Elysium, the ambitious second film from South African writer-director Neil Blomkamp shares many of the ingredients of his visionary Oscar-nominated debut District 9. Both films are dystopian science fiction thrillers that make a statement on the massive class divide between the rich and poor; both are stunning feats of art direction and design; both have magnificently choreographed action scenes, and both also feature a superlative performance from actor Sharlto Copley. But unlike District 9, which married its concept, sociopolitical and cultural allegories with strong characterization seamlessly, Elysium is a frustrating mess that largely abandons every interesting idea it poses, fails to build any character whatsoever, and settles for wallowing in action movie clichés.
Set sometime in the mid-21st century, Elysium imagines a future in which the divide between the rich and poor has reached its pinnacle. Earth has devolved into a wasteland rife with slums, decrepit skyscrapers, and skyrocketing crime in which the starving and jobless population is governed by an army of robots. While the poor suffer with no access to any basic human rights, the world’s rich live on the titular Elysium, a state-of-the-art space station outside the Earth’s atmosphere. On this dream world, which looks like a cross between Beverly Hills and an IKEA store, the rich have access to everything they need, including tanning bed-shaped machines that have the power to cure any disease or accident – be it cancer, AIDS, or even a fully blown-off face. For reasons unknown, this technology isn’t available on Earth.
The always appealing Matt Damon plays Max, a resident on slum-Earth who, after a radiation accident at his job, is given only five days to live. Desperate to survive, he agrees to take on a perilous journey to Elysium where he can get treated. Unfortunately, the place is more heavily guarded than Fort Knox. Cue the Mission: Impossible theme. Ruling the roost, or at least trying to rule it, is a power-hungry diplomat named Delacrot (played by Jodi Foster in a bizarre one-note performance) who revels in shooting down ships full of illegal immigrants encroaching the space station’s borders. You know… like the U.S.-Mexico border. As you’ll decipher, Elysium isn’t one of those movies that leaves room for interpretation. It’s dead-set on bludgeoning you with its social-political themes.
Now sociopolitical allegories have always been the modus operandi of science fiction and if utilized in a natural way, I wouldn’t have any issue with it. But instead of making a statement on the social issues like healthcare, immigration and class warfare, allegories that he is obviously enamored with, Blomkamp chooses to turn his film into an idiotic shoot-em-up wherein the hero will face the inevitable decision of sacrificing himself for the greater good or saving himself. The fact that Blomkamp barely gives his characters any shades of depth only renders this derivative plot-line more preposterous.
When we meet Max, he’s a selfish but nevertheless likeable smartass. After getting injured, his mission becomes one thing… and one thing only: Saving himself by going to Elysium. When Delacourt releases a psychopathic killing hitman named Kruger (Copley) to hunt down Max and eliminate him, the movie is all set to become a showdown between the two. But half-way through the picture, Blomkamp changes the direction of the plot, turning Max into a Robin Hood/Christ-figure out to save the oppressed from the rich. While this change of heart is an archetypical hero’s journey trope, the way Blomkamp handles it here is embarrassingly clunky. Max’s 180 degree transformation literally happens over the span of two minutes. How and why exactly he makes that transformation, is an insulting joke on the audience.
At least Blomkamp’s flair for staging superb action set-pieces as well as world-building remains steadfast. The favela-infested Los Angeles landscape of 2154 is an astonishingly realized potpourri of dust, metal, concrete and sand. The film’s opening sequence in which three immigrant ships flee to Elysium as a jaw-dropper. As is a heist sequence that acts as a bridge between the film’s second and third acts. And Copley, with his deep South African accent, shaggy caveman beard and larger-than-Elysium performance makes for a delightful folly. It’s too bad the shoddy writing and characterization outweigh whatever goodwill the action and hard science fiction bring to the table. Elysium isn’t an outright failure. Blomkamp is clearly a gifted filmmaker and his voice will continue to evolve. However, considering the promise of its concept and the pedigree, it’s an incredibly frustrating disappointment.