Available this week on DVD, “Elysium” starts out promisingly but then devolves into just another “action” flick. The ability of star Matt Damon to raise a thriller well above the ordinary — so fully on display in the Jason Bourne trio — is largely wasted here after about the first half-hour. Director/screenwriter Neill Blomkamp, who showed such originality in 2009’s Oscar-nominated “District 9,” gives way to the temptation of big-budget filmmakers. We get lots of computer generated mayhem: rockets bring down space shuttles, robots get blasted into slow-mo smithereens, and guys with metal exoskeleton outfits flail away at each other. That and plenty of old-fashioned knifings, beheadings, beatings, along with a barrage of F-bombs, richly earn the movie its “R” rating.
What could have been an intriguing allegory about the immense (and growing) distance between the rich and the poor begins in the year 2154 in a world that looks like a dystopic dump. Down here on Earth, the masses eke out a nasty and brutish existence, living in shanties or crowded onto towering, crumbling apartments. If you’re sick, God help you, because you won’t get much medical attention in the overcrowded hospitals.
Making it worse for the downtrodden, a giant space station looms visibly in the sky above them. Inside the rim of this huge wheel, the literal upper crust of the upper crust enjoy leisurely existences in what looks like a Southern California version of paradise, complete with mansions and swimming pools, breaking into French every now and again. (Tellingly, the lowly Earthlings in L.A. speak Spanglish, cursing each other continually in both languages.) In the hellhole that is the City of Angels the android Policia mete out a stern, unfeeling punishment; in Elysium, the droid butlers proffer champagne to their human masters. Repeated such high/low contrasts make an unmistakable social comment, as Blomkamp had earlier done for apartheid in “District 9.”
At the crux of the action, ex-con Max (Damon) is clinging to a factory line job — making robots, ironically — and working through his automated probation system. When he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, he is told he has five days to live, given some pills, and “thanked” for his service. The accident reawakens his fervent boyhood dream to get to Elysium, though he now has the added incentive to get to a curing pod, which the Elysiumians employ to heal any and all illnesses and wounds. (Medical science there can quickly restore a blasted-off face, in fact.)
As a young orphan, he had promised a girl friend, Frey, that he would get them to that big wheel in the sky.When he meets her now, she’s a nurse (played by Alice Braga), with a daughter suffering from leukemia. In his fierce desire to get himself cured, Max takes a job for a nefarious computer nerd/revolutionary named Spider, a wonderfully manic Wagner Moura. The work involves literally picking the brain of a billionaire industrialist (William Fichtner) and obliges Max to get his own mind wired and his body armored.
To raise the degree of difficulty, he’s opposed by Elysium’s Secretary of Defense (a steely Jodie Foster) and her hired thugs, principally Kruger, a hairy Ninja wretch played well over the top by Sharlto Copley (the protagonist in “District 9”). Naturally, the plot boils down to an over-extended mano a mano between Good and Evil, with the stakes as high as can be imagined. The denouement is oddly deflating, though it clearly puts Blomkamp in the socialized medicine camp.
“Elysium” has its moments, but it is decidedly not for children, even those who might enjoy its video game violence and mindset. Adults, lured by the stylish trailer and the generally positive critical reception, might regret getting sucked into the rental.