In the past year, three big-budget science-fiction films have tried to visualize international economic disparity via topsy-turvy imagery. The Canada-France co-production Upside Down imagined a prosperous planet hovering implacably over another impoverished one; Tom Cruise’s iPod-sleek vanity project Oblivion was set in a post-apocalyptic realm where the haves literally towered over the have-nots. Now there’s Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, which finds a ruling class of one-percenters orbiting a hellishly overpopulated future Earth. The hype says it’s the best of the bunch, but it’s really just mediocre – a cautionary tale about the dangers of squandering resources that wastes its own talent.
For instance: there may not be a better action-star actor right now than Matt Damon, who specializes in playing Everyman types surrounded by sinister conspiracies. As Max, a rough-and-tumble assembly-line worker who literally produces the tools of his masters’ oppression – he builds the riot-control droids used to keep the planet’s swelling population in line – Damon displays a gritty wit, but Blomkamp impatiently shifts him into the role of a humourless martyr. After suffering a fatal dose of radiation poisoning on the job, Max is hired by a group of revolutionaries to infiltrate the satellite-society of Elysium, which resembles a Californian suburb nestled inside one of the waltzing spaceships from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Blomkamp, whose previous film was the dubious South African parable District 9 (which crudely substituted intergalactic squid-men for indigenous blacks), is clearly trying to say something here about capitalism and its discontents. The inhabitants of Elysium are, to a man, callous and oblivious high-rollers. And to a woman, too: Jodie Foster is on hand as the floating community’s bloodthirsty secretary of defence, who methodically mows down shuttles carrying refugees. And like most totalitarian movie villains, she has a pet monster to do her really dirty work for her: the bearded mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who has lived amongst the unwashed masses for so long that he’s started to harbour a grudge against his bosses.
In order to breach Elysium’s defences, Max is outfitted with an unbreakable metal exoskeleton (which would seem to make him too conspicuous for undercover work, but whatever). He’s literally a class warrior, although Blomkamp is less interested in the complicated particulars of proletarian uprising than showing people shooting at each other with gigantic guns. Like District 9, Elysium is most impressive as an audition reel for a director whose dream is clearly to adapt the popular shoot-em-up videogame Halo into a feature film. The scenes of carnage are the only thing that this director does remotely well. Elsewhere, laughably lyrical flashbacks to Max’s childhood and some Saturday-morning-cartoon-level dialogue pertaining to the Foster character’s attempted coup d’etat indicate his glaring tone-deafness as a dramatist. Deafness is also a byproduct of the film’s assaultive sound design, which keeps hammering Ryan Amon’s Dark Knight-biting musical score into our ears, possibly in an attempt to damage the sort of higher brain functions that would compel viewers to poke holes in Elysium’s narrative inconsistencies and logical fallacies.
One of Blomkamp’s most unlikely conceits is a machine – apparently standard-issue in all of Elysium’s made-to-order McMansions – that can heal all injuries and infections at the flick of a switch. He could have used one to fix Elysium’s battered and broken screenplay.