It’s been four years since South African film-maker Neill Blomkamp emerged from nowhere with District 9, a sophisticated allegorical sci-fi thriller boasting a brilliantly executed concept that completely belied the film’s relatively modest budget.
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, William Fichtner
Star rating: * *
Going on to pick up four Oscar nods (including one for Best Picture), and earning back seven times its production costs, it suggested Blomkamp was going to be one of those Christopher Nolan-esque directors who might go on to work with the kind of massive budgets that would really allow his ideas to flourish.
While that may yet prove to be the case, his follow-up film Elysium doesn’t inspire all that much confidence that he has a lot to say now that he has Hollywood’s full arsenal at his disposal.
Set in the year 2154, when the world’s richest citizens have abandoned a ruined Earth to the scavenging masses, it’s already the third major blockbuster this summer – following Oblivion and the woeful After Earth – to latch on to a trope that has been in such regular play since the days of Logan’s Run that even Elysium’s star Matt Damon has been here before.
Having voiced a blue-collar worker who discovers he may be the saviour of the human race in the animated sci-fi flop Titan A.E. in 2000, Damon here plays Max, a blue-collar worker who discovers that, wouldn’t you know it, he might just be the saviour of the human race.
Lest Max’s Jesus complex seems too pronounced, however, Blomkamp initially buries this by making him a self-interested 99 percenter, a reformed criminal diligently trying to keep his head down and work hard in order to buy himself passage to the titular space station orbiting Earth that he’s been dreaming about visiting since he was a kid.
As the name suggests, Elysium is a sort of heavenly paradise for the favoured few, a galactic gated community full of mansions, swimming pools and magnificently landscaped gardens that can apparently flourish in a shallow atmosphere. The wealthy live here without incident, far away from the toxicity of Earth and in perfect health, thanks to every citizen’s home coming equipped with an amazing, fix-everything medical machine. Indeed, so miraculous are these cure-all devices that Elysium’s inhabitants seem to live in perfect harmony with one another without any petty jealousies or other human foibles getting in the way.
Not that we get to see much evidence of how this utopia functions on a daily basis. Blomkamp seems wholly uninterested in exploring any inherent flaws or complexity in this idealised world, perhaps because it might complicate its function as a plot device for what is, in effect, a rather heavy-handed parable about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
The latter takes on a more urgent dimension back on the waste-dump that is 22nd century Los Angeles when an accident at the plant where Max works results in him receiving a fatal dose of radiation. With only five days left to live, his only hope is to get to one of those fix-all gizmos on Elysium, a course of action that requires him to work reluctantly for Spider (Wagner Moura), a crime lord who specialises in ferrying desperate citizens to Elysium, like an intergalactic “coyote”.
The problem with this is that Elysium’s icy, hard-nosed, French-speaking military commander (a bizarrely accented Jodie Foster) has a penchant for shooting these interlopers out of the sky before they can even crash-land on the lush lawns of Elysium’s don’t-know-they’re-born citizenry.
Blomkamp weaves in further narrative layers involving a kidnapped arms dealer (played by William Fichtner), a coup, a sickly child, a love interest (played by Alice Braga), and an attempt to turn Max’s head into a hard-drive data repository containing all the necessary info to “reboot” Elysium and make society a fairer place.
Unfortunately Blomkamp approaches the film with such earnestness that the allegorical aspects weigh it down to the point where it becomes self-serious and ultimately tedious to watch.
Damon – a fine actor frequently able to make outlandish scenarios seem credible – seems like he’s fighting a losing battle to prop all this up (ironic, given his character’s journey is all about realising that he has figuratively to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders). Foster’s bizarre turn as Elysium’s fascistic leader-in-waiting, meanwhile, just borders on camp.
Only District 9 star Sharlto Copley – as a mercenary who has refused a place on Elysium to indulge his sadistic pleasures on Earth – brings a flavour of what made Blomkamp’s film-making such an exciting prospect to begin with.
It’s good that Blomkamp hasn’t entirely lost touch with his roots, but in his efforts to make a summer movie with a social conscience, he’s ended up making the blockbuster equivalent of bland, tasteful awards bait.
We’re the Millers (15)
Directed by: Rawson Marshal Thurber
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter
A blue-chip comedy cast and the director of the sublimely silly Dodgeball aren’t enough to make this road trip comedy about a makeshift family of drug mules funny. That’s a shame because there’s a promising idea at the heart of this tale of an ageing pot dealer (Jason Sudeikis) whose surrogate family – comprising a stripper (Jennifer Aniston), his neglected teen neighbour (Will Poulter) and a runaway (Emma Roberts) – begins to feel more real to him as their worsening situation intensifies their collective dysfunction.
