Elysium feels like the film Neill Blomkamp thought we expected him to make, and not the film he wanted to make. Blomkamp exploded onto the scene with the pseudo-satirical sci fi actioner District 9, a terrific little film that spun themes of apartheid and segregation into a tale of extraterrestrial refugees. Expectations were high for a politically aware follow up, and Blomkamp seems to have caved under the pressure. Elysium fills its 109 minute runtime with relevant issues and a futuristic armoury of action set pieces, but Blomkamp’s heart clearly isn’t in it.
The hot topics this time are immigration and health care. The wealthy elite have left a pollution-ravaged Earth to live on the paradisiacal titular space station, on which they can cure themselves of any ailment in their all purpose medical pods. The poor remain on Earth, to work in Elysium owned factories or eke out a less legal living. One of these criminal enterprises is fabricating Elysium citizenship for those ill and desperate enough to cross the border, so to speak, and attempt to get in one of those pods.
Max (Matt Damon) works in one of the factories, manufacturing the security robots which police this planetary slum. One day, when attempting to fix a jammed piece of machinery, he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Given five days to live by a comically cold medical robot, Max decides to risk it all and make for Elysium. To do that, he’ll need fake citizenship and a seat on an illegal shuttle. To get those, he’ll have to pull one last job for the gang he used to run with.
It’s a simple story – man suffers radiation poisoning, must get to space hospital – which is complicated by an everything plus the kitchen sink approach to plotting. Jodie Foster chows down on the scenery as Elysium’s dastardly Defense Secretary Delacourt, who attempts to instigate a coup so that she can keep those filthy Earth immigrants out. Sharlto Copley (always the best thing about any film he’s in) is the psychopathic Kruger, a sleeper agent reactivated by Delacourt to stop Max, whose job involves brain-jacking a prominent Elysium citizen. Then there’s Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey, whose daughter has leukemia and also needs one of Elysium’s medical pods.
It’s a hodge podge of issues and plot points. District 9 worked so well because it kept its focus on its single issue. Elysium, on the other hand, is constantly tripping over its plethora of themes. It’s as if Blomkamp threw everything he could at his screenplay, hoping at least something would stick. His admirably relevant themes of closed borders and universal healthcare (more relevant now than when the film was first released) are crushed under the weight of the horde of ancillary ideas.
Crushed, too, under the shrapnel, spent casings, and scorched debris of the action scenes. Blomkamp is an expert director of action, and his fast paced editing leaves us in no doubt as to what is happening. But, in Elysium at least, he loses sight of when the shooting should start. Returning to District 9, that film’s action didn’t start until the third act. When the alien ammunition started flying, we were invested in the characters and story and it packed all the more punch for it. Elysium’s action starts early and gives us little chance to engage with Max and his border-hopping adventures.
Once the dust has settled, Elysium leaves little lasting impression. Sandwiched between the laser-focused District 9 and the endearingly uneven Chappie, it feels like a failed experiment, an uninteresting attempt to recapture the magic of Blomkamp’s first while courting a broader audience. A stint in one of its magical medical pods could have cured it of its problems, but it never managed to leave the ground.