Though Elysium marks a big step forward budget-wise for District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, it is almost as much a step back when it comes to storytelling. Yes, both movies rely on social-issue allegories – apartheid previously, health-care access now – but where District 9 put character transformation and story first and foremost, Elysium’s heroes and villains all but don white and black hats from the very beginning, and never change en route to a predictable message: poor people are good, rich people are bad and the military industrial complex wants to take over everything for entirely nefarious goals (same villains as White House Down, just pulled through time). Politically simpatico viewers who need only to see their ideas reflected back at them will give it a pass, while others are more likely to wish that even a single character here were as complex as D9’s conflicted Wikus and mysteriously alien Christopher.
Blomkamp’s aesthetic remains a striking one – call it Grand Theft Bladerunner – with its juxtaposition of urban thug life with future-casual technology (Dredd already borrowed at least as much from District 9 as it did from its own source comics). Into a future slum-riddled L.A. that has almost literally turned into Mexico (because they filmed it in Mexico) is born Max (Matt Damon), raised in a Catholic orphanage and recently out of prison for crimes related to car thievery. He harbors a crush on childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), now a nurse, but she tells him things are complicated with her. One day, he promised, they will make it to Elysium, the space station where the rich live and can cure every disease. Looking like a giant sheriff’s badge in the sky, it’s grooved inside like a tire, with luxury living colonies in those grooves, apparently without roofs (how the atmosphere doesn’t escape is something they never explain and you just have to go with).
But all is not perfect – Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster in Pure Evil mode) is tired of weak-ass President Patel (Faran Tahir) getting upset with her for firing missiles wantonly at would-be illegal immigrants, so she’s planning a coup, together with weapons manufacturer Carlyle (William Fichtner), to install herself as president by rebooting all of Elysium’s computers. (Do an Internet search for “Carlyle Group” – or wait, I’ll do it for you – and you may get exactly where this is all going.)
Little does she count on Carlyle being such a terrible boss that he lets a deadly radiation accident befall low-level assembly line guy Max, whose newly limited lifespan makes him even more desperate to get to Elysium. His quest will draw him into an elaborate heist scheme that involves welding an exoskeleton to his brain and body, and coming into conflict with Delacourt’s favorite scuzzy mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), whose personal arsenal appears purloined directly from Metal Gear Solid.
Blomkamp’s best weapon is satire – as seen in moments where Damon tries to get sarcastic with robots, and tends to get either beaten or offered free medication. Unfortunately, the director goes with heavy handedness more often; apparently unwilling to trust that we’ll sufficiently sympathize with Max and Frey, he beats us over the head with repeated moments from their childhood, and I do mean “repeated,” like the same scenes again and again. He also falls back on that damned annoying trick of showing things in slow-motion while Lisa Gerrard-ish vocals go “Ohhh-hiiii-yaaa, ahhhhh-ai-yaaaa!” in that manner that was already tedious back when Gladiator did it.
Towards the climax, things start playing out like a literalized game of Halo or Doom, with newer and deadlier power-ups being acquired for weapons, leading to at least one genuinely shocking moment I didn’t see coming. Diego Luna is fun as Max’s crooked “coyote” compadre, while Copley simply emits pure evil as a Kruger whose first name could be Freddy if he were only a little nicer. It’s frustrating that these performances and all the cool robots – Fichtner’s personal security are gold plated – are slightly wasted in service of a script that doesn’t earn its moments. Wikus in District 9 damn near makes me cry every time when he ends up as a bug folding paper flowers all alone, and he earns that by having been a cowardly douche who worked his way toward redemption. The antiheroes here only seem to be crooked out of desperate poverty, while the villains never even get a moment to legitimately make their case beyond, essentially, “Fuck you, I’m evil.”
This may turn out to be Michael Moore’s favorite sci-fi movie of the year – it is essentially Sicko in Space, after all. Unfortunately, it’s less likely to be yours. Look, I want universal health care too – I just don’t want it to barge over all subtleties in my future-gangsta flicks.
Elysium opens next week.