It's hard to believe it was four years ago when Neill Blomkamp became one of a select few new filmmakers to give many of us hope that the future of science-fiction film was in capable hands. Sure, Blomkamp's DISTRICT 9 delivered wildly entertaining action and impossibly realistic effects (for very little money), but like all great sci-fi, it acted as social commentary about what happens in a society in which one class attempts to segregate another because the minority is looked at as something less than equal.
In many ways, his latest film, ELYSIUM, covers a bit of the same ground, although the perceived threat is not from an alien race this time but from our own. The year is 2154, and planet earth is a dried-up, polluted, overcrowded, garbage dump of a world. Not only have the rich built an enormous space station (called Elysium) orbiting Earth, but they have a medical device that not only can detect any ailment you might have, but re-arrange your atoms so that you are cured almost instantly. In other words, barring any catastrophic injury that kills you instantly, you could feasibly live forever, or at least a very long time. Needless to say, the poor saps on earth don't have this.
Matt Damon plays Los Angeles native Max, a former car thief who, after spending far too long in jail, has decided to go straight and work in a factory that produces the very robots that essentially run and keep order on Earth. He was an orphan, raised by nuns, who taught him wrong from right and to respect the world that he grew up on, even if all he longed for as a child was to live on Elysium. He grew up best friends with a girl named Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga), who becomes a nurse later in life, and the two are reunited in the hospital where she works after Max's arm is broken in a scuffle with police robots.
We are also introduced to Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who is in charge of Elysium's security. Apparently it's not uncommon for illegals to get ahold of a shuttle, load it with non-citizens (most of whom are looking for medical attention), and make a run for the space border. Delacourt has no qualms about shooting these ships right out of the sky; those that make it to Elysium are captured and shipped right back to the surface. The divide between the haves and have nots is clear, and the have nots are eager to occupy Elysium.
One day at work, Max is accidentally given a full blast of radiation while on the line, and is given five days to live. Refusing to die this way, he revisits his old criminal buddies, including Spider (Wagner Moura) and Julio (Diego Luna), hoping they have a way of getting him to Elysium before he dies. Their solution is to kidnap an Elysium citizen while he is visiting Earth and somehow steal his DNA to get them safely to the secure floating community. The man they go after happens to be John Carlyle (the great William Fichtner, playing the snootiest, most entitled Elysium resident alive), head of the tech company that makes the world's robots and most of the tech on Elysium. When Max and company make a play to kidnap him, he just happens to be smuggling in his brain classified information that could literally destroy Elysium's secure status. When that information is downloaded into Max's brain, he becomes Sec. Delacourt's primary target.
The rest of the film is explosions and shooting and running and stabbing and flying shuttles, and it essentially abandons the interesting metaphor it has spent so much time establishing in its first half. Naturally, Frey and her sick daughter (whom Frey wants to get to Elysium as well) are caught up on the middle of Max's story, but having them in the mix feels more like a distraction than a necessity. The best thing in ELYSIUM is the return of director Blomkamp's DISTRICT 9 partner in crime Sharlto Copley, playing Kruger, a nasty sleeper agent working on Earth for Delacourt. The man is pure psychotic rage in the guise of a military-style warrior, and Copley dives headfirst into his demented, rapey brain. There are things he does in the name of protecting secrets and gathering information that will be tough to shake after you've seen it—be warned.
Copley's performance would have stood out even more were it not for the fact that nearly every other character in the film seems to be ramped up to full velocity. I wanted to throttle Spider after about five minutes with him; it seems like his dialogue was written in all capital letters, underlined with 50 exclamation points at the end of each sentence.
But nothing quite prepared me for the pure awfulness of Jodie Foster's performance here; I could watch her make bread for 30 minutes and find it fascinating in most circumstances, but a combination of a clunky accent (I think her character is meant to be French) and a bizarre pattern of over-enunciation of every word out of her mouth makes Delacourt a complete joke both as a leader and a character. When the illegal shuttle attempts to land on Elysium, she handles it as if this has never happened before when clearly this is a regular occurrence.
That's another deep flaw of ELYSIUM; everything is over-explained. Characters are told what to do when that's pretty much all their job requires them to do. Do the men and women who shoot down the shuttles trying to bum rush Elysium really need to be told by Foster to shoot them down? I realize this is a problem in many movies, but it really seems to emanate from the pores of this film.
Make no mistake, ELYSIUM is a visual marvel. Blomkamp's almost casual approach to beyond-impressive special effects is so great, and I wish more sci-fi directors would take note. But there is something weirdly pedestrian about Blomkamp's writing in this one. There is not one, but two sick kids who figure prominently into this story. The only thing missing is a three-legged puppy. But having said that, he hasn't strayed away from some pretty horrific R-rated violence, which I'm all in favor of. But the greatest special effect Blomkamp has in his corner is Damon, who is far from playing a hero. He's playing the classic desperate man, who behaves recklessly and puts those around him in danger because of his desperation. He refuses to allow himself to die from making the very machines that have kept him down his whole life. I just wish the rest of the ELYSIUM's characters were do deftly written.
Were it not for a great deal of the clunky dialogue, a general feeling of rushing through the story, and painting too many of the characters in broad strokes rather than as a detail-oriented work, ELYSIUM might be a damn-near perfect film. It certainly has a terrific concept and a few truly great performances, beginning with Damon and ending with Copley, but I found myself being let down as often as I was moved or impressed. I will likely always be eager to see what Blomkamp has for us next, but ELYSIUM is a step backward from one of the single most elegant debuts in recent memory, certainly in the science-fiction arena.