Unfortunately, all their attempts to pass for a boring suburban family on holiday fall flat as director Rawson Marshal Thurber picks obvious targets to lampoon while cluttering up the film with needless subplots that seem to exist only to facilitate lame jokes about swingers and incest in a desperate bid to be edgy. In supporting roles, neither Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman nor The Office’s Ed Helms can do much to bring their lazily conceived characters to life, and while Son of Rambow’s Will Poulter more than holds his own in his first big Hollywood comedy, Aniston must be wondering why, at this stage in her career, she’s been reduced to playing a pole dancer.
Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, Sharon Stone
* * *
American cinema’s fascination with the porn industry continues with this artful-looking biopic of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace. Adopting a semi-Rashomon-like structure to reflect the rival versions of her story, the film falls somewhere between the giddiness of Boogie Nights and the grimness of Wonderland without really holding the porn industry to account for its exploitative practices. Instead, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Howl) seem much more interested in showing the private pain percolating away beneath the surface as the Deep Throat phenomenon took porn into the 1970s mainstream. To this end, their nifty narrative trick of rewinding the story midway through to show how the seemingly glamorous world in which Linda (Amanda Seyfried) suddenly finds herself is rife with abuse, works well enough, deepening Linda’s plight and showing how sleazy and dangerous things had become behind closed doors thanks to her marriage to her bullying husband Chuck Traynor (an unsettling Peter Sarsgaard). Nevertheless, it still seems as if there are a lot of holes in this particular story, even if the quality of the acting (Sharon Stone is particularly good as her domineering mother) helps distract from the lack of verifiable facts.
What Maisie Knew (15)
Directed by: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
Starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgård, Joanna Vanderham, Onata Aprile
* * * *
Though it’s sometimes easy to be swayed by the power of a good child performance, six-year-old Anita Aprile’s centrality to this contemporary adaptation of Henry James’s novel really is something special. With the story revolving around a dysfunctional couple’s break-up as seen through the eyes of their sensitive daughter, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel manage to keep the focus on her at all times in order to fulfil the remit of the title. Of course it would be unrealistic for Aprile to process every scrap of information in the script the way an older child actor would, but judicious editing and her own reactive nature helps convey the introspective emotional rollercoaster the titular Maisie is on as her rock-star mother (Julianne Moore) and antiques dealer father (Steve Coogan) use her as a pawn in their selfish, irresponsible attempts to hurt one another.
Moore and Coogan do strong, measured work here, as do Alexander Skarsgård and Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham as Maisie’s new step-parents, who find themselves bonding with each other over their shared concern for Maisie’s wellbeing. What follows is an unconventional romantic drama, one that explores in nuanced fashion the perpetually messy machinations of love and family.
Morrissey 25: Live
Directed by: James Russell
Given Morrissey’s unique influence on the pop culture landscape over the last few decades, this concert film marking his 25 years as a solo artist since splitting up The Smiths could have been the perfect opportunity to explore his importance by doing something along the lines of Don’t Look Back, The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Those were concert films that transcended the form by getting to the heart of why their subjects mattered on and off stage; all we get here is a low-rent Shine a Light – a puffed-up, ego-massaging portrait of British pop’s greatest enigma cosying up to his adoring fans.
Filmed this year at the relatively small 1,800-seater Hollywood High auditorium in LA, 25: Live also over-sells the intimacy of the performance as a unique event when, in truth, Morrissey is pretty good at playing tiny, out-of-the way venues. Indeed, having recently toured town halls across the UK, it’s too bad the film isn’t about that. At least then we’d get a genuine sense of his unique relationship with his fans, something that’s hard to gauge from all the glossy black-and-white montages here of Moz greeting the likes of Patti Smith, Joaquin Phoenix and Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey backstage.
Out in the Dark (15)
Directed by: Michael Mayer
Starring: Jamil Khoury, Michael Aloni, Nicholas Jacob
* * *
The irony of Out in the Dark is that the admirably matter-of-fact gay relationship at the centre of this Gaza strip-set thriller draws attention to itself by virtue of being the most credible thing in an otherwise overloaded issue movie.
Still, that’s a small niggle given how well debut director Michael Mayer side-steps the love-across-the-divide traps that could have tripped up this tale of a Jewish lawyer (Michael Aloni) who falls for a Palestinian student (Nicholas Jacob), newly arrived in Tel Aviv to study psychology.
Aloni and Jacob generate plenty of chemistry and the film doesn’t cop out of depicting the physical side of it. It’s only when the film lurches into thriller mode in the last act that interest begins to wane as a more simplistic attempt to engage with the larger political complications of the region detract from the intimate story.
Follow Alistair Harkness on Twitter @aliharkness