Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is not without greatness. It's ambitious, it's imaginative, and it swings big — but it often misses the ball.
The District 9 director's latest effort is set in the year 2154, long after man made Earth a vast wasteland. Our species is split into two factions: the have-nots who remain on Earth, and the haves who inhabit the illustrious space station known as Elysium. It's an idyllic safe haven for the wealthy, filled with luxurious homes, flowing waterfalls, fancy clothes and state-of-the-art medical technology. While the citizens of Elysium can cure themselves of cancer with the flick of a button, those on Earth are sick and stuck on a broken planet.
It's class warfare on an epic scale as told through the plight of an average Earth-dweller named Max (Matt Damon), a foul-mouthed troublemaker atoning for past sins on a robot-manufacturing line. He keeps his head down, resisting the urge to make big bucks jacking cars and committing crimes, instead reporting to his robot parole officer and going to sleep early every night. He also harbors a long-held desire to become one of the Elysium elite — a desire that becomes a necessity after he suffers a life-changing accident at his workplace. Suddenly, getting to Elysium isn't just a dream: It's the only way Max can stay alive.
Meanwhile, as Max fights to survive on Earth, a different struggle takes place on Elysium. There, Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is planning a coup against Elysium's president, a man she deems weak on security amid increasingly volatile relations with Earth. As it happens, Max's effort to get to Elysium takes a hard left turn onto Delacourt's path, putting the two at odds.
Saying more would be revealing too much, although story and character aren’t Elysium's selling points. As with District 9, Blomkamp knocks it out of the park with dazzling special effects, cool weaponry and tech design, and action galore. One sequence involving a heist against a high-level Elysium citizen is a testament to why Blomkamp would have been the perfect man to take on a Halo movie. It features over-the-shoulder action straight out of a video game, wonderfully adapted for the screen, with men and robots trading gunfire and punches to breathtaking effect. No one can doubt Blomkamp's ability to speed up a pulse, as demonstrated repeatedly throughout Elysium.
But if slick action and design are Elysium's bread and butter, then story and characters are its moldy jam. The movie uses its fantastic premise to speak to global issues of poverty, health and the misbalance of power. But it lacks compelling characters, heroes and villains alike, to get the points across.
Max, for example, is little more than a grown-up Will Hunting: still a jerk, still dropping F-bombs with every other word, albeit with an exoskeleton and rail-gun upgrade. For the majority of the movie, he is solely motivated by survival. When Max's motivation changes to something less selfish, you're left wondering where the change came from. A little girl's story about hippos befriending meerkats is charming enough, but not so much that you believe it would eradicate Max's self-centered desperation. In less specific terms, Elysium brims with characters, but lacks meaningful relationships.
In some cases, weak characterization gets fixed with memorable performances. Sharlto Copley is particularly watchable as Kruger, a lethal black-ops agent working the Earth beat on Delacourt's behalf. He's Wikus van de Merwe as a full-blown psychopath. Copley's goofy mannerisms and line delivery are a stark contrast to his chilling actions and dialogue, making him a villain to fear, if not one with a clearly realized role in the story and themes.
Foster, on the other hand, is a disappointment as the film's other antagonist. Delacourt's place in the story is confusing and doesn't amount to anything substantive. Foster's performance is weak, too. Her bleach-blond hair, cold aura and distracting, vaguely European accent create a package one could call Tilda Swinton-Lite. It's a waste of the Oscar winner's talents.
On paper, there is a lot in common between Elysium and District 9. Both films center on desperate men willing to do anything to survive, a desperation that ultimately gives way to heroism. Both films feature secondary stories about equally desperate individuals willing to do anything to protect their people and causes. Both films boast brilliant effects work, sharp design and explosive action. Both films use grand, futuristic scale to speak about important issues at the heart of today.
But that's something District 9 has that Elysium does not: heart.
District 9 spent significant time building up Wikus' journey from cowardly imbecile to reluctant hero. It humanized the prawns' plight through Christopher Johnson, his relationship with his son and his firsthand experience with oppression. That attention to detail and character is missing in Elysium. There are so many players, so many disparate and thinly-rendered stories, that thoughtfully-realized versions of Max, Delacourt and their relationships with other characters simply don't exist.
To its credit, Elysium is a movie with big ideas and beautiful imagery — but it's ultimately a movie without much of a soul.
Elysium opens Friday nationwide.