Sci-fi thriller Elysium thinks it’s a piquant social allegory about the undocumented population and fight for universal healthcare. But Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore outing (after 2009’s surprise critical hit District 9) is really just an empty B-movie actioner that has more in common with clunky, 1980s apocalyptic drive-in fare than 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner. With Elysium, Blomkamp has delivered a movie heavy on theme and anemic on character; overstuffed with plot yet story deficient; and a great example of a promising and talented filmmaker handed a $100 million budget to make a bigger, louder, emptier film than his modestly effective first.
Set in 2154, Elysium finds Max Da Costa (a bald-headed Matt Damon) eking out a living as a factory drone in a burnt-out Los Angeles, a crumbling mecca of crime, poverty and sickness are the norm. It’s a multicultural place that seems mostly Latino, and the residents are not considered citizens (get it?), therefore subjected to lawlessness and exploitation on the job.
With robot sentinels overseeing the ruin, the residents long to get to Elysium, an upper class, satellite station city for Earth’s richest and best, looking like a lushly green Sandals resort and catering to the white 1%. On Elysium life is blandly perfect, including high-tech healthcare bots in every home that can mend broken bones or eradicate terminal disease in an instant (these were more fun in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus last summer).
Elysium, a beautifully designed piece of movie art direction and CGI that is sadly underused in the film, is presided over by an evil czar named Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, notches below slumming), who thinks nothing of obliterating spaceships full of “illegals” launched from Earth who seek refuge on Elysium. Yes, the picture really is that telegraphed.
A turn of events at the factory leaves Max with a critical dose of radiation and 5 days to live. To make this happen, he and his best buddy (Diego Luna) hatch a plan to kidnap a wealthy magnate (William Fichtner) and steal the data in his brain, which holds the blueprints to all of Elysium and if deployed correctly could open the station’s floodgates for Earth’s downtrodden. Or something like that.
In pursuit of Max is a sleeper agent named Kruger (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), dispatched by Delacourt to eliminate Max. Also in the mix is Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey (Alice Braga), a benevolent nurse whose own daughter (wouldn’t you know?) has leukemia, and she herself must get to Elysium for treatment.
Still with me? In a movie filled with tropes and clichés, this tepid love story, replete with flashbacks where young Max promises to take Frey to Elysium. And guess what he does?
There is simply nothing new in the story and the Los Angeles scenes lean heavily on District 9’s look, whereas Elysium itself is never fully realized. All of this would be okay if there was a modicum of originality or depth here. Instead, we get a generic hero on a quest (to be fair, Damon is just fine), cardboard supporting characters in service of transparent and obvious political agendas and, it pains me to say it, a terrible performance from Jodie Foster.
Foster–usually a paragon of compassion and grit and one of the very best actresses we have–is miscast in an underwritten, one-note role, and delivers a performance that really demands to be seen for its sheer, brazen badness, a miscalculation laden with an unplaceable, pseudo-French accent, all iron-willed silliness.
Elysium manages a decent Damon performance and two well-directed action sequences, including a final mano-a-mano between Copley (overacting with tongue firmly in cheek, seemingly aware of what he signed up for) and Damon that is an undeniable visual kick.
Like most other summer action movies, Elysium is reliant on artillery, combat and gore to a high degree. While Blomkamp clearly is interested in exploring relevant social issues, the check boxes of violence and set-pieces trump the thoughtfulness—not the case with District 9’s apartheid theme, which managed to work up a degree of emotional resonance.
Empty, noisy heavy-handed, Elysium does nothing new and manages to make a fool of Jodie Foster—no mean feat.
1 1/2 stars.