Elysium begins on a sweet note, with a young boy and girl bonding in the tattered landscape that is Earth in the mid-22nd century. Above them spins the film’s eponymous colony, a luxurious haven for the paranoid rich, and the young boy, Max, promises the girl, Frey, that he’ll bring her up there one day. It’s hard to argue the benefits of getting there, as Elysium is constructed as a vast stretch of mansions equipped with tools that render inhabitants of the colony all but immortal. Of course, it’s all completely restricted from those who are earthbound, masses made up of the aimlessly destitute or those who work only to be mistreated by cold, near-demonic employers. Throughout, District 9 wunderkind Neill Blomkamp strides closer to the muscular, subversive genre terrain of John Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven, but the writer-director still continues to lay his pathos on just a bit too thick.
Years after the film’s opening, Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-con who gets eradiated while fixing a faulty machine at work and is given a bottle of pills to tide him over for the few days he has left to live. Frey (Alice Braga) is hardly better off, trying to keep her Leukemia-stricken daughter alive while working as a full-time nurse. Max’s desperate need for the life-giving machines on Elysium brings him into the service of Spider (Wagner Moura), a resistance leader and criminal who Max went to jail in order to protect. It’s Spider who fits him with his exo-skeletal robot suit to power his weakened body, and Blomkamp smartly focuses on the force of mechanically enhanced hand-to-hand combat as much as, if not more than, the story’s plethora of bullets and bombs. The film’s action is occasionally of the frenzied handicam variety, but the director consistently nails the sense of oomph and the bloody stakes of the messy brand of violence he peddles. Indeed, for those who’ve hankered this summer-movie season for splattering body explosions, Elysium provides a (not exactly) healthy fix.
Most of these detonations occur when Max and his team attempt to kidnap and download financial information from the brain of John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the CEO of Max’s former employer. Instead, they download evidence of a coup being planned by Delacourt (a heavily dubbed Jodie Foster), an icy higher-up in the Elysium government. The plot gets even more needlessly twisty from there, but the film never sags, which makes all the difference. Blomkamp keeps the narrative moving quick and acting nasty for the most part, but he only indulges the knowing trashiness of the story up to a point. Max’s main nemesis, a bounty hunter named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), serves as a loving throwback to the days of flamboyantly sadistic, impossibly hard-to-kill villains, the types that Stallone, Van Damme, and Schwarzenegger had to tussle with. There are more than a few other touches of hard-boiled frivolity in Elysium, but Blomkamp waters down this admirably hard shot of sci-fi nonsense toward the end of his film. Though he selfishly attempts to barter with Delacourt and Kruger, a tactic that doesn’t end well, Max remains essentially a polished beacon of innocence and goodness. Damon is more utilized for his physical build than his dramatic ability, but by the time Max gets all martyr-like, tying his fate to and becoming the sudden underdog champion of a little girl dying of Leukemia, any sense of genuine character is washed out anyway by the blinding righteousness he represents.
The purity afforded Max, in stark contrast to the cartoonish evilness represented by Fichtner, Copley, and Foster, dulls the force of Blomkamp’s inventive set pieces and gadgetry, which are at the heart of his undeniable talents. His fight scenes are exhilarating, beautifully paced, and impactful, and there are moments, visually, where one can nearly see the Alex Cox dream project lurking underneath the script’s earnestly heart-on-sleeve sheen, but it all ultimately feels a bit too safe. Elysium isn’t quite tough or brash enough to sell the cynicism Blomkamp pickles his story in, but his style has tightened, grown fleeter, meaner, and more direct in the wake of District 9. A cheekily gruesome and genuinely urgent entertainment, Blomkamp’s latest nevertheless can’t help but beg the question: Where’s Snake Plissken when you need him?