILL try to get you to think. That's probably the point when you should get up for more popcorn.