REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite an interesting heist element, above average action, and glimpses of an intriguing future, Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his surprise hit District 9 lacks subtlety, genuine social conscience, and intelligence.
SYNOPSIS: After an accident that exposes him to lethal doses of radiation, Max DeCosta agrees to pull a heist that ultimately will take him to the space station Elysium, where he can be cured.
PROS: Alice Braga, somewhat sympathetic as a mother who wants to bring her daughter to Elysium to cure her illness; good sequence involving an information heist; intriguing vision of a Los Angeles slum.
CONS: Mindless screenplay and direction lacking subtlety; flat characters that never develop; world makes very little sense.
It is 2154, and human civilization is, of course, stratified. With their home planet a polluted mess, the One Percent opt to build Galt’s Gulch — now called Elysium — in a massive Stanford torus parked in a la grange point above the earth. Its citizens enjoy clean (if perhaps artificially assisted) air, security robots programmed to keep the peace (despite the fact that its bland citizens show little interest in dissent of any sort; apparently outer space leeches one of personality), and, most importantly, access to medical pods that can clean one’s body at not just the cellular but also atomic level. No wonder its secretary of defense, Delacourte (Jodi Foster, playing the role as a liberal’s idea of Dick Cheney in drag and speaking in an Afrikaner accent only slightly more convincing than Carrie Fisher’s British accent in Star Wars), wants to keep the remaining Ninety-Nine percent — most of whom live in a favela chic future not much different from the slums outside of present-day Mexico City, where the Los Angeles portions of Elysium were shot — from reaping its benefits, to the point where she orders single-minded earthbound mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot down unlicensed shuttles packed with desperate (and very multicultural) individuals hoping for, if not a better life, then at least a cure for some illness.
So when car thief-turned-manufacturer Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) finds himself exposed to a lethal dose of radiation as the result of a factory accident, he turns to smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura) and strikes a deal: if Max steals information from Armadyne CEO John Carlyle’s (William Fichtner) mind, Spider will help him infiltrate Elysium so he can cure himself. Carlyle also wants to go to Elysium (why he must stay in Los Angeles writer-director Neill Blomkamp never makes clear), and strikes a bargain with Delacourte: let him return to the ultimate gated community, and he will give her Elysium’s reboot codes, thereby allowing her to stage a coup and become its president.
Elysium sounds like a pretty winning scenario for a reasonably entertaining if ultimately disposable science fiction thriller. And at times Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore skiffy effort delivers precisely those thrills, as when DeCosta and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) lead the heist for the contents in Carlyle’s cranium. Unfortunately, Blompamk dampens any genuine engagement by not only sticking his tongue in his cheek but also blowing a raspberry at the audience. His depiction of futuristic Los Angeles slums evokes comparisons with the Mogadishu of Ridley Scott’s compelling Black Hawk Down, but because its leads never truly inhabit (Damon and Diego make for a pair of very clean, sweat-free slumdogs), it lacks the depth it perhaps should. In fact, many, if not all, of Elysium‘s characters never exist in more than one dimension: from Delacourte’s almost laughable Bush Doctrine principles to Spider’s ridiculously inept shuttle launches to the orbital promised land, it plays as a lesser entry in the pages of Heavy Metal, or perhaps what you might get if Michael Bay crossed Black Hawk Down with a 1970s dystopian thriller. (Damon’s Run?)
Casting is only part of the problem. Damon, a talented actor who convinced audiences that he could be a stone cold killer in the Bourne trilogy, plays DeCosta not as a hardened criminal but as a frat boy down on his luck. Foster, a fine actress who hunted cuddly serial killer Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and, at thirteen, was tough enough to keep DeNiro’s Travis Bickle at bay in Taxi Driver, turns in a performance so broad that one begins to believe that she thinks she’s in a parody. The same could be said of Copley, who can’t decide if he should go for comic book terror or laughs. Only Alice Braga as Frey, a nurse and DeCosta’s friend who wants to take her daughter to Elysium to cure her leukemia, actually acts like a human being.
Blomkamp’s witless screenplay does his actors few favors. Yes, his story moves, zipping through many of its plot points with a good deal of energy — enough energy to hide the barrenness of his ideas, though not enough to overcome his heavyhanded message, and not nearly enough to make audiences ignore the lapses in the world he has created. Think about it: can anybody really believe that nobody on earth owns the futuristic equivalent of a cheap cell phone, or has anything resembling Internet access? Would nobody in this favela chic Los Angeles have attempted to download files to jerry rig their own medical pod, even if only to sell them to hospitals obviously in need? Does not one Elysium citizen have the compassion to reveal, Julian Assange–like, his home’s medical miracles? Even forgetting all of these things, ask yourself: is Spider the only criminal warlord on the North American continent trying to ferry people into earth orbit?
Blomkamp wowed audiences in 2009 with the deeply nihilistic District 9. With its grotesque aliens and Cronenbergian transformation of its central character, its grim apartheid message knocked audiences on their heads with all the subtlety of a dispassionate kill floor worker swinging a sledgehammer against the noggin of a cow. Bleak though it was, tinged with bad taste (and no small amount of racism), it visceral subject matter and swift pace nonetheless marked Blomkamp as a director to watch. Elysium, alas, shows that he’s more than happy to remain in the groove dug by that first feature, as was John Carpenter after Halloween. Blomkamp should be mindful of what happened to him.