Three summers ago, a film called District 9 came from “out of nowhere” to command our attention,
despite a lack of stars or a recognizable filmmaker. It put many higher-priced
Hollywood blockbusters to shame and established Neill Blomkamp as a writer-director
of talent and substance. As a result, his follow-up feature has been keenly
anticipated. Elysium starts out on
the same solid footing as District 9,
establishing a serious science-fiction premise laced with searing social
commentary. (In the late 21st century the “haves” have abandoned Earth for a
utopian environment on a space station while the “have nots” remain here,
living in squalor.) So far, so good.
Matt Damon, in yet another first-rate performance, plays an
ordinary guy who’s had squabbles with law enforcement in the past and continues
to buck the system, while holding down a job on an assembly line that produces
high-tech robots. His childhood girlfriend (Alice Braga) is now a nurse in one
of Los Angeles’ insanely overcrowded hospitals.
It’s hard to say exactly why and how Elysium runs off the rails, but it does, becoming harsher and
nastier as it goes along. Jodie Foster, in a highly mannered performance, plays
the steely, arrogant secretary of defense who protects the privileged citizenry
of Elysium from illegal immigrants—by any means necessary. That includes
employing a smarmy soldier-of-fortune, played with blood-curdling gusto by
Sharlto Copley (the memorable South African star of District 9).
In order to survive, Damon agrees to a drastic operation in
which he is outfitted with robot-like armature and a hard-wired link to his
brain. His object: to travel to Elysium and save his life.
Unfortunately, what begins as a parable about greed,
suffering, corruption, and a society where the gulf between rich and poor
continues to grow becomes a grim, gritty shoot-em-up: extremely violent and
devoid of fun. In the end, the film is ineffectual as escapist fare or as
hard-hitting drama, caught in an unpleasant form of limbo.
It’s rare that lightning strikes twice, but I’m sure I’m not
the only one who was rooting for Neill Blomkamp to give us another District 9. Perhaps some day he will,
but for now, Elysium ranks as a major