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Future Imperfect

The dim dystopia of Elysium. Plus: We're the Millers comes close and The Canyons crash-lands.

Elysium is a smart, handsome, severely conscientious, intermittently entertaining diversion that wants you to think without having to overthink, to feel but not too much, to achieve timeliness without you looking down at your watch. It wants you to be irate at such abstract injustices as social and economic inequality while perhaps not noticing that the movie itself is situated upon a version of that very imbalance. It’s adventurous and aggravatingly conventional at the same time, full of both allegorical ideas about revolution and cute kids pulling at the coattails of grown men.

The writer and director Neill Blomkamp seems sad having to set to his movie in the Los Angeles of the future, in a 2154 that’s dusty and dehydrated, strewn with trash and debris and graffiti. He seems sad that he has to make this movie, that we still aren’t the world. He’s crying: Why aren’t we?

In Elysium, everyone is Latin, off-Latin, or Boerish. More than once, the camera floats up above the earth and gives you dilapidated shacks for as far as the eye can see. It looks like Soweto or parts of Rio de Janeiro on infinite repeat. In the opening minutes, titles explain that those images stand in for the entire planet, which is “diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated.” They tell us that the wealthy — whites and one Indian president who’s revealed to be virtually powerless — have decamped to a not-too-distant, spoked wheel called Elysium, which hangs mockingly visible from the streets of Los Angeles like an astral hood ornament.

The people of L.A. stagnate while residents of the synthetically verdant-looking wheel resemble figures in most architecture mockups. Rebellious Angelenos hop into spaceships that speed up toward the wheel only to have its defense secretary — the steely owner of a platinum-blonde bob named Delacourt, who’s played by Jodie Foster — arrange to shoot them down. Madame Secretary phones down to L.A. and instructs a vicious (and viciously bearded) military agent called Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to launch guided missiles at the so-called illegals. It’s strange that she hasn’t found a way to weaponize her haircut. At least two of the invaders of Delacourt’s air space — a Latina and her ill daughter — wanted access to a bed that heals the sick simply by scanning the body. It’s a device even more sophisticated than the more gruesomely depicted versions in Prometheus and The Wolverine.

In less than 20 minutes, Elysium presents itself as a movie depressed about socioeconomic wrongs, that the poor live in City of God and the rich live in a land whose theme music is “Pachelbel’s Canon.” How does anyone down there successfully get up there? Blomkamp presents a young laborer named Max Da Costa as a possible bridge. Max was raised by Spanish-speaking nuns, one of whom tells him, in a childhood flashback, “You will do something important.” (Yes, like grow up to look like Matt Damon!) His Max is a poor ex-con factory worker, accosted and attacked by robocops, who target him because, perhaps, he’s the only white guy in sight. He must be guilty of something.

Indeed, Max can’t catch a break unless, of course, the break is of his arm. In the hospital, his boyhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) happens to be both his nurse and a lifelong crush. She accepts a date, but before love can happen Max suffers a terrible workplace disaster that leaves him fatally radioactive and suddenly of interest to a band of radical illegals, led by Wagner Moura, who’ve been trying to make it to Elysium. The plan to get there — so Max can hop into one of those health-reversal machines — requires both surgery for a neurally interfaced exoskeleton and stealing from an Elysium citizen (in this case, a powerful CEO played by William Fichtner, who happens to also have very important codes that a power-mad Delacourt desperately wants).

Blomkamp has overwritten this movie — Frey has a daughter with leukemia; would Max please, please get her to Elysium, too? — but you watch, curious about where he’ll take it and you and these actors. Damon doesn’t have far to go. He’s given some tattoos and dangerous backstory, but he’s playing a saint, and as fearless as he’s become as an actor, this is not a part that asks him to put much on the line. That’s fine, but once the movie has offered another flashback or plea for pity on Max’s behalf, you know that Blomkamp could have made this movie with just about any actor. He doesn’t need a star to propel the material. Damon is as much a hood ornament as Elysium is.

Meanwhile, Foster attacks her scenes with a kind of menace — Blomkamp encourages her to use French as a typical demonstration of exclusive refinement and to speak English with a kind of vaguely British hardness. It’s as if Blomkamp took the movie away before Foster finished figuring out her performance. At least once, her lips are moving in the opposite direction of her dialogue. Is the character malfunctioning or is the actor?

