by Steve Habrat
In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp took moviegoers by storm with his hugely original directorial debut District 9, a grungy science-fiction gift from the gods that acted as an allegory for apartheid in Johannesburg. Made with only $30 million, District 9 went on to make $37 million its opening weekend and earn almost unanimous praise from both critics and audiences for being one of the most unique and human science fiction films to come around in years. District 9 then went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, a huge surprise considering it was a summer action movie. After a grueling four-year wait, Blomkamp finally returns to the science fiction genre with Elysium, which finds the director digging deeper into the politics that he hinted at with District 9. While not quite as invigorating as District 9, Elysium still finds Blomkamp at the top of his game, crafting another pedal-to-the-metal sci-fi thriller around heady ideas and left-wing politics. Elysium doesn’t shy away from current hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class warfare, but the film still finds plenty of time to keep audiences hooked with a full story, immaculate special effects, and a handful of extraordinary performances from a group of gifted actors. Did I mention that it is also pretty powerful?
Elysium begins in 2154, with Earth being an overcrowded and polluted wasteland. The human population has been split into two groups: the wealthy, who have fled Earth and moved to the ritzy space community Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves in the slums on Earth. Among those living in the slums is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ex-con who is trying to get his life back on track. Max spends his days working a factory job at the Armadyne Corporation, the company that is responsible for building Elysium, and his evenings dreaming of moving to the glamorous city in the sky with his childhood love, Frey (played by Alice Braga). After being exposed to deadly levels of radiation at work, Max learns that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan to make his way to Elysium, where there exists Med-Pods, which are able to cure human beings of any illness or injury in seconds. Max seeks out his old friends, Spider (played by Wagner Moura) and Julio (played by Diego Luna), who have ways of sneaking Max into the heavily guarded space community. Spider agrees to help Max under one condition: that he helps steal valuable information from Carlyle (played by William Fichtner), Armadyne’s shady CEO. With his strength diminishing by the minute, Spider provides Max with an exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength to carry out the mission. As Max closes in Carlyle, he realizes that the information Spider is after will change the world forever. However, waiting for Max is Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the iron-fisted defense secretary of Elysium, and her psychotic mercenary, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), who will stop at nothing to keep Max out of Elysium.
Ditching the found footage approach that he used in District 9, Blomkamp allows Elysium to unfold in a much more conventional manner. The bulk of it isn’t comprised by expository interviews or shaky news reports from an alien warzone, but rather classic storytelling that retains the same antsy sense of urgency that made District 9 such an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Elysium means business and it is bound and determined to give you your money’s worth, especially in the action and effects department. At about the forty-minute mark, Blomkamp sends the bullets and bombs flying, and he does it in the most eye-popping way imaginable. He has guard droids getting blown to bits by exploding bullets in slow motion, spaceships zooming in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with heat seeking missiles hot on their tail, and a climatic fistfight between Kruger and Max that is sure to take your breath away. It should be noted that even though Elysium is a late summer movie, Blomkamp certainly doesn’t soften up his violence. Humans are torn to shreds by an array of advanced weaponry, one character gets a whole blown right into their face, another gets stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, and the scene in which Max gets fitted with the exoskeleton has a few graphic moments that will make you cringe.
In addition to his refusal to soften on the breakneck pacing and the flesh-ripping violence, Blomkamp also refuses to back down from his politics, which he kept largely subdued in District 9. Ever since the trailer debuted, Elysium has been taking quite a bit of heat from the right wing for its blatant left wing political standpoint. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, Blomkamp tackles hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class division/warfare, things that are currently filling news headlines as you read this. While you may think that this would automatically turn anyone with a right wing viewpoint off, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. It really isn’t difficult to see where Blomkamp stands on these issues, but it’s the way he places them within the action that is truly admirable. He almost presents them as a cautionary warning rather than an awkward lecture. A few of these topics are wisely pushed to the foreground, mostly implied rather than outwardly addressed, which is nice because it prevents the film from really forcing itself on those who disagree with the side that the film is taking, but perhaps the most controversial topic of all (health care) doesn’t budge. The most relieving aspect of all is that Blomkamp gives these ideas a huge amount of emotional weight, and by the end, it is almost impossible to say that you weren’t shaken up at least once.
As far as the performances are concerned, Blomkamp doesn’t fall back on a group of unknowns to sit behind the wheel of the film. Unlike District 9, there are a handful of A-list thespians headlining Elysium. Damon is in full action mode as our dying hero Max, a guy who longs for a place in paradise. It doesn’t take us long to like his blue-collar ex-con and he has our full support as he fights his way into the sky. Jodie Foster is ice cold as the ruthless defense secretary of Elysium, a cruel and scheming monster who has no problem shooting down shuttles carrying handfuls of innocent Earth civilians. Sharlto Copley goes full crazy and makes off with the entire film as the scene-stealing bad-boy Kruger, a psychotic mercenary who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission. If you thought Copley was fantastic as the bumbling hero Wikus in District 9, wait until you lay eyes on this bloodcurdling performance. After the disaster that was The Lone Ranger, William Fichtner completely redeems himself as the slimy CEO of the Armadyne Corporation. It’s a small role but he plays it with fire in his eyes. Braga is fragile as Frey, the heartbroken and exhausted love interest of Max. Moura is another scene-stealer as the hobbling smuggler Spider, who gets a chance to act as a sidekick to Damon’s ass-kicking Max, and Luna shows off a soft side as Julio, a car thief with a heart of gold.
At a brief hour and fifty minutes, Elysium has quite a bit of storyline to go around. There isn’t a second wasted in its surprisingly brief runtime and you’ll never find your attention starting to wander. It balances every single character and side plot perfectly, all to come together at a hugely satisfying climax that is sure to put your emotions to the test. All of the white-knuckle action is complimented with a grimy electronic score from Ryan Amon, who is able to smoothly shift from rusted synthesizers to swelling orchestral blasts. Overall, Elysium isn’t the game-changer that District 9 ended up being, but then again, that was a tough act to follow. It is, however, a consistent, clever, thrilling, poignant, and self-assured work from a true science-fiction visionary. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another four years for Mr. Blomkamp to exhilarate us with his wild imagination.
by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.