It’s hard to put down a movie like “Elysium.” Let’s rephrase that: it’s actually quite easy to put down a movie like “Elysium” – it just gives us no pleasure in doing so. It’s a movie that urges people to think of the needs of others, and the satisfaction that comes from helping the less fortunate. A noble cause, to be sure, but in order to make his point, writer/director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) resorts to painting with an awfully broad brush, and the complex issues of health care and the distribution of wealth that “Elysium” seeks to tackle are marginalized by half. What’s left to enjoy are the visuals and some visceral hand-to-hand combat, which is nice (think “Terminator 2,” with humans), but this is a movie that had bigger fish to fry, and let them off the hook.
Set in the year 2154, Earth has become decimated by overpopulation and depleted natural resources. The wealthiest people have abandoned Earth to live on Elysium, an orbiting space station with the technology to cure any sickness in seconds. Max (Matt Damon) is a former car thief trying to live an honest life working on a factory line. Max is exposed to a fatal dose of radiation on the job, and in return the company gives him pills to manage his pain and sends him on his way. Max, with only days to live, hits up his former crime boss Spider (Wagner Moura) for a chance to jump on one of his bootleg trips to Elysium with the hope that he can heal himself. Spider agrees to help him, but Max must pull a suicide mission first. In doing so, however, they find a way to share Elysium’s technological advances with everyone on Earth; they’ll just have to get past Elysium defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her dirtbag sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) first.
This is a Big Idea Movie™, for sure, and Blomkamp does land a few punches, especially the ‘depersonalization of society’ aspect as we see Damon talking to an animatronic parole officer, and the erosion of worker’s rights, which boils down to the line ‘You’re lucky to have a job.’ If you sit and think about other aspects of the story, though, you’ll wind up with more questions than answers. Does the food the Elysians eat come from Earth? Would it even be safe to eat considering the circumstances, and would Earth-grown food be acceptable to the upper class citizens? Who’s making their booze? (The opening scene on Elysium features martinis by the pound.) Is there crime on Elysium? How can the Elysians breathe when there seems to be no artificial atmosphere? Seriously, ships just fly in from space and land on the ground.
Then there are the behind-the-scenes questions, such as: was Blomkamp afraid to tell Jodie Foster what to do? Foster is a damned fine actress, but she’s awful here, with a slipping accent and overly clipped enunciation. It didn’t help that her character’s ideology was never fleshed out, but even if it had been, Foster’s work here is proof that even the great actors need strong direction. Damon fares better, doing that everyman thing he does in most of his movies, though he’s believable as a tough-nosed street fighter as well. Alice Braga, who plays Max’s childhood crush Frey, doesn’t have to do much other than flash her saucer-like eyes. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare terribly well. Sharlto Copley pours the South African accent on thick as molasses, and Moura is unintelligible half of the time as well. The score takes a huge piece of the “Inception” playbook, which makes sense considering both films fancy themselves as high-concept, but Blomkamp’s script does not rise to the challenge.
A lot of movies are accused of not having a brain in their heads. “Elysium” has the opposite problem. It has a ridiculously large brain, thinking about dozens of things at once; it just has a hard time streamlining those thoughts into a cohesive narrative. It raises some fair questions about our society and the direction it’s headed, but this movie doesn’t adequately answer those questions. With any luck, there will be a director’s cut released in the near future that turns “Elysium” into the 2010s’ equivalent of “The Abyss,” another average theatrical release that benefited greatly from additional character and plot development.