“Late in the 21st century,” we’re told at the beginning of Elysium, “Earth is diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated.” Late? How about early in the 21st century? But Elysium’s director, Neill Blomkamp (District 9), has anticipated this objection: “This isn’t science fiction,” he has said. “This is today. This is now.” Okay, so “now” is 2154, and humanity has been divvied up into two categories. The rich and powerful live in Elysium, a shining Club Med in the stars, where well-fed but slim people relax in their pools and tuck themselves into a Med-Pod whenever illness comes knocking. The poor and powerless are stuck on Earth, slaving away as cogs in a military-industrial machine. Elysium is an unapologetic Occupy film on a grand scale, a 99%-vs.-1% heroic fable that I dearly wish was more satisfying. But the narrative proceeds in frustrating stops and starts, and it cribs from too many of its predecessors to stand alongside them honorably.
The hero is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former felon turned scut-worker on the grungy skillet of Earth. Accidentally dosed with a massive amount of radiation at work, Max does not, to our surprise, turn into a Marvel superhero; he’s given five days to live (during which time his meds will keep him stabilized enough to continue working until he drops). Max’s only hope is to make it somehow to Elysium and avail himself of a Med-Pod, but, to paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into Elysium; spacecrafts attempting to enter Elysium airspace illegally tend to get shot down. So Max and some fellow malcontents hatch a plot to sheathe the weakened Max in an exoskeleton, kidnap a CEO (William Fichtner), and transfer data from his brain to Max’s. A lot of our time seems to sink into watching Max trying to begin to prepare to go to Elysium, when what we want is to see him up there already, junk-punching one-percenters.
Damon is fine if a bit colorless, and when Max has a change of heart prompted by the cute-as-a-button leukemia-stricken daughter of his childhood sweetie, it’s more or less all over for Max as an interesting character. The little cherub regales Max with the story of a meerkat helped out by climbing a hippo, and Max asks “What’s in it for the hippo?” I longed for an anti-hero along the lines of S.D. Bob “Snake” Plissken, who wouldn’t ask that because he knows there’s nothing in it for the hippo. Snake was heroic inadvertently; Max is heroic because he’s at the center of a $98 million movie.
There’s more going on with satellite characters like Spider (Wagner Moura), a hacker who helps Max fill his head with data, and Fichtner’s CEO, a man of such faultless calm that he informs his security robots during the kidnapping, “They are armed. I would like them dead.” There’s also Sharlto Copley, star of Blomkamp’s District 9, as a scurvy and insane mercenary whose South African accent jabs the air with hostility and, on rare occasions, achieves comprehensibility. “I always wanted a woff,” he shouts; cut to me in the audience going “Wait, what? Is that futuristic dialect? … Oh. Oh, he means wife.” As for second-billed Jodie Foster, who plays the ice-blooded Secretary of Defense of Elysium, she has a fine old time developing her own goofy accent and luxuriating in suavely callous evil. Her performance will inevitably be summed up as “bad” in some quarters, but those quarters need to get out more often. She’s a hoot.
Blomkamp’s District 9, one of the best of its year, spun an intriguing allegory out of aliens living among humans. The characters were fresh, the viewpoint fresher. We welcomed a new voice to science-fiction cinema. But Elysium has no particular voice. It’s too clotted with plot and strategy. As with the recent Antiviral, the premise outpaces the lumbering story — we may ask why we’re watching this story. What’s life like on Elysium? It looks nice, but we never get to know anyone other than the hissable main villains. We barely get to know anyone on Earth, either. The way Blomkamp uses a dying little girl to pile urgency onto Max’s mission is cheap, as if we wouldn’t care about a dying adult. Visualized but not thought through, the bifurcated future society in Elysium ends up saying nothing more than Blade Runner — with its blimps touting “the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure” in off-world colonies — said with far more force and wit 31 summers ago.