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In Elysium, a Weary Matt Damon Carries the Weight of the World

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‘s 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.

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Aliens as Apartheid Metaphor in District 9

The aliens have been with us for 20 years already at the start of South African director Neill Blomkamp’s fast and furiously inventive District 9, their huddled masses long ago extracted from their broken-down mothership and deposited in the titular housing slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Unlike the space invaders of most science fiction, these six-foot-tall E.T.s (pejoratively nicknamed “prawns,” but more closely resembling the love child of a cockroach and the Creature From the Black Lagoon) come neither in peace nor in malice. They are, we are told, the worker bees of whatever galaxy they hail from, accustomed to following orders rather than giving them. And so they find themselves dazed and confused in their new home, while their flying saucer still hovers inertly over the skyline, as if waiting for a jump-start from an intergalactic AAA.

A high-end commercials director making his feature debut, Blomkamp (who also co-wrote the script with Terri Tatchell) milks his ostensibly fantastic scenario for all its allegorical worth. With its corrugated tin sheds and abject poverty, District 9 stands in for the township settlements where more than a million South African blacks still live without basic human services, two decades after the end of apartheid. But you don’t have to squint too hard to also see the itinerant community as an all-purpose analog for the ghettos of Nazi Germany, America’s inner cities, and all of those other places where unwanted, powerless peoples have been herded off far from the backyards of the ruling class. Blomkamp’s touch, however, is anything but heavy, and for most of its run time, District 9 whizzes by with a resourcefulness and mordant wit nearly worthy of its obvious influences: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dawn of the Dead, and Starship Troopers.

As the movie begins, a wave of violent prawn unrest—not unlike the one that rocked South Africa’s real townships only last month—has prompted the good people of Jo’burg to crave even greater distance from their sub-human neighbors, and a forced relocation of all alien residents to a Guantánamo-style tent city known as District 10 has become law. Enter Multi-National United, a smarmy private military contractor that places the relocation in the hands of one Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a not very bright corporate lackey who also happens to be married to the boss’s daughter. While MNU tries to decipher the aliens’ advanced weapons technology (leading to one disturbing scene set in a research lab that Dr. Mengele would have loved), affable but clueless Wikus yearns to surmount claims of nepotism. Then everything goes haywire, with the oppressor getting a crash course in what it feels like to be the oppressed.

District 9 is never better than in its first 45 minutes, as Blomkamp maps out the film’s social and economic realities via a grab bag of news reports, corporate videos, and CCTV cameras. The aliens, we learn, can understand English, but speak in their own indigenous language of guttural grunts and clicks (making this one of two major releases this month, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, to predominantly feature subtitled dialogue). Meanwhile, inside the boundaries of District 9 itself, a cadre of Nigerian gangsters exploit the prawns by charging them exorbitant prices for black-market goods (including the canned cat food the aliens regard as a culinary delicacy). Eventually, Blomkamp adds some straight dramatic scenes to the mix, around the point that the movie itself evolves into a somewhat more straightforward pursuit thriller—albeit one in which Wikus is both Dr. Richard Kimble and the one-armed man. Taking refuge in the very community he is supposed to be uprooting, the middle manager finds himself forming a tentative alliance with a science-geek prawn known by the anglicized name of Christopher Johnson (played by actor Jason Cope, with the aid of a few CGI enhancements), who may be his people’s only hope for a better life and who turns out to be the most humane, compassionate character in the District 9 landscape.

Even in the movie’s most conventional stretches, Blomkamp puts things across with terrific verve, using action and computer effects to enhance rather than trump story and character. District 9 was produced, with help from The Lord of the Rings honcho Peter Jackson, for all of $30 million (about the average advertising budget on a standard Hollywood production) after plans for Jackson and Blomkamp to collaborate on a much larger-scale adaptation of the Halo video-game franchise fell apart, and the entire project seems carried along by the scrappy energy of a bright, young filmmaker working far away from Hollywood’s prying, homogenizing eyes. Probably only with an advocate like Jackson to run interference for him could Blomkamp have gotten away with a lot of it—the Johannesburg setting (aren’t alien invasions only supposed to happen in New York, L.A., or D.C.?), the dweeby hero, the thick South African accents, the subtitles. I can’t wait to see what Blomkamp does next, and I very much hope he gets even less money to do it.