Like his last film, District 9, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp's newest, Elysium, is interested in sci-fi stories with a serious social bent to them. District 9 was about a refugee alien race mistreated by white South Africans, segregated into appalling slums. The film gives a new sense to the word "inhumane." So, apartheid, right? Got it.
The problem with District 9, for all its nice visuals and interesting premise, is that it ultimately indulges in racial stereotypes it purports to be progressively above. The subordinated race is led to salvation by one enlightened member of the ruling class, who goes native. They couldn't have done it without his help. The alien caste members, too, are shown as brutes and savages — they're essentially bipedal animals. That is, except for one alien, who is more intelligent than the others and assists the "good white guy" with his mission: That's right, he's a "magical Negro."
Elysium starts off much more promisingly. Social strata are again examined, but this time the division is more pronounced. It's 2154, and due to disease, pollution, and overpopulation, the wealthiest 1 percent of humankind has availed itself of a fancy high-tech space station, called Elysium, orbiting Earth. There, the wealthy elite enjoy a white-bread, climate-controlled setting that looks like the Hamptons — columned mansions and lush green landscaping. They even have a machine that cures them of cancer and any other malady or injury, no matter how grievous, restoring them to their whole, non-aging selves.
That leaves the other 99 percent, the great unwashed, left to fend for themselves on what has become, essentially, a prison planet. On terra firma, we meet Max (Matt Damon, hairless), a blue-collar laborer in a hellish Los Angeles. He has a criminal past, but he's trying to do the right thing and not backslide into his old, felonious habits.
As advanced as things are above, technology has stopped below. Vehicles look like something from The Road Warrior — Damon's character is named Max, after all. Police robots keep the folks in line. Max works in a factory building arms for the Elysians. The poor look up in longing at Elysium, which is so big as to be visible to the naked eye. It's like heaven. Sometimes, members of the underclass commandeer a spacecraft, load up all their sick, and try to land safely in Elysium. It's worth a shot for the sick and dying or for parents with sick and dying children. It doesn't usually work out.
That's because the secretary of homeland defense in the sky is the hard-ass Delacourt (Jodie Foster, perfectly coiffed). She'll shoot down refuge rafts and otherwise bend or break rules to maintain her power base. She has an undercover agent on Earth, Kruger (Sharlto Copley, impressively bearded), who helps her do the dirty work.
Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation doing his job in deplorable work conditions. He's given five days to live. Clearly, he needs to get up to Elysium and heal himself, right? Through a friend, Julio (Diego Luna, scruffy), Max reconnects with his old criminal boss, Spider (Wagner Moura, scruffier). Spider empowers Max with a surgical exoskeleton and an assignment to hijack an Elysian corporate mogul.
The best to be said about Blomkamp's Elysium is that this time he gets the social milieu more right. Sure, it's a little over the top, but it's still instructional in an entertaining way. Rather than indulging in an unfocused laundry list of injustices, Blomkamp settles on access to health care as the greatest dividing line between the haves and have-nots.
The worst is that, after the respectable setup, the film falls off the rails in delivery. Political intrigue in Elysium gives Foster something to do but exists only to point to an exaggerated, rushed, contrived ending. Kruger is too broadly evil, and the showdown between Max and him devours the plot and devolves into 1980s-type action. Elysium becomes Commando by way of Minority Report. And not in a good way.
Opening Friday, August 9th