The movie also has a thankless part for Diego Luna, and Braga, a Brazilian who was in City of God, seems stuck as the restorative sci-fi love interest — as she was in I Am Legend and Repo Men. She might be a terrific actress, but if this is all Hollywood will let her do — flinty girlfriend-mothers — I don’t think I can watch. It’s Moura who’s the best thing in this movie, but he does so much barking that at some point what you’re really admiring is his vocal stamina.

Blomkamp’s previous film, District 9 from four years ago, was a more explicit, if more obvious, science-fiction apartheid allegory (it was set in the South African townships). There, the non-whites were literal aliens called “prawns,” who were bound to shanties and chronically persecuted. Mostly, the story (an inspired act of empathy) concerned the mutation of a white bureaucrat, played by Copley, from person to prawn.

In Elysium, surgery turns Max into a ghetto-deluxe prawn, metallic and full of USB ports. (One character calls him a favela ninja. I’m calling him the Toxic Avenger.) Blomkamp, at the moment, is neither a dramatist nor — despite whatever it is that Copley is doing in his films — a natural comedian. He was born in 1973, grew up white in apartheid-era Johannesburg, and has opted for moralist action spectacles. Elysium seizes on the more global woe of apartheid, but Blomkamp doesn’t give any specificity to his sense of injustice. The movie is political without ever risking being mistaken for a polemic.

There’s a desert brawl at the film’s midway point and some climactic combat up on Elysium that’s set in the same kind of power plant/science laboratory as a lot of the rest of these movies — Star Trek Into Darkness and The Wolverine being two recent examples. (So much thought has gone into how Elysium should look that the film seems terrified to touch anything. This place is the production-design equivalent of your grandmother’s plastic-encased couch: no spills.)

Any thematic audacity is snuffed out by action sequences that you can now buy at Dollar General. What, also, are we to do with the many flashbacks to when Max and Frey were young and with the scenes in which Frey’s little girl addresses Max with a parable or the audience with her sad-puppy face? Is this a work of empathy or outrage or guilt? It’s too vague about too much to know for sure.

Blomkamp recently told Entertainment Weekly that he dislikes the science fiction label. This movie is now, he said, meaning that setting Elysium in 2154 is, what? A red herring? A marketing ploy? An excuse to spend a lot of money? Obviously, he meant that the film can’t be dismissed as mere science fiction. He’s going after the 1 percent. He’s going after government neglect and venality. Apparently, he’s also going after the Tijuana police, who, not long ago, nabbed Blomkamp on the U.S.-Mexico border and dropped him and a producer in the middle of nowhere. This time, alas, it’s personal — and yet not nearly enough. Blomkamp is also going after other movies, ones starring Charlton Heston, say. There’s also George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, John Carpenter’s Escape From … films, and the museum-ready miserablism of Alejandro González Iñárritu. If you saw Oblivion from the spring, with Tom Cruise, and remember it, you’ll know where Elysium wants to tread, and you’ll ask whether a better, less biblical solution was available.

If Blomkamp is mad as hell, that’s not what you feel. You feel marketplace concerns. Crazier guns! More evil Copley to shoot and be shot at! Blomkamp is a talented, loosely visionary director, but, after two movies, it appears to be a limited vision. He’s stuck between real rebellion and real marketability. So the new movie is a mess of violence and parental devotional, but rarely at the same time. Depending on the audience, one is meant to make the other palatable. And Damon is here to make Elysium palatable to everyone.

If you’re TriStar Pictures, some delicacy might be in order. Maybe you don’t want your socioeconomic-justice action blockbuster to pit a Braga or Luna or Kerry Washington or Will Smith alone against Planet Country Club. You don’t want your first movie out of the gate to look like a race riot. But you can’t help but wonder whether some people will see Damon anointed the chosen one while surrounded by indigent, affronted, capable brown people and think, We don’t need another hero.

We're the Millers People are really laughing at We’re the Millers. I told a friend after I saw it a couple nights ago that I didn’t find it that funny. “OMG, you’re crazy,” she said. “Different strokes,” she went on, praying for my soul. The movie has Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, and Will Poulter as four lowlifes who fake being a family to smuggle drugs from Mexico to the U.S. in an RV. Sudeikis’s character needs a bigger dealer (Ed Helms, hopefully doing a parody of Ed Helms) to forgive his debt. So he recruits Aniston, who has quit her job as a stripper and needs to pay her rent; Roberts, who needs to stay out of trouble; and virginal Poulter, who wants to get into some.

