South African director Neill Blomkamp hit the ground running four years ago with District 9, an imaginative futuristic thriller that presented a world where extraterrestrials lived here, segregated in shantytowns — a not-so-veiled allegory of his country's troubled racial legacy. With his second feature, Elysium, the writer-director's vision has expanded along with his profile.
A space-age variation on Metropolis, Elysium posits an overpopulated Earth blanketed in poverty and disease, a vast planetary favela of despair. Rich humans have long since decamped for the titular habitat in the sky: a massive orbital colony that looks like the rotating space station from 2001. Inside are rolling meadows, ornate villas and crystal-clear lakes. As the name suggests, it's less Moonbase Alpha than Eternal Kingdom.
Among the poor schlubs back home, the lucky get to work in dingy factories building robots and other goods for use in that distant, unreachable paradise. Among the proles is our hero, Max (Matt Damon), who as an orphan was raised by Spanish nuns alongside Frey (Valentina Giron as a child, Alice Braga as an adult). To her the boy admits his fondest hope: a blissful life someday on far-off Elysium.
Unfortunately, Max grows up to be a thief, and now he's an ex-con stuck on Earth. One day on the assembly line, he absorbs a fatal dose of radiation. With five days to live, his only hope is to make it to Elysium, where citizens have access to personal medical pods that can fix even the most grotesque injuries.
Getting to those pearly gates won't be easy. Elysium is guarded by tough Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who regularly uses extralegal tactics to keep the rabble out. Such tactics usually involve Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a cloaked, earthbound renegade who fires missiles at any unauthorized ships that dare approach Elysium — even if those ships are loaded (as they usually are) with sick women and children. To get himself smuggled into Elysium, Max approaches Spider (Wagner Moura), an underworld sleaze.
The resulting mayhem supplies enough intrigue for a half-dozen sci-fi dystopias: a high-tech coup, a botched kidnapping, DNA downloads, an exoskeleton that grants its wearer superhuman powers. To Blomkamp's credit, Elysium's story doesn't seem convoluted when it's unfolding onscreen. Much of the film's first half has a dense, lived-in feel, yet the details seem, refreshingly, to have been well-thought-out.
For instance, when Max is outfitted with that exoskeleton, he doesn't suddenly become an indestructoterminatokillerbot, just a stronger version of himself: sturdy and awkward in equal measure. Likewise, the idea that Elysium's airspace is being protected by a shabby psycho back on Earth is a uniquely goofy idea that speaks to Delacourt and Elysium's need to keep the dirty work of homeland security hidden from judgmental eyes. Sound familiar?
Blomkamp establishes the contours of this world so firmly that you can't help but be confused by his climactic second half, which makes mincemeat of his carefully established rules while piling on generic heroics and emotional crescendos. Many of these later scenes betray the very things that make the first half so involving. When one of the bad guys finally puts on an exoskeleton, he does become an indestructoterminatokillerbot and lays waste to everything in his path. If Elysium had been conceived as a dumber film, a straight-up action picture, these later scenes probably wouldn't have stung so much.
Luckily, the movie has as its hero Matt Damon. Is there another action star who can be so consistently, believably vulnerable? As in the Bourne films, he's the guy who seems slightly out of his element yet possessed of deep inner strength. Elysium might be his most fragile action role yet — he starts off getting his arm broken, and things get steadily worse — and he conveys all of his considerable agony. Credit this scrappy, likable movie star, and an exceedingly smart first half, for making so much of Elysium so enjoyable — even if it doesn't live up to Blomkamp's grand ambitions.