Mega-budget spectacles are rarely considered the beacons of high culture, but those factory-sealed, CGI-heavy efforts have attracted an especially large amount of vitriol this summer. With a range of pricey flops streaming out of the studios, seemingly foolproof products now take on the dimensions of easy targets. With so many better alternatives, it's hard not to get into the shooting gallery spirit. I have done as much by suggesting that the bloated "Man of Steel" made every other Superman movie look like an indie, that the original premise of "Pacific Rim" was corrupted by loud and empty qualities that turned it into a "different kind of dumb," and that the solid but largely unmemorable "The Wolverine," with its fugitive protagonist, provided a metaphor for franchises forced against better judgement for another go-around. I didn't bother jabbing at "The Lone Ranger," R.I.P.D." or "After Earth," but plenty of others did.
However, this week's release of Neil Blomkamp's "Elysium" changes the tenor of the conversation. An original, visionary science fiction narrative, rated R, weighted with heavy conceits about class struggle and technocratic extremes, Blomkamp's brainy dystopic follow-up to the runaway success "District 9" comes nowhere near the satisfying heights of that endearing $30 million treat. Yet "Elysium" cost somewhere between three and six times as much as "District 9" (depending on how much you figure in the marketing budget) and looks like it. Blomkamp's near-future parable, in which Earth's wealthiest inhabitants have fled to a posh colony orbiting the planet while the lower classes fester in the wreckage below, is the best looking movie of its type since "Avatar." Like that phenomenon, even as it deals with dark themes in somewhat heavy-handed fashion, "Elysium" counteracts the transparent message with an impressive amount of gravitas. And so the ubiquitous special effects, which fill the screen from the first image to the last, contain a satisfactory degree of calculation.
The biggest disappointments with "Elysium" are familiar ones. Matt Damon, playing an Earthbound factory working fighting to make his way up to the colony and obtain pricey medical help before a work-related injury can kill him, delivers a fairly credible turn -- but Jodie Foster, as the icy overseer of Elysium's exclusive community, has been largely wasted. Sharlto Copley, as the chief villain seeking to stop Damon in his path, lacks much in terms of novelty. The plot, while loaded with futuristic details and a post-apocalyptic landscape not too dissimilar from "District 9," suffers from all-too-common third act issues in which a lot of fists fly and things explode as a bland means of obtaining resolution.
Compared to the apparent industry standard, though, "Elysium" provides far more engaging thrills: Unlike the empty space showdowns in "Man of Steel," Blomkamp offers genuinely thrilling aerial battles that include the gripping application of a grenade in short range moments before a crash landing, marking one of the more exciting set pieces to take place in a virtual world. Unlike "Pacific Rim," the clashes between man and beast are easier to follow and more fluidly engaging: In this case, a cyborg-enhanced Damon -- equipped with a grotesque exoskeleton slovenly applied to his body by underworld thugs to assist him in a for-hire task to steal information from a high ranking official (William Fichtner) -- engages mano-a-mano with a defensive robot.
And while "Lone Ranger" attempted to address the persecution of the American Indian within the constraints of its cartoonish plot, "Elysium" takes its dark vision of a hierarchical future dead seriously, co-opting the sleek imagery of believable space ships and other gadgetry for the sake of a global rant against the privileged nature of expensive technology. Of course, that in itself serves as a wry indictment of the blockbuster process.
But does "Elysium," and by extension a thoughtful, polemically driven filmmaker like Blomkamp, belong in Hollywood? That's a difficult question the movie fails to resolve. Under the severe demands of commercial filmmaking, personal authorship and complicated argumentation tend to fall by the wayside. Blomkamp has made "Elysium" about as edgy as it can get without sacrificing the requisite assemblage of explosions and gunplay that eventually subsume the movie. But these ingredients are distinctly out of sync with the message, so that when the ideologically enhanced finale arrives, it emerges rather clumsily out of the wreckage of simulated effects. If "Elysium" is the brainiest Hollywood movie of the summer, it's also the most conflicted one.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony releases "Elysium" nationwide on Friday. It should perform solid business due to star power and appealing genre ingredients as well as a weak box office, and it should have legs throughout August's relatively weak mainstream release calendar.