Neill Blomkamp’s directorial feature debut was entertaining as well as intellectually interesting. District 9 was about a group of sick extraterrestrials in need of help. Its inventive commentary on apartheid was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture. I think it’s fair to say the science fiction thriller heralded a new talent. That’s what makes Elysium largely a disappointment. He has replaced District 9‘s scrutiny of xenophobia and social segregation. In its place is a heavy handed treatment of the growing income gap among classes, along with immigration and healthcare reform. That’s not to say these issues aren’t ripe for critique. It’s just that the conventional approach doesn’t handle it in any meaningful way. It’s kind of a hodgepodge that gets lost in a mélange of stock villains, hackneyed writing and situations that create more questions than answers.
In the year 2154, Earth is a compete slum. Los Angeles looks suspiciously like Mexico City. The 1% have hightailed it out over to an opulent space station that sits above the planet, called Elysium. There they live a life of luxury blissfully unconcerned with the unmitigated squalor that traumatizes their fellow man. It would be helpful to illustrate why they aren’t concerned. Except for an occasional shot of someone walking around a pool, we don’t spend much time with these people. They’re the 1%. We hate them, right? Why bother to understand them? We learn that there are machines on Elysium that can cure all sickness with the mere push of a button. Since they only take seconds to use, anyone can operate them, and they’re plentiful, why aren’t they manufactured and shipped to Earth? This is never addressed either.
The performances are widely scattered across varying levels of aptitude. First the positive. Matt Damon is great. He extracts every ounce of humanity from the vague outline of the assembly line worker he’s been entrusted to play. Damon instills Max Da Costa with a spirit. The evolution of his role is affecting. He draws us into his plight as the main protagonist. Jodie Foster on the other hand is awful. As the Secretary of Defense, she executes her duties with a cold, calculating jurisdiction, frequently disobeying the orders of the President. Physically she resembles that Australian hairstylist from the Bravo reality series Tabatha Takes Over. Speaking in deliberately exaggerated tones with a fluctuating French accent, there is no motive or reason for her malevolence other than the movie needs a villain. Her dastardly plan made absolutely no sense to me. She personifies evil for the sake of being evil. Apparently Foster’s Achilles’ heel is portraying her take on a conservative as anything but a caricature. Quite possibly the worst histrionics I’ve ever seen from an actor of renown. I’m sorry, but her acting is appalling. Not that we needed additional antagonists but there are two more lowlifes to contend with: William Fichtner as John Carlyle, one of the few Elysium citizens that spends time on Earth. He’s the CEO of Armadyne, the corporation that was contracted to build Elysium. Then there’s Sharlto Copley as the South African mercenary that Secretary Delacourt employs to do her dirty work of eliminating illegal immigrants. I didn’t understand his ill defined sleeper agent either. His character is pretty bizarre.
Elysium is a confusing muddle. The effects are extraordinary. I’ll give it that. Blomkamp has visualized a world in such beautiful detail, you’ll swear it actually exists. Matt Damon is effective and as the star, that’s important. His brief exchange with a robot parole officer dummy was the highlight of the entire film for me. Hooray for humor. However the rest of the cast are painted in broad strokes. The villains might as well be twirling a moustache. Jodie Foster is shockingly bad. William Fichtner acts with an affected manner as well. They speak and behave so mechanically, I was sure they would be unmasked as robots by the end. No such luck. Elysium starts out with a mildly promising premise than descends into utter chaos by the third act. Let’s face it, a dystopian future society is cliché at this point. We require innovation. The action becomes just another climax between robotically enhanced humans in a shoot ‘em up that would probably even irritate Michael Bay. By then we’ve realized there’s nothing original up the script’s sleeve and we’ve ceased to care. What a shame. Elysium began with remarkable promise.