First things first: Jodie Foster is officially no longer a two-time Oscar winner. There’s no way anyone can do what she just did in Elysium and get to keep golden bookends. Sorry, Jodie, but you were just in a movie where Sharlto Copley gargled a South African accent into unrecognizable madness and somehow your vocal delivery was less believable. We’re going to need at least one of those statues back. Moving on…
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was, quite simply, a sci-fi masterpiece. It offered a gloriously realized hypothetical world with allegorical implications and more than a drop of blistering effects-based action. Elysium ain’t all that. Far from a sophomore slump, Blomkamp’s second effort leans heavier on general entertainment and mainstream appeal; even his thematic inspiration has broadened from “racial apartheid is reprehensible” to “rich people suck, am I right?” But with action sequences this raw and Copely delivering one of the most gleefully weird sci-fi bad guys in recent memory, this is no outright misfire.
Once more, Blomkamp builds an elaborate, meticulous world. Earth has been polluted up the wazoo, which is the worst place to keep your carbon emissions. Rich people have moved to a low-orbit space station that offers paradise, including “med pods” that cure literally anything. They don’t want the gross mouth-breathers on earth to further overpopulate, so that technology is only available to folks up on Elysium. So when our ex-con hero, Max (Matt Damon), gets buckets of radiation dumped on him, that’s where he’s got to go.
Enlisting the help of his friend Julio (Diego Luna), ex-gal pal Frey (Alice Braga) and the seedy crime lord Spider (Wagner Moura), Max soon finds himself wired into a crazy metal fighting suit with a computer in his brain fighting against a samurai sword-wielding disavowed government agent named Kruger (Copley) with the fate of all humanity resting on his robotically-enhanced shoulders. There’s a kid with leukemia involved and some pretty blatant metaphors about illegal immigration, but what’s more important is Sharlto Copley’s beard.
Elysium is the kind of clunky that comes when a director of a promising smaller film goes big. The character stuff flops and sputters, with Frey and Max feeling more like star-crossed former Craig’s List roommates than soulmates. Foster’s entire unmotivated villainous subplot is almost as unwatchable as her vocal affectations are unlistenable. But anytime former collaborator Copley is on screen, or anytime the action shifts to the forefront, Blomkamp proves his sci-fi game has not fallen off at all.
There’s more to like about Elysium than there is to lament; the inevitable lackluster response has more to do with how great District 9 was than how sturdy this effort is. If this largely engrossing, highly kinetic flick is considered anything other than solid, Blomkamp is the victim of some pretty unfair standards. Here’s hoping it motivates him to deliver something even braver next time.
Grade = B