Four summers ago, South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp sprung District 9 on a world that didn’t know it wanted to see a science-fiction parable about apartheid. The world applauded the 29-year-old’s imagination in creating sympathetic if uggy space monsters who looked like giant prawns — no, George Carlin, this time “jumbo shrimp” is not an oxymoron — and his dexterity in injecting a political agenda into a grab-you-by-the-throat action scenario. That the whole fabulous enterprise cost only $30 million, and earned $200 million at the worldwide box office, made him a darling to the money men as well as to the cinemascenti.
The message Blomkamp seems to have taken from the praise for District 9 is: more politics, less narrative wallop. Elysium, which at least triples the first film’s budget and adds Matt Damon and Jodie Foster as marquee bait, spends less time appealing to the viewer’s What-comes-next? impulse than on elaborate social metaphors. The result is a grim and predictable adventure saga that is not nimble but leaden. Dystopia has rarely been so dysto-pointing.
(READ: Corliss’s review of District 9)
In 2154 — the same year in which Avatar is set — the wealthy have fled Earth to pursue lives of chic indolence on Elysium, a luxurious satellite a 19-minute flight away, where Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) is plotting a coup. Down in Los Angeles, robocops patrol the violent streets; the city has become an ugly crime lab for Hispanic thugs and a few lowlife Anglos. One of these, the ex-con Max (Damon), gets a radiation overdose that can be cured only on Elysium. He has five days to live. To reach the satellite and receive treatment, he agrees to a data-heist scheme that could kill him by sundown.
Elysium posits a blend of two clashing political scenarios: the Occupy Wall Street notion of the 1% enslaving the 99%, and the Tea Party fear of Latinos turning American cities into Rio-style favelas. But wait, there’s more. The illegals keep trying to invade the promised land to overthrow the Richie Riches, and to get access to free, life-saving medical care. Through some industrial-strength brain surgery, Max is implanted with crucial secret data downloaded from the brain of Elysium’s top techie entrepreneur (William Fichtner), who may as well be Steve Jobs to Max’s Edward Snowden. And of course there are drones, monitoring the underclass and attacking them at whim. In the movie’s macro- and microcosmic view, 2154 is a nightmare extension of 2013.
(SEE: The Elysium trailer)
Blomkamp spends most of his ingenuity on the contrast of the two landscapes. Elysium: an enclave of Miami-style mansions and sterile office warrens. L.A.: a filthy barrio, the walls scarred with graffiti, the men’s bodies fetishized with tattoos — Damon’s torso is its own garish artwork. If the city were a Monopoly board, every square would be Jail. (For further political piquancy, Blomkamp shot some of the Elysium scenes in posh Vancouver, the L.A. barrio scenes in fetid Mexico City.) The color is desaturated to the point of exhaustion, in the one big summer action film too poor or too proud to use 3-D.
The context and subtext are plenty imposing here. What’s missing is the text: an engaging plot. Blomkamp stitches patches from a bunch of other sci-fi films — the rich-poor futureworld of Gattaca, In Time and Upside Down, plus the mind-melding caper from Inception — that devolve into a numbingly familiar series of chases and fights. For the token romantic interest, he has Max bond with an ER nurse named Frey (gorgeous Alice Braga, who has played this same role, the Angel of Dystopia, in City of God, I Am Legend and Blindness). Guess what? They knew each other as children — orphans in a convent! And guess what else? Max has five days to live, and Frey’s daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) is dying of leukemia. Puh-lease. Can’t a movie stir tension without endangering a child’s life?
(READ: Corliss’s review of In Time)
Foster, as Elysium’s Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, seems stranded on the satellite, her acting skills left back on Earth. Flaunting (in Iowa congressman Steve King’s colorful phrase) calves the size of cantaloupes, she spits out her nefarious schemes in an accent that roams vagrantly across the English-speaking world in the space of a sentence. Damon, back in his wily-prole Jason Bourne identity, gets a nice moment early in the film when he is interrogated by a robocop who can’t take, or understand, Max’s jokes. (In 2154, humor is subversion, and sarcasm a felony.) But for half of the movie he’s imprisoned in a metal brain case, making viewer empathy a real challenge. Like the stars of two other recent sci-fi downers — Tom Cruise in Oblivion and Will Smith in After Earth — Damon must forsake his natural screen charm to play a gruff character who’s just this side of human.
District 9 managed a graceful, entertaining fusion of political satire, some sensational monster CGI and a wry narrative take on interspecies friendship. Elysium, for all its visual and allegorical density, could use the input of that gifted filmmaker. Somebody, get Neill Blomkamp to save Neill Blomkamp.