There are several run-ins with a Christian family in an RV, headed by Kathryn Hahn and Nick Offerman. One encounter happens inside a tent and culminates with Hahn’s hands on Aniston’s breasts. There’s a beat missing in this movie. I wasn’t sure what it was, and then Aniston and Roberts show Poulter how to kiss in the RV. The scene works because it builds to a punch line that you can see coming but whose arrival you dread. The director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, keeps an increasingly dazed Poulter oscillating between the younger woman and other older one, between the mother and the daughter, so long that it’s funny.

The movie thinks it has anarchic spirit, but only in that scene is it real. True comedic anarchy for this movie requires the phony family to subvert real family values without winking at us. Aniston and Roberts get so much pleasure out of showing Poulter what to do with his tongue — not sexual pleasure, but the maternal and filial satisfaction of imparting a lesson to a son or a brother. And Poulter, who was so good as a tween Brit filmmaker in Son of Rambow, has a great American accent, and deserves a movie of his own, can’t process the lessons fast enough.

Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) tries to make a farce out of a script credited to four writers (Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders, and John Morris), but the comedy comes sporadically. He oversees a good bit with some Mexican stowaways at the border checkpoint, but too much of the movie feels compromised. At some point Pretty Woman comes up in relation to Aniston’s character, who’s not — so not, she doth protest — a prostitute, and you remember that that movie was once a downer that became a Garry Marshall upper. We’re the Millers also feels as if it began as a much darker film and was gradually lightened up by a fear of going too far. Instead, the movie’s lingering close-ups on yearning faces and heart-to-heart conversations force the fake Millers into real familial longing that’s more bogus than the family itself.

But nobody’s laughing at that. They’re laughing at Aniston doing an I’m-still-hot-dammit striptease that is not her finest comedic (or kinetic) moment. They’re cracking up at the big, furry spider that bites Poulter on the nuts and make his eyes go as big as his swollen scrotum. That stuff brings down the house. But I must have been Buster Keaton, because the house came down around me.

The Canyons As meek as Elysium and We’re the Millers might be, neither is the embarrassment of bashfulness that is The Canyons, a Los Angeles sex movie directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lindsay Lohan and the prolific adult-movie actor James Deen. No one here risks enough to achieve disaster. It’s worse than that. It believes it’s taking risks it actually has no interest in taking, that it’s seeing profundity in the showbiz shallows. Lohan and Deen are a couple festering with distrust. He’s some kind of movie producer who thinks she’s banging the lead (Nolan Gerard Funk) in his upcoming movie, because she is. How long until he calls her on it? How long until she concedes? How long until one of the actors does some acting?

Lohan languishes and broods and lashes out. As a screen presence, she has become a spectacle of ruined glory, like the dilapidated movie palaces in the vacuous montage that opens the film. You trust in powers that she has yet to use, as though playing Elizabeth Taylor in that terrible TV astonishment has nonetheless imbued her with Taylor’s stature. This must be what a fool believes, since dialogue like “I’m really sorry I haven’t congratulated you on starting your own PR company” are scarcely “Mama, face it. I was the slut of all time.” No man who once wrote a novel as lyrical and lacerating as The Rules of Attraction should ever admit to having written this.

In some of the lighting and music cues, you can feel the movie straining to evoke doom and the ominous atmosphere and erotic saturation of David Lynch, who’s an obvious point of reference (so, for me, were Henry Jaglom and Alan Rudolph). If Lynch specializes in movie-minded fun houses and sublimated waste, The Canyons is unsalvageable rubbish.

Schrader is no dummy, though. He’s a brilliant, intellectual director, who, perhaps, was looking for the easy hit he’s never had. This is all highly watchable, but so are fires, car crashes, and humping dogs. Very few of Schrader’s artistic ideas about sex and masculinity come through this time, only Lohan’s orchestration of some homoeroticism during a Christmas-lit four-way. Every scene here has the potential to be taken to some higher power, the way Lynch used the knowingly terrible first half of Mulholland Drive as a portal to the hallelujahs of the second. There are moments in this film that imply that Schrader is looking for somewhere to hang his artistic hat, and the only hook he can find is Deen’s cock.

Filed Under: Future, Series

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris