A title card at the start of Neill Blomkamp’s second feature, Elysium, informs viewers that in its not-too-distant future the Earth has become unlivable, and that her richest residents fled the planet to preserve their way of life. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that the film’s next ten minutes consist of images of an unlivable Earth, whose richest residents have fled to an orbital platform to preserve their way of life. That’s the sort of film Elysium is: for as smart as its premise may be, and as smart as its director is, it doesn’t seem to think its audience is very bright.
Matt Damon plays Max, a reformed criminal who is working his life away, trying to save up enough money to move to the titular space station, where the air is clean and the health care can cure any disease like magic. An accident at his job forces his hand and sends him back into crime, this time aided by a cyber-exoskeleton bonded to his bones and brain. The target is Elysium itself, which has been exposed thanks to a nefarious plot launched by its secretary of defense (Jodie Foster).
It seems a reasonable story when described over the space of a paragraph, but over the course of two hours, the warts begin to show. For one thing, it’s ridiculous to think that the crime boss Spider (Wagner Moura) would have a piece of hardware just lying around that could turn one of his men into a super badass who is no match for Elysium’s security droids, yet he’s never used it. The security on Elysium turns laughably bad in the film’s third act, considering how technologically advanced the space station is supposed to be. There are other howlers in the film that would require spoilers to explain; as a whole, the movie is plagued with decisions by characters that move the plot forward but simply make no sense.
In fact, the entire concept of Elysium itself is bizarre once it’s put under scrutiny. Is it a separate country? Is it a ruling body, a sort of United Nations that only serves the wealthiest 1%? What gives them the authority to, for example, enforce a no-fly zone over the entirety of Los Angeles? Blomkamp’s screenplay takes the position that the world has been this way for so long that it doesn’t need to be explained since everyone is just inured to it. That isn’t a terrible idea, as “that’s just the way it is” has long been an argument used by a powerful minority to oppress others. But when the most basic rules that govern your movie rely upon “that’s just the way it is” to be explained, it starts to seem like hand-waving.
As with his debut feature, District 9, Blomkamp has quite an eye for making even the most squalid locations on Earth look beautiful. He skillfully integrates his special effects with the live action, and doesn’t shy away from some disturbing body-horror implications of his premise. However, Elysium cannot be called a beautiful film, because it is an action movie at heart, yet it leans too heavily on handheld cameras (the dreaded “shakycam”) during its fight scenes. Damon’s hectic fights in the latter two Bourne films look like Citizen Kane by comparison. Not even a villainous turn by Sharlto Copely (the breakout star of District 9) can make those fights watchable; he’s appropriately bonkers at first, but his maniacally hammy performance in the third act is painful to watch.
Also as with District 9, Blomkamp has a keen eye for the social justice implications of the world that he’s imagined. An early attempt by Earthlings to break into the space station may well be the best scene in the film; there’s something heartbreaking about the desperate families fleeing across the well-manicured lawns of Elysium’s suburbs while Foster barks orders about the “illegals.” However, any real-world metaphor in the film is undercut by the clumsy use of Alice Braga as a nurse who also has good reason to escape to Elysium. Every one of Braga’s scenes is wounded by manipulative music, and the character herself is little more than a damsel in distress.
Elysium has its heart in the right place, and every scene that isn’t a fight scene looks fantastic. But the film just cannot escape the feeling that someone at a studio saw District 9 and shouted into into a phone, “let’s get him to make the same thing, but bigger!” This concept might have worked better as an HBO series, or a graphic novel, anything but a movie. Trying to take all of Blomkamp’s interesting ideas and squeeze them into a two-hour package ultimately smothers every instinct that made District 9 so refreshing and new.