Our yearly quota of dystopian sci-fi pictures set on a dead or dying Earth has been pretty well-filled, but hopes have still run high for Elysium, the second feature by the 33-year-old South African born writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In District 9, he reimagined apartheid with a cast of giant shrimp from outer space, and Elysium has a similarly angry, politically progressive satirical premise. It’s the year 2154, and the planet has been polluted to the point where the rich have decamped for a humongous super-space-station in orbit — a paradise of manicured lawns, swimming pools, robot servants, and machines that cure cancer in, like, fifteen seconds. It's called Elysium and, down below, the poor in their dirty slums — overseen by robots and compassionless bureaucrats — gaze on the ring-shaped structure like the brass ring on an old merry-go-round. But that ring is hard, if not impossible, to grab. Elysium's defense secretary welcomes illegal immigrants with guided missiles.
The movie hits its marks; it's a more than decent formula sci-fi action picture with one or two nicely gruesome effects. But it doesn't have that witty, handmade look that made District 9 seem so much lighter than most of Hollywood's lumbering efforts. A surprisingly dour Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-thief turned luckless parolee who once had big dreams but has finally been beaten down. He wants only to keep his dangerous factory job, stay out of trouble, and maybe one day earn enough to buy a one-way ticket to Elysium. The problem is that he has a way of mouthing off to authority figures, especially the cheap-looking robotic parole officer dummy that won't let him speak. Their exchange — which comes early — is probably the movie's highlight. The machine has been programmed to detect sarcasm or abuse, which means Max can't even mutter darkly without risking punishment. The ruling class would be fine with removing his brain, soiling his lungs, and letting him die before his time. He's just livestock.
With more satire, Elysium might sparkle, but Blomkamp uses his ever-timely conceit and jittery, hand-held camera in the service of the dumbest kind of melodrama. Jodie Foster plays the defense secretary, who orders spaceships bearing illegal-immigrant families destroyed in defiance of a president who tells her just to send them back to Earth. (He doesn't want to bother his constituents' beautiful minds with something as ugly as bodies raining down on their swimming pools.) So she plots to take the president out by prevailing on a robotics mogul (William Fichtner) to reboot the orbiting space station, after which she will seize power.
I don't understand her dastardly plan, either, but then, nothing about Foster's performance makes sense. Her accent is either English, South African, or Martian — it's hard to tell, since it's different in every scene — and she moves more stiffly than the robots. With Elysium, Foster joins the ranks of outspoken liberals (hello, Tim Robbins) who can't manage to play their political opposites without turning themselves into caricatures.
Damon is much better, but he never convinced me he was just out for number one. He's too much of a sweetie. After Max gets a lethal dose of radiation in a factory, he's robotically enhanced by a resourceful smuggler and dispatched on a dangerous mission to upload someone's brain. (I'm leaving out some interstitial material.) He has one motivation: not to die. Purging the effects of radiation takes precedence over everything, including helping the adorably inquisitive cancer-ridden daughter of his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga). But this is not the kind of movie where an A-list star lets a little kid die of cancer. It's just not. You can see Max's moral trajectory from miles away. And how can the climax not be Max versus the paramilitary psycho goon (similarly robotically enhanced) played by the star of District 9, Sharlto Copley? You can't spoil a movie that telegraphs nearly every turn. It spoils itself.
The action is bludgeoning. When Max gets pummeled by fists and lethal objects, we get pummeled by light and noise and rock-'em-sock-'em editing. No shrimp, though. As a narrative, District 9 wasn't particularly original, either — in the end it was a standard conversion melodrama. But everything is better with shrimp.