South Africa-born director Neill Blomkamp’s debut film in 2009, District 9, is one of the best – and most socially conscious – sci-fi movies in at least the past 20 years. Utilizing a mix of flawless, gritty CGI and heart-on-sleeve social commentary, District 9 riffs on everything from apartheid to global xenophobia, and mixes those meaty subtexts with a main storyline that pits a believably mad military-industrial complex against actor Sharlto Copley’s lone everyman. As far as smart, emotionally engaging science fiction goes, the only other film that’s even come close to packing the moral wallop of Blomkamp’s film is that following summer’s criminally underappreciated Splice.
Blomkamp’s follow-up, Elysium, disappoints, and does so, sad to say, with all the plummeting grace of the Hindenburg bursting into flames. While the film’s setup is sound (if predictably so), various characters lack crucial backstories, and the main plot (which is again a sociologically aware slice of dystopian life – think orbiting one-percenters vs. Occupy Planet Earth) is simply too riddled with obvious cliches to clutch at the heartstrings in the manner of District 9. Elysium’s third act is so rushed and chaotic that it feels as if Blomkamp and/or Sony were desperate to wedge the whole mess into the summer box-office season, come what may.
Set in Los Angeles in 2154, but looking for all the world like the favelas of São Paulo, Elysium posits everyman Max (Damon, oddly miscast and still carrying echoes of Jason Bourne) as the sole savior of Earth. And boy howdy, does the planet ever need a savior: It’s looking like a cross between Wall-E and John Carpenter’s They Live – one gigantic slum with the ecology in tatters and menacing, brutal robots keeping the rabble in line. High above, in the sky, is Elysium, where the world’s wealthy and powerful have created a spoked, orbiting simulacrum of peace on Earth and bad will toward anyone in a lower tax bracket. (I’d be surprised if George Romero’s Land of the Dead wasn’t an influence on Blomkamp.) Led by power-mad Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster, equally miscast and sporting a dodgy accent), these ultra-elites have perfected medicine via technology: A simple scan removes everything from hangnails to cancer.
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, Max suffers an industrial accident and is given five days to live. Sensing a chance – too convoluted to get into here – to breach Elysium’s defenses, Max’s tattooed gangster pals outfit him with a robotic exoskeleton and plot to seriously upset the status quo. There’s also a running romantic subplot between Max and Frey (Braga), a nurse who has a daughter dying of leukemia, although it feels (like so much in this film) more like a convenient plot device than an organic extension of the story.
Ultimately, Elysium ends up with explosions, running gun battles, and summer non-blockbuster tedium. The outcome is never in question, and while Blomkamp has proven himself to be a master of sci-fi social commentary in the past, this dull wheel in the sky just lands with a resounding thud.