Two movies deal with real issues

File-This film publicity file image released by TriStar, Columbia Pictures-Sony shows Matt Damon, right, in a scene from "Elysium." "Elysium" topped the weekend box office with $30.5 million, according to studio estimates Sunday, enough to beat three newcomers, including the Jennifer Aniston comedy "We're the Millers." (AP Photo/TriStar, Columbia Pictures - Sony, Kimberley French)



1 hour, 49 minutes

Tri Star Pictures

“The Frozen Ground”

1 hour, 45 minutes

Grindstone Entertainment

When, in 2009, unknown South African director Neill Blomkamp exploded out of the starting gate with the massively successful “District 9,” it was a surprise to everyone. A movie with no stars, a completely unique premise, and a locale, the slums of Johannesburg, not exactly known to be a Hollywood hotspot. And yet, due to a great script, great effects, and the enthusiastic support of Peter Jackson, “District 9” turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the summer. And then, nothing. Though the movie was set up for a sequel, “District 10” never seemed to materialize and the hot young director seemed to disappear from the spotlight. When his next super-secret project was finally announced, anticipation was at a fever pitch, at least among those sci-fi geeks who follow this sort of thing. Would “Elysium” be related to “District 9?” Would it take place on another planet? Would it be another smart science fiction flick masking serious social commentary? Would “Elysium” blow our collective minds? When the film, starring Matt Damon, was finally released last month, the answers were, in order: No, sort of, yes, and unfortunately, not really.

The problem that “Elysium,” a solid sci-fi action movie, has to grapple with is one of anticipation. The critics and “District 9” fans out there really wanted the film to be revelatory, a tale to finally elevate the genre beyond the comic book shops and cosplay dens of Comic-con and bring it into the realm of serious cinema, yet still be blisteringly entertaining. They wanted “Star Wars” meets “Blade Runner” meets “2001.”

What it is, instead, is a highly watchable, if somewhat heavy-handed, science fiction allegory of the struggle between the haves and the have -nots. It’s fun, and interesting, and even slightly thought provoking. What it is not is amazing, and, as a result, the early reviews were almost entirely negative - not hatefully negative, but more of a disappointed tone. The unexpected bright side of bad press, however, is that when I, who, several weeks after it’s national release, finally got to watch the film, I was pleasantly surprised.

Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to play it straight, working in a factory on the shambled remains of Earth in the year 2154. The planet is now populated only by the poor; desperate wretches eking out a life in the giant, city-sized slums that used to be our world’s major metropolises. The world’s wealthy have retreated to a massive space station, floating high above the planet, like a giant wagon wheel in the sky.

This habitat, Elysium, is a paradise where the air is clean, the water fresh, and healthcare is free and 100% effective for the one-percenters who live there. Immigration, on the other hand, is completely restricted and enforced with deadly efficiency. Supposedly Blomkamp is making some kind of social commentary with this picture, but I can’t imagine what issues he could be taking on.

Yes, the liberal agenda of this film is as subtle as a bull in a china shop, but that doesn’t mean that the issues aren’t real ones. I applaud the director for his willingness to use a mainstream action format to bring attention to problems that need addressing, but unfortunately the bombastic manner in which he highlights said problems may be backfiring at the box office.

“Elysium” isn’t doing particularly well, especially not compared to “District 9.” I, however, enjoyed the film. Max, after receiving a fatal dose of radiation, is forced to break down the gates of Elysium in order to gain access to the miracle cures inside. Sharlto Copely, star of “District 9,” appears here as Kruger, a psychotic government agent, tasked with eliminating undesirables as assigned by Elysium. Jodie Foster is Delacourt, Kruger’s handler, and ambitious head of security for Elysium, yet with her eyes on a much larger prize. Copely is very good at playing unhinged and seems to be having a great time in the role. Foster, on the other hand, is the movie’s weak link. I feel like the script is too on the nose for such a talented actress and she was never able to really grab ahold of her character. She comes off as little more than a conniving Snidely Whiplash-style villain.

Despite it’s problems, “Elysium” is never boring and is consistently entertaining. Blomkamp’s signature trash-tech sensibilities are in full display here, the production design of Earth highlighting a world where everything looks significantly used, dented, dirty, even the robots and high-tech weapons. Word of warning to the faint of heart, “Elysium” is pretty bloody. The action gets exceedingly violent, though somewhat repetitive and not particularly affecting. “Elysium” is not a successor to “District 9” but that’s not necessarily reason for despair. It’s only the second film in what will, hopefully, be a long and fruitful career. And who knows, maybe we will get “District 10” one day after all. Grade: B-

I also want to take a moment to mention a movie that a lot of people, in this state, anyway, have been eagerly awaiting. “The Frozen Ground” was finally released last week, sort of.

It played in Wasilla and in ten other cities around the country, probably a case of the studio fulfilling a contractual obligation to theatrically release the film, but as minimally as they could get away with. It was simultaneously released On-Demand, the new Direct-to-Video, I suppose. My wife and I downloaded it this weekend and it’s no surprise that it’s getting the release it is. The movie isn’t awful by any means, but it’s not particularly good either. The giddy joy you get at seeing someone you know, like local actor Jamie Nelson sneaking in a line with John Cusack, Nikiski grad Josh Ball barking over the phone at Nicholas Cage, or radio host and Watershed do-gooder Dan Pascucci helping to fill out the crowd in the film’s numerous strip club scenes, can only take you so far before the substandard script brings you back to reality.

Cage, as State Trooper Jack Halcombe, basically sleepwalks through his role as the cop who brings down serial killer Robert Hansen.

Cusack, who plays Hansen, does his best, but the script utterly fails to give any insight or depth to this monster who, despite having multiple prior sexual assault arrests, managed to maintain the facade of good friend and family man within the Anchorage community for years before being caught.

See the movie for the novelty of seeing someone you recognize, of seeing Anchorage on film, of seeing beautiful Alaska scenery. But don’t go in expecting much more than that. Grade: C-

“Elysium” is rated R for bloody violence and language.

“The Frozen Ground” is rated R for violent content, sexuality/nudity, language and drug use.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.