2 and a half stars out of 4 stars
The principal factor determining whether or not you will like “Elysium” will not be your general attitude regarding dystopian sci-fi flicks but rather your political views. It would be hard to name a sci-fi movie that didn’t have some amount of political metaphor in it and it would even be more difficult to find one as blunt or heavy-handed as “Elysium.”
South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s followup to his vastly superior Oscar-nominated debut (“District 9”), “Elysium” benefits from a bigger budget, a broader canvas and a more well-known cast. From a technical perspective, it is never less than breathtaking and often times recalls the best sci-fi works of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. The CGI content is considerable but not overbearing (at least in the first two acts) and Blomkamp dreamt up some truly wigged-out space gadgets we’ve never seen before. Fanboys who don’t give a whit about politics will quickly find themselves on Cloud Nine or maybe even in Seventh Heaven.
Instead of focusing his political commentary (race relations, class warfare) on a global scale as he did in “District 9,” Blomkamp points, or rather, wags his finger at the current U.S. position regarding health care and immigration.
Set in the mid-22nd century, the Earth is now one giant slum where former skyscrapers serve as high-rise shanty towns, Spanish is everyone’s first language and health care is a joke. Anyone (and of course they’re all white, dontcha know) with means has left the planet and now resides on Elysium (presumably named after Homer’s Elysian Fields), a satellite approximately 500 miles above the planet that looks sort of like a sheriff’s badge or Ferris wheel. It’s just close enough to remind the earthlings on a daily basis of what they don’t and likely never will have.
Raised in an orphanage yet determined to one day get to Elysium, Max (Matt Damon) has pretty much killed his own chances of doing so by stealing cars when he was a teen, doing time and then taking a low-paying, back-breaking job at an assembly plant. After severe exposure to radiation Max is told (by a robot) that he will die in five days, is given some pain meds and is told to have a nice day. More determined than ever Max makes a deal with Spider (Wagner Moura), a quasi-gangster who deals weapons and arranges illegal transport for those brave enough to try to invade Elysium air space.
Back on Elysium (defense?) Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is planning a coup after being read the riot act by the president for mercilessly taking out three ships headed their way which claimed the lives of many “undocumented” women and children. In order to do this, Delacourt needs the help of Carlyle (William Fichtner), an Elysium resident living on Earth who also happens to be Max’s boss.
Without giving too much away, Spider and Delacourt are looking to snare the same “McGuffin” as it were and this is the point where the movie goes from being a political parable — ham-fisted though it may be — to just another post-apocalyptic action-adventure with a bunch of stuff blowing up.
Showing up late as the literal and metaphorical wild card is Sharlto Copley as Kruger, an ex-con and black ops associate of Delacourt. Looking nothing like the meek pencil-pushing lead in “District 9,” Copley delivers his lines in English but does so with his natural, thick- as-mud Afrikaans accent and is virtually unintelligible most of the time. He should have come with subtitles.
Thinking nothing of murdering a mother in front of her child (or vice-versa), Kruger provides considerable diversion from the rapidly sinking narrative, but it comes at a great cost. He is so despicable and loathsome and lacking in anything resembling humor or caustic charm that he becomes more of a bother than genuine foil.
Saddled down by a metal exoskeleton contraption for most of the second half, Damon goes from nice guy lead to significant supporting player and his character is given little emotional range. As for Foster … wow — and that is wow in a bad way. With her severe hairdo, severe face, severe haute couture, a willy-nilly array of inconsistent accents and as the film’s sole de facto “red state” character, it sometimes feels as if Foster is purposefully trying to give a shoddy performance. It is arguably the worst rendering of an adult character Foster has ever delivered.
Given the strength of “District 9” and the look of “Elysium,” it would be safe to say Blomkamp is the most important sci-fi filmmaker in the movie industry and this effort can be referred to as his “sophomore slump.” He’ll rebound and if he tones down his heavy-handed political rhetoric — or better yet, tosses it completely — he’ll be solidly back on track. (Sony/Screen Gems)