Science fiction, contrary to what its frequently fluffy appearances at the multiplex might lead you to believe, is a brilliant medium for ideas. You can invent anything: a starfleet based on equality, a future destroyed by robots, a world of passively invading alien parasites. You can dream up new versions of the future, or meld past and present; you can envision impossible technology. Science fiction is built to tell us who we are by imagining where we might be going.
Elysium, on the other hand, is here to tell us where we are by telling us where we are — just with shinier toys and a more drastic divide between the privileged and everyone else. In 2154, the wealthy have left an overpopulated Earth, retreating to a glittering space station where there is no sickness and everyone appears to live in grandiose mansions with lake-sized swimming pools and robot servants. Back at home, the rest of us scramble to survive.
Part of the problem with Elysium is that writer-director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) takes everything to such dramatic extremes that there is no time to consider or include moral ambiguity, or the real reason such a flawed and biased system continues to exist. Everybody on Earth is probably mostly good, except that they have to do dubious things to survive (our hero has a history as a car thief). Everybody on Elysium is probably also mostly good, except that they were born into privilege and have never questioned their right to a comfortable life — a concept that Blomkamp never touches. That would require a subtle hand, which he doesn’t have: From the angelic voices on the soundtrack to the cramped action sequences, everything is built to bludgeon.
Blomkamp’s heaviest tool is the mad-dog agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley, from District 9), a psychopath kept on a leash by Elysium’s defense secretary, Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Kruger exists only to kill people, and to prove that conniving Delacourt is super, super evil. Why? Because she believes in keeping the privileged comfortable. Her character oversimplifies everything Elysium thinks it’s saying about inequality.
But Elysium oversimplifies a lot of things. Blomkamp is quite good at displaying his vision of the future; his dusty, crumbling Los Angeles has a believable Mad Max vibe, and he never gets hung up on technobabble even while outfitting his hero, Max (Matt Damon), with an improbable exoskeleton. Like George Lucas, though, Blomkamp is very good at setting up a visually fascinating world and then failing to make narrative sense of it. The world-building is skin deep, the characters flimsy, the resolution half-baked and the gender politics unsurprisingly tired (the two named female characters are motivated by children). Elysium is gritty and occasionally tense, but the things that make it different than any other whiz-bang action film are just set dressing and a pretense toward deeper meaning. Is it a good-looking science fiction movie that’s not based on an overused, corporate-owned concept? Yes, and there should be more of those. But Blomkamp’s vision simply lacks vision.
ELYSIUM: Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Cinematography, Trent, Opaloch. Editing, Julian Clarke and Lee Smith. Music, Ryan Amon. Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga and Sharlto Copley. Sony Pictures, 2013. R. 109 minutes. Two and a half stars.