In the year 2154, Los Angeles resembles a massive trash pile with its citizens living in poverty. The space station Elysium houses all of Earth’s wealthy citizens and is so massive, it’s visible in the sky during the day. We meet Max, played by Matt Damon, on a bad day, in which he’s harassed by cops, his parole officer punishes him for something he didn’t do and he’s treated horrifically at his job. Sensing his days are numbered, he agrees to having a robotic, performance-enhancing apparatus grafted onto his body and partakes in a mission to sabotage Elysium’s elite borders.
The central flaw of writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore slump is an inability to make any human connection. His debut film, the terrific District 9, brilliantly engaged our emotions by making us care deeply about a scientist and his young boy, despite the fact that they were hideous aliens. In addition to the amazing visual effects and unique scenario, that movie presented complex, sympathetic characters whose fate gave you great concern. The maudlin attempts in Elysium to tug our heartstrings, with flashbacks to the protagonists’ childhood, are as obvious and heavy-handed as everything else in the movie.
Alice Braga plays the love of Max’s life (we know this from the ample flashbacks), a doctor and single mother with an adorable, doe-eyed, but sickly daughter. The way these characters are introduced and forced into the tale is arguably the screenplay’s greatest contrivance.
Damon’s everyman charm makes him a good choice for the lead, especially during the first half. While he isn’t believable as a tattooed car thief (Eminem was the understandable first choice for the role), Damon is endearing in scenes of Max struggling to maintain his composure and survive a grueling existence. His sarcastic, one-way conversation with a robotic bureaucrat is the film’s best scene. Once Max becomes a robo-enhanced Franken-Bourne, Damon’s performance and his character lose the relatable vulnerability and is no longer interesting.
Sharlto Copley, the star of District 9, plays Kruger, an especially repellent villain. Copley makes an impression simply by going more over the top than his co-stars and, like Jaden Smith in After Earth, makes the bizarre choice of using a sword as his futuristic weapon of choice. Jodie Foster and William Fichter play the powers-that-be in Elysium’s social ladder. They both share annoying, faux snooty-speak accents, meant to show, just in case you missed it, that they’re big jerks.
The design of Elysium and the NASA footage-like clarity of the outer space shots are remarkable, as are the anything-goes action sequences. But many shaky, hand-held shots blur some scenes, while others are frequently shot in slow-motion that have a look-at-this importance akin to a Zac Snyder movie.
Neither the post-apocalyptic earth nor the bland, Beverly Hills-like Elysium look all that appealing and the whole movie is very L.A.-centric in its scope and attitude. We never get a good look at what the rest of the earth looks like, as all humans are depicted as malnourished, desperate Mad Max extras, while the majority of the Elysium population appear to be white J. Crew models (what, no African Americans? Asians? Hawaiians? Not even Dwayne Johnson III?!).
As a blatant political commentary, it’s too transparent and obvious. One character has a computer read out that declares her “illegal alien,” then pivotally corrects her status as “legal alien.” We get it, as though the Us vs. Them story, nods to the plight of the 99 percent, use of the term “Homeland Security” and analogy of Elysium as a giant border weren’t already so blatant. Is this a liberal Hollywood sci-fi parable? Possibly, but not a very good one.
Rated R / 109 Min.