Planet Have-Not: Heavy, allegorical sci-fi in Elysium

Aug 8, 2013 at 4:00 am
Planet Have-Not: Heavy, allegorical sci-fi in Elysium
Kimberley French – © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

Movie stars shouldn't be subject to the rules of gravity, as we mere mortals are. One of the great pleasures of watching actors is to see them move, and when yesterday's youngsters start creaking, we feel it in our joints. That's not to say actors can't age gracefully, or that they should do whatever it takes to stay looking young. But the wrong role can make a still-youthful actor appear worn out through no fault of his own. Are we really ready to see Matt Damon looking as if he's dying to plop down in the La-Z-Boy?

In Neill Blomkamp's dystopian science-fiction fantasy Elysium, Damon's Max is a tattooed grunt stranded on the Earth of the future, a dismal, dried-out planet filled with have-nots living short, brutish lives. The rich have long ago decamped to their own shiny, inhabitable satellite, Elysium, where plants thrive and people do, too, thanks to the amazing, free healthcare that all citizens receive courtesy of miraculous health-o-matic machines installed in every home. Following a series of unfortunate events — on this future Earth, there is no other kind — Max accepts a mission to help his fellow citizens. Among the obstacles in his way are Elysium's super-defensive secretary-of-defense-type Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who makes her entrance in a Jetsons-worthy tailored white dress and a Tilda Swinton haircut, looking so sharp you could cut yourself on her flaring nostrils.

You don't have to be a bloodhound to smell an allegory shaping up, particularly if you've seen writer-director Blomkamp's 2009 debut feature, District 9, in which members of an extraterrestrial race who have landed on Earth are forced to live in grimy slums while humans get the cushy suburbs. That setup was a metaphor for Apartheid in South Africa, where the director was born, and it worked well enough. But District 9 was most notable for Blomkamp's skill at creating a believable sci-fi world without spending a lot of dough. The movie felt as if, against all odds, its creator had willed it into being.

Elysium doesn't have the same brashness. Though the plot specifics are different, thematically it looks and feels almost like a sequel, made with a lot more money though not with more ingenuity or feeling. The Earth landscape, a wasteland of decrepit tower blocks, is more elaborate than the garbage-strewn tent cities of District 9, but also far less poetic. (The star of District 9, South African actor Sharlto Copley, shows up here as well, in a smaller role as a crusty, bearded baddie.) And while Blomkamp's message is morally stalwart, his delivery system sure is a bummer: Andrew Niccol's similarly themed 2011 In Time was both more stylish and more effective, a serious movie that hit its mark without taking itself too seriously.

You can see why Damon would be attracted to this material, whose politics are in line with his own. He's a thoughtful performer who only looks like he ought to be a roaring-twenties football player with a cute leather helmet and a sweater emblazoned with his team's initials. We don't think of him as a grand risk-taker, maybe because he's so unassuming that he'd never present himself as such. But he's daring in stealthy ways: In Steven Soderbergh's character study Behind the Candelabra, he played Liberace's lover Scott Thorson not as a dumb-dumb boy toy, but as a half dreamy, half practical kid brought down by tortured love. He's an actor who can tease the nuances out of a stereotype.

Just maybe not this one. In Elysium, Max, the underdog martyr who's going to save the world, spends much of the movie harnessed into a jointed metal armature that leaches him of his charm and spirit. (The scene in which his new backbone is surgically applied, unrepentant in its ookiness, is one of the few times Blomkamp shows any sense of humor.) Damon is as buff as ever, maybe even more so — it's hard to believe he made the first of his Bourne movies nearly 10 years ago. But watching him lumber through Elysium bramble of lofty ideals is no damn fun. He gets to turn on the charm in a few brief scenes with Max's childhood sweetheart (played by Alice Braga). But mostly, he radiates a grim world-weariness that just doesn't suit him, and it's hard to say if the movie sags around the weight of his performance or if he's just working inhumanly hard to hold this heavy-spirited picture aloft.

Probably the latter, and he's not alone. As Delacourt, Foster seems to be sending up her own no-nonsense frostiness — her character's yacht-club mannerisms border on camp, and whether that's intentional or not, it's at least amusing. But Damon has no such escape route. Weighed down by his steampunky apparatus, he looks sluggish even when he's on the run. In Elysium, not even Matt Damon — cheerful, smart, principled, energetic Matt Damon — can save the world without figuratively stopping every so often to say, "Oy! My back!" No matter how hard he works, he's a man of inaction.