Matt Damon stars in the dystopian sci-fi thriller 'Elysium.'
(Photo: Kimberley French, TriStar, Columbia Pictures-Sony)
By Claudia Puig
With its scorched Earth and brave new world themes, Elysium (***out of four; rated R; opening Thursday in select cities and Friday nationwide) is decidedly more thought-provoking than most big-studio summer fare.
Director Neill Blomkamp's dystopian sci-fi thriller is absorbing, stylish and well-acted. But it doesn't fully realize its fascinating premise, or live up to the promise established by Blomkamp's riveting last film, 2009's District 9.
Set in 2154 after an apocalyptic event, humanity is divided along the lines of haves and have-nots. The 1 percenters live on Elysium, a sparkling, perfectly manicured orbiting space station modeled after the world's most luxurious havens. The masses eke out an existence on a ruined, teeming, polluted Earth. Horrible poverty, rampant crime and widespread sickness prevail. In contrast, Elysium denizens all have sumptuous homes equipped with state-of-the-art healing pods in which people are re-atomized and cured of all injuries and infirmities.
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Emigration is impossible, as enforced by Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a power-mad head in a helmet of lacquered blond hair.
The only person who can level the disparities between the two worlds is the not-so-mad Max (Matt Damon), an Earth dweller who lives in a vast, bombed-out slum formerly known as Los Angeles. On the job at a prison-like factory, Max suffers a life-threatening injury that impels him to risk all and get to Elysium. He takes on a perilous mission in which he goes up against the ruthless Delacourt and Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a sadistic mercenary.
Miraculously, Max retains a sense of humor and human decency even though his existence could not be grimmer. Damon is perfectly cast as Max. Ever likable, he's terrific as a reluctant hero driven by despair and inherent goodness. Many of the people he lives among are Spanish speakers, and Damon is convincingly bilingual. In contrast, those living on Elysium speak French. Such subtleties are wonderfully intelligent touches.
Max re-connects with his childhood best friend Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse at an impoverished hospital and the mother of a critically ill young girl.
Bound for Elysium, Max is fused with a metal casing that turns him into a kind of walking computer. He's joined on the mission by good pal Julio, soulfully played by Diego Luna. Their passage has been arranged by Spider (Wagner Moura), the leader of an underground rebel group. Max has struck a perilous bargain with Spider. Before boarding the flight he must download crucial information from the brain of a multimillionaire CEO (William Fichtner).
District 9 was captivating from start to finish. Elysium is a sporadically engaging tale, as well as a potent commentary on immigration and health care policies. The striking production design by Philip Ivey, who has re-imagined Earth as one massive shantytown, is vividly immersive.
There is, however, a missing component: Delacourt and President Patel (Faran Tahir) are the only Elysium residents given names. But they, like everyone else there, are essentially cardboard cutouts. Foster plays Delacourt in one megalomaniacal note. Even some sympathetic Earth residents are not multi-dimensional. A sense of fully drawn contrasting lives (not just lifestyles) would have improved a compelling concept.
Blomkamp knows how to create scenarios that seem frighteningly plausible. With all its promise and smarts, it's a shame that the film ultimately degenerates into a good-guy-vs.-crazed-villain scenario.
Elysium is a good movie that could have been great had it focused more on character development and class warfare subtleties and less on standard-issue firefights.