Writer/director Neill Blomkamp turned a lot of heads (and rightly so) with his first feature film, 2009’s District 9. The relatively modest (budget-wise) sci-fi flick was one of the best of the year, and it remains among the finest of its genre over the last decade.
Hoping to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder, Blomkamp is back with Elysium— a parable of the haves and have-nots set 150 years in the future. Even with a pair of Oscar winners in the lead roles, though, and despite (or, in all likelihood, as a result of) having triple the budget of District 9, Blomkamp can’t quite equal his earlier effort.
Set in 2154 (for reference, it’s as far in our future as the year 1872 is in our past), Elysium presents a world that has devolved to an almost Wall·E-like state. Poverty and disease are rampant, the world’s (over)population is crowded into disintegrating high-rises and ramshackle tenements, and the police force is made up of robots.
Meanwhile, in the titular space station, the world’s elite are living the country club life; cocktail parties, mansions, and swimming pools are the order of the day. And any malady, from cancer to broken bones, is fixed instantly with the re-atomizing swipe of a futuristic MRI. Alas, though, any of the Earth’s rabble who try to infiltrate Elysium are instantly deported back to the planet’s surface (or worse).
Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is one of the unfortunates. A paroled convict, he works the line at the local factory, but when an accident infects him with radiation, he learns he has only five days to live; his only hope is to make it to Elysium.
From there, the plot gets hopelessly convoluted, but the general gist is that Jodie Foster is Elysium Defense Minister Jessica Delacourt, she’s plotting a coup, and her guy Friday is the man who happens to be Max’s boss, Carlyle (William Fichtner). And there’s also a rogue black ops guy named Kruger (District 9 star Sharlto Copley) who’s helping. And Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) has a daughter who has cancer and has only days to live herself.
To make a long story short (too late), they end up on Elysium, frantically trying to get Max and the girl healed and to also try to bring a little justice to the world.
Blomkamp certainly has talent, at least on the directorial side; Elysium is summer movie action at its finest, and the special effects are mind-blowing. His screenwriting, though, seems to have taken a big hit since his District 9 days. That film presented a very clever allegory of life under apartheid, and though the message was transparent, it never seemed ham-fisted. The same can’t be said for Elysium. Full of overt stereotypes and a moral that’s never anything less than blatant (and closer to shameless), it sometimes feels like a lecture punctuated by ultra-violent (and I mean ultra-violent) space shootouts.
Damon, for his part, is the glue that still manages to hold everything together. I’m convinced that he could be handed a restaurant menu as a script and still make it interesting. This is the guy that made We Bought a Zoo watchable, remember? Foster, though, affecting one of the strangest accents ever put on film (and that counts Rob Morrow’s hideous attempt at Boston-ese in Quiz Show) is not much more than a caricature here. And Copley, who’s restrained performance almost single-handedly drove the District 9 train, just yells and yells and blows stuff up and yells some more.
Elysium is white-knuckle fun, sure, and the visual effects are unarguably stunning, but in the end it’s more of a bloody, space-age sermon than something destined to be a sci-fi classic.