Review: ‘Elysium’ Fights Hard Without Scoring a Knockout

Matt Damon in 'Elysium' (Sony)
Matt Damon in ‘Elysium’ (Sony)

As he did in 2009’s superb District 9, writer/director Neill Blomkamp has created another piece of absorbing, socially-conscious science fiction that is visually sumptuous yet disturbing in its implications for the human race.

Rather than depict the long-term ramifications of an alien invasion, Blomkamp imagines a future in which the wealthy few have separated themselves entirely from the poor and downtrodden billions. By the year 2154, a gorgeous, rotating space station called Elysium has been constructed, circling and taunting those left behind to eke out a pitiful existence on a ruined Earth. The 1% have fled the planet and live out their lives in beauty, peace, and serenity, enjoying perfect health thanks to automated medical machines that can treat and cure any condition in mere seconds.

But the citizens of Elysium guard their cossetted, privileged existence jealously, reserving the space station’s glorious benefits only for themselves; intruders from Earth are considered illegal immigrants and are definitely not welcome, as Elysium’s merciless Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) makes abundantly clear. Meanwhile, the huddled masses on Earth stare into the sky and pass the time in abject poverty.

As a child, Max (Matt Damon) dreamed of living on Elysium. Instead, he drifted into petty crime and ended up in prison. Now on parole, he is determined to go straight and works a demanding factory job. When his arm is broken in an incident with the robotic police, he is delighted to discover that his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) has achived her dream of becoming a nurse. Sadly, Max must be the unluckiest boy on the planet, because he soon suffers a horrific workplace accident and is told he has only five days to live. Determined not to go quietly into that good night, he makes a deal with an old criminal cohort known as Spider (Wagner Moura) and then hurtles toward a close encounter of the fateful kind.

Elysium is sketchy in its execution, which is not surprising in view of its novelistic premise. Blomkamp quickly sets up intriguing, apparently deeply-rooted conflicts between characters that cry out for more detailed examination. Instead, the story is periodically placed on pause so that routine action sequences can fill the prescribed quotient of time in an expensive summer blockbuster. It feels like a trade-off: to create a highly-detailed future such as this one evidently requires much more money than the more modest District 9. In that picture, the action sequences fulfilled story-based purposes; here, they play more like commercial breaks in a TV show.

Max’s actions and motivations are laid excessively bare, in stark contrast to all the other characters, and Damon does a good job, making Max sympathetic, even as he takes on some unflattering characteristics. Max has been kicked around by life, and when the tables are turned and he has the opportunity to dish out some punishment, he’s not shy about doing so. Yet the humility he learned as a child ultimately regains control of his personality.

Max’s allies — Frey, Spider, and Max’s best friend Julio, played by Diego Luna — are well-cast and perform ably within the tight confines of the narrative. They all live in Los Angeles, which has become a cesspool of poverty and crime, inhabited in the main by brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people. Up on Elysium, the wealthy are (generally) lighter skinned, but with a mixture of races.

Thus, Jodie Foster’s Delacourt speaks with an accent that sounds likes she hails from South Africa; Elysium’s leader, President Patel (Faran Tahir) is apparently Indian or Pakistani; businessman John Carlyle (William Fichtner) may be South African; and so may Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a covert operative who is a little too aggressive for official taste.

It’s a fascinating dichotomy which, again, I wish could have been explored further. Because it isn’t, the villains are left as implacable, one-dimensional agents of evil, which limits any interest in the outcome of the aforementioned already-routine action sequences. The performances by Foster, Fichtner, and Copley are as good as the material they have been given, which isn’t really as good as it needs to be for a satisfying, character-based drama.

Still, there are a lot of fascinating ideas tossed out during Elysium, plenty enough to stir emotions and thoughts about the future of mankind. And the visual effects are splendid to behold on a big screen, both for the beauty and the squalor that is depicted in vivid detail. It’s not a knockout punch, but Elysium puts up a good fight.

The film is now playing throughout the Metroplex. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.

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