Opens Fri., Aug. 9 at Cinerama and other theaters. Rated R. 102 minutes.
Elysium hangs in orbit, a giant spinning space station of deluxe McMansions and WASPy country clubs; it’s a brief supersonic ride from the filthy, overpopulated Earth of 2154.
Elysium looks like the most boring place imaginable. But every home has a healing machine (like the auto-surgery modules in Prometheus), which is handy if one has absorbed a lethal dose of radiation and has five days to live. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, such is the dilemma of Max (Matt Damon), a worker-drone on Earth who must find a way to get to Elysium and fix his decaying body.
Already you can see the outlines of Blomkamp’s allegory, a world divided between the haves and the have-nots (such a remarkably consistent vision in futuristic fiction, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine through Metropolis and Avatar). If this lacks the startling originality of Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9, which shredded the imagery of apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa through a savage and funny alien-invasion scenario, the Elysium setup is still workable enough to qualify as satisfying old-school science fiction.
The orbital Elysium is so brilliantly visualized, Blomkamp might’ve benefited from exploiting it more—at least for satirical points. Most of the time we’re on Earth, in a Los Angeles that resembles Mexico City (where some of the scenes were shot) by way of The Road Warrior. We barely get to know Max before he gets dosed, although his yearning for a childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga, from I Am Legend and City of God) and his wayward past are enough to locate him in the tradition of the lone rider—so much of sci-fi still derives from the Western. The simplicity of the setup—oh, Elysium can be rebooted by flipping a switch? All right . . . —doesn’t need to be a detriment; some science fiction works because the basic ideas allow for wild visions and imaginings. On that score, Elysium, like the recent Oblivion, succeeds firmly but not extravagantly. You won’t be humming its set design in your mind on the way home.
Blomkamp hasn’t arrived as a director of actors yet, either. The old pros are fine: Damon knows exactly how to lock Max into focus; Jodie Foster (leading with clenched jaw) is on point as the Elysium security chief; and William Fichtner is scrupulous as a corporate jerk. But Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, of Elite Squad fame, is all over the place—and sometimes unintelligible—as a grungy crime boss, and Sharlto Copley periodically hijacks the movie as a loathsome corporate mercenary patrolling L.A. Copley, an unexpected delight in District 9, is all gunky beard and taunting accent here. He’s fun to watch, yet his character drags Elysium into the 21st-century action model, which is exactly the wrong direction. I enjoyed the film, but Blomkamp leaves too much hanging in orbit.