First the bad news: Earth is still doomed. Our favorite planet has been taking quite a beating this summer, from gnarly subterranean monsters (Pacific Rim), Krypton-exile space invaders (Man of Steel), and power-hungry human predators (Iron Man 3) — but there’s always room for one more apocalypse when there’s popcorn to sell. Up steps Neill Blomkamp, the South African international writer-director whose District 9 opened eyes a couple of years ago with its imaginative combo of sci-fi visions and social commentary.
Blomkamp’s secret weapon in Elysium is Matt Damon, Hollywood’s premier working-class hero. In the year 2154, the world is so polluted and overpopulated that the upper-income group has fled en masse to the title space station, a clean and luxurious resort-like orbiting habitat from which punitive expeditions to the former home turf are launched under the command of Secretary Delacourt, Elysium’s coolly efficient chief of security (Jodie Foster, equipped with a curious clipped accent). The restless, left-behind underclasses are forever stealing space shuttles to sneak into Elysium, where, among other benefits, each home is equipped with a device that cures all illnesses.
As in District 9, the dystopian details of life down on the ground in 2154 bear a sharp resemblance to the 2013 version, especially where a regular guy named Max Da Costa (Damon) is concerned. Durable, humble ex-con Max lives in a shack in the dusty, chaotic city of Los Angeles, and every morning trudges off to work in the factory where the ghastly law-enforcement robots are manufactured. Like everyone in LA, Max speaks Spanish (the preferred language on Elysium is French), and also like everyone else, he suffers routine indignities and bodily harm at the hands of the robo-cops and their human overseer, a nasty fellow named Kruger (Sharlto Copley from District 9). Ironically, Max builds the robots that are used to oppress him. Edging into the corners of Max’s existence are an ex-girlfriend nurse, Frey (Alice Braga), and an ailing child (Emma Tremblay), but the main focus is on Max’s violent struggles with the ruling structure.
Bad things happen to Max, driving him to desperation, and Blomkamp’s screenplay devolves into a commonplace summertime beat-em-up/blow-em-up spectacle, with rebellious poor folks crashing onto Elysian fields. But while all that is playing out we’re treated to one or two interesting ideas and a full cast of colorful characters. Damon, of course, is America’s designated pillar of unpretentious integrity. He takes an enormous amount of abuse here, and the stakes are bigger — but less satisfying dramatically — than anything in the Bourne series.
Ranged against him are a familiar-looking rank of masters of the universe and their minions. Foster’s Delacourt never quite gets off the ground. All we know about her is that she, too, is disgusted with Elysium’s power structure, but her rebellion is more of a bureaucratic tiff than a popular insurrection, too polite and well-mannered. The crudely drawn underlings are much more red-blooded — unruly goon Kruger with his fantastic weapons (the Frisbee drones are truly scary); John Carlyle the insufferably effete factory director (hissable all-purpose villain William Fichtner); Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Spider, the grubby tech genius; and Max’s buddy Julio, played by Diego Luna.
Blomkamp assembles most of the right ingredients but something is missing. The Damon and Foster characters don’t exactly interact directly, so there’s that disconnect. And the pent-up fury of the destruction when Elysium is finally breached is nothing especially new in a summer of perpetual heavy-metal cataclysm. That’s too bad, because the filmmaker is obviously trying to draw meaningful real-world parallels with his portrait of an unhappy future of matapobre elitists desperately clinging to their privileges while “illegals” clamor for their share. In the end, what Elysium lacks is a Katniss Everdeen. Even the most resilient revolutionary needs a significant other at his side, to hold up her half of the sky.