After the success of his highly unusual 2009 science-fiction film, "District 9," Neill Blomkamp now moves into the big time, Hollywood version, with another excursion into the genre, "Elysium." Instead of a cast of relatively unknown players, the director this time benefits from the luster and the talents of a couple of big stars — Matt Damon and Jodie Foster — and a couple of well-known supporting actors — William Fichtner and Alice Braga. More important, the picture displays the characteristic look of contemporary American film, all the polish, magic, and energy and the sort of special effects that, for good or for bad, dominate the typical industry product today.
"Elysium" quite obviously depends upon some major traditions in the long history of science-fiction cinema, reaching in fact all the way back to its major source of inspiration, Fritz Lang's brilliant silent, "Metropolis." Like that picture, it posits a future society, in this case in 2154, ruled by a wealthy elite who dwell in a paradise, while the rest of the population struggles in poverty and misery. Also like that picture, it attempts something like an allegorical representation of its cultural context.
The Elysium of the title, named for the abode of the blessed, the playground of the gods in Greek mythology, is a huge artificial satellite that constitutes its own world, a dream place of gleaming white houses inhabited by gleaming white people, swimming pools, tennis courts, and universal healthcare in the form of machines that cure any illness, repair any injuries. Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, an icy, haughty secretary of defense who orders the destruction of any illegal rocket ships attempting to enter the idyllic world and speaks of deportation and homeland security as sharply and glibly as any drooling right-wing politician.
Back on Earth, a planet devastated by pollution, where Los Angeles looks like the slums of Calcutta, the healthcare system consists of crowded, squalid emergency rooms, and robot policemen brutalize the populace. An ex-con named Max (Matt Damon) toils in the Armadyne factory, which provides defense systems for Elysium. Damon suffers a lethal dose of radiation and, desperate for healing, agrees to work for a criminal named Spider (Wagner Moura) in a scheme to steal data stored in the brain of Armadyne's owner, John Carlyle (William Fichtner). They plan to foil Elysium's defenses and take over the satellite and especially its special healing units.
That situation works well enough, but the director throws in all sorts of other plots, including Delacourt's own attempt to orchestrate a coup on Elysium so she can rule the planet, the murderous work of Kruger (Sharlto Copley), one of her undercover agents on Earth, a mushy love story involving Max and Frey (Sonia Braga), childhood sweethearts who meet again, and the need to cure Frey's daughter of leukemia. As a result of all the machinations and stratagems, the script fails to exploit its fascinating situation and premises, devolving instead into sheer plot, enlivened by repeated shootouts, chases, hand-to-hand combat, and the familiar paraphernalia of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, the same old same old.
Although he performs creditably, Matt Damon fails to strike any sparks or generate any chemistry in his essentially juvenile relationship with the blandly pretty Braga. Looking tense and mean, Jodie Foster, who has made some odd acting choices lately, performs competently if not spectacularly as the villainous Delacourt. The supporting players seem more interesting, especially the real surprise of the movie, Sharlto Copley, the geeky, pathetic protagonist of "District 9," who takes on an entirely different character, the gleefully vicious Kruger, with a sadistic gusto.
The movie constructs an obvious parallel to some distressing contemporary realities, with numerous references and comparisons to the America of today, including illegal immigration, the alarming gap between the rich and the poor, the disdain of the vulture capitalists for everybody else, the disheartening state of the healthcare system — in other words, the way we live now. Its recognizable context and its generally imaginative exploitation of a familiar post-apocalyptic society provide its greatest strengths; unfortunately the film's transition from some fascinatingly creative material to all the tired devices of the contemporary blockbuster muddies its ideas and blurs its vision.