Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9, introduced a filmmaker with an exciting talent for sci-fi visual effects, and for story-telling with a distinctive cultural resonance. The movie’s digitized aliens, stranded on Earth, were flawlessly embedded in grubby real-world environments, and their pitiful situation -- penned up in a Johannesburg slum by their human overlords – mirrored the lingering injustices of apartheid in the director’s native South Africa.
Blomkamp’s new movie, Elysium, although made with a much larger budget and a couple of Hollywood stars in attendance, is essentially more of the same. His skill at mixing digital elements into live action is still impressive – especially the huge aircraft hovering above the ground in some scenes -- and the story he has come up with has a classic sci-fi structure. But his social observations here – about famously screwed-up U.S. immigration and healthcare policies – lead him to advance simpleminded political fixes for these complex issues that could only pass for deep thought in the movie business. They’re a thudding distraction from what should be the movie’s more straightforward pleasures.
The story is set in Los Angeles in 2154. The city is a polluted hellhole, populated largely by people who speak Spanish. Wealthy Anglos have fled the planet – or L.A., at least -- for Elysium, a giant luxury space wheel high above, where they sip cocktails by their swimming pools and occasionally natter in French. Best of all, their elegant homes are equipped with miraculous medical technology that can cure any disease.
Elysium is naturally a dream destination for the impoverished masses down below, who long for a better life. And since the idyllic torus is only a quick spaceship hop away, underground entrepreneurs do a brisk business ferrying desperate people up to it for purposes of illegal immigration. (How this would work is not something to which Blomkamp appears to have given much thought: there’s no place on the pristine Elysium where a grimy smuggler ship might set down unnoticed, and no conceivable way the scruffy illegals onboard could quickly blend into the big wheel’s wealthy white populace.) Those spacecraft that aren’t shot down by Elysium’s missile defenses meet with a frosty reception from homeland-security chief Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who barks to her minions, “Send them to deportation! Get them off this planet!” And Delacourt – whose creamy gray wardrobe testifies to the presence of an Armani outlet somewhere on Elysium – thinks the torus government for which she works is going soft on this sort of thing: together with a depraved mercenary named Kruger (District 9 star Sharlto Copley), she’s plotting a coup that will allow her to clamp down even harder.
Meanwhile, in the roiling metropolis back on Earth, an ex-con named Max (Matt Damon) is working a straight job at Armadyne, the company that fabricates the fearsome robocops that keep the citizenry in line. (Their savage stop-and-frisk activities might draw sighs of yearning from some New York City politicians.) Max, with his shaved head and skin full of jailhouse tattoos, has turned his back on lawbreaking. But when a factory accident leaves him with a lethal dose of radiation poisoning – and only five days to live – he, too, lines up for a life-saving trip to Elysium. His smuggler friend Spider (Wagner Moura) agrees to help, but only if Max will undertake a dangerous mission – kidnapping Armadyne CEO Carlyle (William Fichtner) and downloading Elysium’s defense data from his brain. (This would make more sense if the stiff, emotionless Carlyle were a robot himself – he acts like one -- but Blomkamp doesn’t pursue that possibility.) Max accepts this deal, with the understanding that he’ll be allowed to take along his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose little daughter is dying of leukemia and can only be cured on Elysium.
All of this is a serviceable prelude for a sci-fi action adventure. But the movie is hobbled by a number of problems. After the weakened Max has a rigid metal exo-skeleton bolted onto his body (in a fairly horrific surgery scene), Damon is robbed of his considerable physical expressiveness, and left to glumly clump around for the rest of the film. Foster’s character is nothing more than a symbol of bureaucratic heartlessness, and Copley’s sneering villain is a parody of evil incarnate. (The actor also deploys a thick South African accent that’s sometimes impenetrable).
Blomkamp’s commitment to handheld camerawork is also overdone – even a quiet closeup of a woman in a room has a telltale shaky-cam jitter. And after its promising start, the movie’s sudden descent into run-of-the-mill gun battles, fistfights and chase scenes in its second half is a letdown. There’s not a whole lot that’s really new going on in this picture. Even when it shoots for the stars, it never really takes off.
We’re the Millers
We’re the Millers is a simple elevator-pitch comedy that’s brought to life by its actors. Jason Sudeikis is David, an aging Denver pot dealer. Jennifer Aniston is David’s apartment-house neighbor Rose, a similarly aging stripper who thinks David is a jerk. Emma Roberts plays Casey, a sullen street kid David rescues from a gang of thugs one night. And Will Poulter (a Chronicles of Narnia veteran) is Kenny, a neighborhood dork in whom David takes a fond interest. When David is robbed of his dealer bag and $43,000 in illicit proceeds, his drug-king boss, Brad (Ed Helms), says he’ll forgive the debt if David will just travel down to Mexico for him and pick up a consignment of weed. David recruits Rose, Casey and Kenny to join him on this trip, impersonating a family as cover for the smuggling mission. They don’t like each other very much, but as their journey proceeds, they begin to develop family-like ties.
That’s about it. Helms’ raving schemer quickly becomes an annoyance, and there’s some very silly comedic business (when a sack of pot falls from a shelf in the RV David has rented for the mission, Aniston quickly swaddles it in a towel, passing it off as a baby to prevent unwanted detection). And when the fake family arrives at the heavily guarded headquarters of the Mexican pot supplier, there’s a treacherous twist – engineered by Brad – that didn’t entirely make sense to me.
But Sudeikis’ solid nice-guy appeal and comic flair are substantial assets (preparing for the big trip, he earnestly looks up “drug smuggling” on Wikipedia); and Aniston, as she did in Horrible Bosses, demonstrates a fearless ease with lewd comedy (and, in a couple of stripping scenes, a formidably well-toned body). Roberts and Poulter get some funny moments, too. (Bitten by a spider that’s crawled into his pants, Poulter sprouts a set of outsize prosthetic genitals – gross-out humor is an iron requirement in this kind of picture.) There are also scary intimations of oral sex in a cameo by Luis Guzmán as a corrupt Mexican cop, and some wild antics in a tent featuring Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn as a pair of straight-arrow tourists with suppressed sexual desires.
We’re the Millers won’t change any part of anyone’s life, but it’s an amiable exercise in an admittedly formulaic genre. There are much worse ways to spend an hour and a half or so – just look around the multiplex on your next visit.