Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
Critics in 2009 fell all over themselves to declare writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s smart, unexpected sci-fi hit District 9 something special and to crown the South African moviemaker a fresh, new cinematic dynamo.
Made on a small budget yet featuring bold ideas, top-of-the-line visual effects, a satiric edge and righteous political indignation over apartheid, District 9 ranks as one of the decade’s better and more provocative speculative fiction movies. Blomkamp makes good on that early promise—well, to an extent, anyway—in his follow-up, the $90 million futuristic action film Elysium, as gritty, beautifully detailed and dystopian as can be. Set in 2154, the imaginative film unravels against a stunningly realized future version of Los Angeles, the microcosm of a planet where draconian politics, overpopulation, pollution and decay have left it a third-world nightmare of menial jobs, no access to health care and no way out.
The central idea of the film, some of which was shot in the world’s second-largest waste dump in Mexico City, is that the world’s mostly black and brown have-nots are forced to live in rot and squalor while the one percent live on a pristine, chilly, off-planet luxury space station called Elysium where any disease or wound can be wiped away in seconds—for free. While we applaud Blomkamp’s social conscience as a moviemaker, jeez, talk about a movie that so overtly and clumsily puts the capital “P” in Parable.
A shaven-headed Matt Damon plays an earthbound ex-felon trying to go straight. Exposed on the job to a lethal radiation dose and with only five days to live, he gets suited up by outlaw rebels in a metallic exoskeleton to battle his way up to the space colony where he must hack into the brain of soulless, sartorially stylish weapons manufacturer William Fichtner in order to liberate health care and legal immigrant status for the earthbound masses. How does a ravaged population possess such high-tech equipment? And how, exactly, is comparatively small Elysium expected to house, clothe, feed, educate and maintain for life a teeming world population? Those and other plot holes aside, once Damon’s character goes all Robocop on us, he and the movie become less interesting, anyway. Damon’s other adversaries include the icy, ramrod defense minister Jodie Foster, whose one-note, unintentionally funny performance is marked by a bizarre accent and a ham-fisted approach to villainy. Then there's Blomkamp friend and regular Sharlto Copley, way over the top and often completely unintelligible as a mercenary psycho; at least he gives the brutally violent and often preachy dramatics a shot of hammy energy.
But even with a strong setup, an intelligent filmmaker at the helm and a nice, earnest Damon performance, the movie’s last third devolves into a routine riot of explosions, gunplay and noise with no emotional impact. A trumped-up romance between Damon and a childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga), now a single mother and nurse with a leukemia-stricken daughter, is as unconvincing as many of the plot points. We don’t want to think that the gifted, adroit Blomkamp may already be running empty, but Elysium gives us cause for alarm.