Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp scored an unexpected hit with his first feature, the science fiction/action film District 9. Carried by a manic performance by breakout star Sharlto Copley, the movie adroitly (or not so adroitly, depending on who you ask) morphed from faux documentary into shoot ‘em up, without ever losing sight of the central metaphor that made it a vicious critique of South Africa’s immigration policy. Now Blomkamp is back with Elysium, which he wrote and directed, another high-concept science fiction offering. Working with a much higher budget and actual big-name stars, Blomkamp delivers a mindless action vehicle that’s at least often visually arresting. It’s one step above most of the terrible science fiction blockbusters of the year (I’m looking at you, Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness), but several steps below Blomkamp’s own debut.
Elysium opens with some expository text explaining that by the end of the 21st century, our planet got so polluted and overpopulated that the rich and powerful just up and left for a space station, the eponymous Elysium, leaving the poor behind to toil away in giant factories. This is accompanied alternatively by shots of Elysium, so lush and green it looks like Naboo in the Star Wars prequels, and of a run-down Earth where all cities seem to have devolved into slums (in one of the film’s cooler shots, we see a dilapidated tower with people camping out on makeshift balconies). We then move from this global scale to a much personal one, as we’re treated to a series of flashbacks showing us how two kids, Max and Frey, met in a Los Angeles orphanage run by Spanish-speaking nuns. This sequence feels rushed and awkward, a clumsy way to provide generic backstory and heavy-handed foreshadowing (“One day I’ll take you up there,” Max tells Frey as she’s drawing a symbol she says means “Max and Frey forever” on his hand). This doesn’t prevent Blomkamp from coming back to those flashbacks throughout the movie, just in case we didn’t get it the first time around.
Finally we get to the present, or at least to 2154, when the film’s action takes place. Max (Matt Damon) is now in his 30s, and he’s just finished a 3-year stint in jail for grand theft auto. He works at the local droid plant, building the very robots that then harass him as soon as he sets foot outside his apartment. This part plays like a black comedy, with Los Angeles as some sort of fascist state ruled by robots that threaten you with jail time before offering you pills to calm your nerves, and the conversation between Max and his “probation officer” (a crude mannequin that asks at some point if Max is “being sarcasting-slash-abusive” towards it) seems like something right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Yet the whole thing is undermined by the fact that Max brought this all on himself, willfully antagonizing security droids when he knows full well they’d be suspicious of him to begin with. Max’s idiocy is short-lived and plot-mandated: in the ensuing scuffle, his arm gets broken, which sends him to the hospital so that he can then run into Frey (Alice Braga) and reconnect with her after years spent apart. Unfortunately, most of what happens in the film similarly does because the plot demands it, and acts of inexplicable stupidity and transparent contrivances are commonplace.
While Max is trying to convince a less-than-willing Frey to go grab coffee with him, local kingpin Spider (Wagner Moura) is busy sending illegal shuttles towards Elysium. The station’s Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who gets to show off her flawless French), will have none of it, though, and she calls on psychotic agent Kruger (Copley) to shoot down the shuttles. Elysium doesn’t seem to be equipped with any defense system of its own, which seems like a pretty big oversight until you realize that Blomkamp needs to introduce Kruger as working in Los Angeles somehow; once again, plot takes precedence over logic. Delacourt’s handling of the situation is met with disapproval from Elysium’s President, so she comes up with an elaborate plan to stage a coup. Meanwhile, back at his job, Max gets accidentally (as in, by being stupid) irradiated, and when he gets told he has five days to live, he decides to find a way to go up to Elysium to use one of the station’s Med-Pods, which have been shown to be able to cure every ailment. Of course, Max soon gets himself tangled up not only in Spider’s machinations, but in Delacourt’s as well.
If that sounds a little complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. There are theoretically many players in Elysium, but in effect, the film quickly comes to revolve around Max and Kruger, while the others sit around and watch. And I mean that quite literally: Spider and Delacourt both spend a good chunk of the movie sitting in front of computer screens, watching the other two running around or shooting at each other. Frey has it even worse; the introduction makes it seem as though she’s going to be a major character, but what little screen time she has she spends either following Max around or cowering in terror from Kruger and his henchmen. (To be entirely fair, she does get to patch up a wounded Max at some point, but that’s about it.) That’s because Frey isn’t so much a character as a prop to move the plot forward. So is everyone else; Spider can be a ruthless crime lord one moment and a humanist working for the greater good the next, and Kruger can make the most baffling decisions, all based on what the story needs them to be and do at a certain point. Everything about Elysium is similarly mechanical (insert joke about Max’s goofy-looking exoskeleton if you will), meant to take you from point A to point B with little regard for things like character motivation or development. If District 9 worked, it’s because Wikus van de Merwe and Christopher Johnson were actual characters; the whole point of the movie was Wikus’s transformation from a callous bureaucrat into a more compassionate individual. But there’s no such thing at Elysium’s core.
Movies should be judged on their own right, of course, but Elysium really seems to invite the comparison to its predecessor. Not only are both science fiction actioners built around a central allegory, but whole parts of Elysium seem lifted straight from District 9. The basic story is exactly the same: guy gets irradiated/infected by something that will kill him/turn him into an alien within days and tries to find a way to save himself. Max, like Wikus, spends most of the movie motivated only by his own survival, and finds himself forced to fight a psychotic South African mercenary working for a nefarious government (Copley’s intense and creepy Kruger is one of the best things about the movie, but he’s no match for David James’s Koobus Venter). Frey and her leukemia-addled daughter even serve the same role as Christopher and his son did in District 9 by forcing the hero to reconsider his actions, but unlike the alien duo, they don’t get to actually do anything. It’s as if Blomkamp had decided to remake his own movie, replacing the characters by hollowed-out versions, and making whatever cosmetic changes are necessary to accommodate the allegory he is working with this time.
When it comes to that central allegory, Elysium has the subtlety of a sledgehammer (I mean, the rich live in a space station named after the closest thing Greek mythology had to Heaven, come on). That isn’t necessarily a problem; after all, District 9 was hardly a model of subtlety itself. What is a problem, though, is the fact that Blomkamp doesn’t seem particularly interested in what his premise has to offer beyond a basic setting for his movie, an excuse for his action scenes. Sure, having Kruger, the film’s main antagonist, be under the heel of the Elysium elites for most of the movie is a nice touch (the poor fighting the poor while the rich prosper), but that’s about as far as Elysium goes. We’re never made to understand just how that world works, what the exact consequences of Max’s actions might be. In Elysium, class inequality is a problem that can be fixed by strapping on a nifty exoskeleton and duking it out with a South African psycho, or so it seems. But as Delacourt points out early on in the movie, resources on Elysium are not infinite, and giving everyone access to it does nothing to solve that problem. By the time Matt Damon is punching Sharlto Copley in the face on a suspended bridge, though, Blomkamp seems to have long lost interest in that question, and the film’s class politics dissolve in a barrage of explosions and barely intelligible action. One man changing the world with his fists, the Hollywood way. If only it were so easy.