It may be a stretch to say that the protagonist of Elysium “becomes more machine than man,” but it’s a fitting description for his story. Writer and director Neill Blomkamp delivered an exhilarating sci-fi action film mixed with thoughtful social commentary in his debut feature, District 9. His follow-up feature, Elysium, promises more of the same, and fully delivers on that promise for the first 35-40 minutes. But then everything that was special about the picture and unique in Blomkamp’s voice is drowned out in loud, clashing action scenes that are occasionally entertaining but beset with eye-rolling plot shortcuts, the loss of character development, and Jodie Foster‘s inability to pick an accent and run with it. Elysium‘s message about economic inequality is couched in a finely-drawn sci-fi world, but the power of that message becomes diminished when we cease to care about the messenger.
In 2154, the Earth has become ruined due to pollution and general social strife. The wealthy have fled to an orbiting space station called “Elysium” where they enjoy their carefree lives and have access to “med-pods” that can cure any ailment. Back on Earth, reformed criminal Max (Matt Damon) is trying to stick to the straight life in Los Angeles, but he’s barely clinging on to his shitty job at a factory run by the sneering John Carlyle (William Fichtner). When an accident at the factory pelts Max with radiation and gives him only five days to live, he makes a deal with gang boss Spider (Wagner Moura): Max (outfitted with an exo-suit to compensate for his weakened state) gets a ticket to Elysium if he can retrieve valuable financial codes from Carlyle’s head for Spider. Unbeknownst to both Max and Spider, Carlyle is holding a reboot code that will allow Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) to stage a coup. In order to keep her machinations a secret, she’s forced to call in the mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to take down Max.
Elysium fires on all cylinders in its first act. Blomkamp clearly maps out his talent for sci-fi by repeating what made District 9 such a success: adding sci-fi details to a recognizable present. The future L.A. basically looks like a present-day Central American city, but features a strong blend of English and Spanish ethnicities and languages. Once we’re grounded in a social and economic structure we understand, Blomkamp has the freedom to build in the sci-fi aspects that still relate to the current circumstances. For example, law enforcement and bureaucratic positions are now done by robots, because the people currently in these positions already behave robotically. The factory builds these kinds of robots, which calls back the cold indifference the citizens of Elysium have for the people on Earth.
In the first half-hour or so of Elysium, we get to live in this world, and we feel Max’s frustrations because Blomkamp is willing to let us spend time in the character’s day-to-day life. But once that exo-suit goes on and Max is in a race for his survival, everything that was rich in the film is lost. The character becomes smaller and smaller as the movie goes on since he’s relegated to a minor piece of a puzzle that involves saving humanity and getting in the way of Delacourt’s drive for power, which really doesn’t involve Earth. She’s a plot point with an accent that distractingly swerves between American, British, and French. Perhaps Foster figured a character in the future would have this odd mix of accents, but she’s the only one who talks like this.
Her voice almost adds a campy tone to a picture that becomes far more obsessed with action than it is with anything Blomkamp previously established. We’re no longer interested in Max’s fight for survival because Max no longer has anything to do other than fighting robots and people, and even worse, doing it in a way that relies far too heavily on shaky camera work. Blomkamp got away with it in District 9 because the movie uses a documentary framing device, but here it feels like over-compensating. District 9 also has the edge because the action is secondary to Wikus constantly struggling with his journey. Both Max and Wikus are selfish-yet-essentially good people, but whereas Wikus had to forge a real relationship in order to grow, Max doesn’t have time for that. There’s a hint of rekindling a relationship with his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), but that becomes nothing more than a stepping stone to throwing Max back into conflict with Kruger.
At least Copley seems to have an understanding of the movie Elysium becomes after Max puts on the suit. Kruger has no relation to the socio-economic qualms beyond being a poor person the rich use to hurt other poor people. But he’s mostly a bounty hunter with fun toys like a portable forcefield, a spaceship, a katana, and exploding shurikens. Copley hammy performance isn’t distracting; he’s just having fun with an outlandish character who gets to be the active antagonist rather than the scheming Delacourt up on Elysium.
Watching Copley, we almost forget that Kruger is part of a poorly tied together script that is constantly straining credulity as it tries to balance Spider and Delacourt’s conflicting agendas. Too often, it feels like Blomkamp is making it up as he goes along, which is surprising because his visuals are so clearly mapped out and thoughtful. 2154 L.A. is present-day Mexico City with spaceships, and Elysium is a country club in outer space. The commentary isn’t complicated, but it’s still relevant and goes down easier when paired with an action movie. But that action ends up becoming a prison, and eventually the settings that were meant to conjure a theme are eventually reduced to blurry scenery.
In a summer packed with movies that are scared to say anything substantial in fear of even slightly disturbing the escapist entertainment they present, Elysium looks like it’s proudly willing to make a movie for the 99%. And then a third of the way through, it turns around and says, “What the hell! 100% will go for mindless action!” We’ve gotten plenty of that this summer and every summer, and I know that Blomkamp has more to offer than just shaky set pieces and guys in exo-suits.