With his second feature film, writer-director Neill Blomkamp cements a specialty for himself in science fiction that is also, front and centre, social critique.
Following closely in the template of his impressive 2009 debut District 9, Blomkamp's Elysium is set in 2154 in a world where the term "social strata" has been rendered literal. The Earth, polluted, overpopulated and disease-ridden, is unfit for habitation by the ultra-wealthy (presumably the very people responsible for the planet's decay), so they live above it all in a wheel-like space station where they can maintain a lifestyle of sunshine, manicured lawns, mansions and at-home medical units where cancer can be cured as quickly as it takes to photocopy a prescription.
On the ground, things are more dire, especially for ex-con Max (Matt Damon), who commutes through the sprawling squalor that is shantytown Los Angeles (reminiscent of the South African townships of District 9). Max is routinely brutalized by robot cops, ignored by robot social workers and given dangerous assignments in the robot factory where he works.
After becoming the victim of an industrial accident involving heavy radiation, he is given five days to live. With nothing to lose, he contacts an old criminal confederate named Spider (Wagner Moura) who has a plan to stage an invasion of Elysium, where Max can be cured. Raising the stakes for Max is his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose terminally ill daughter could also stand to be on the upper tier of Earth's two-tier medical system.
This places Max on a path with Elysium's ruthless Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who doesn't seem to have a real handle on the icy villain thing) and her brutal minion Kruger (District 9's Sharlto Copley, who very much has a handle on the psychotic killer thing).
As movie scripts go, Blomkamp's is wonderfully pertinent, simultaneously evoking the immigration debate currently raging in the U.S., as well as the widening divide between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us. The depiction of Elysium's Bel Air-like environs are deliciously satiric.
But Blomkamp cannot resist the lure of tech, whether it is the muscle-enhancing exo-suit Max has drilled onto his body, or the mountain of visual effects going on behind the camera. By the time the finale comes, we're a little exhausted by all the robotic smackdowns, the explosions and the sundry violence.
As a sci-fi satirist, Blomkamp evidently is standing on the shoulders of director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall), a guy who enjoyed nothing more than lavishing his movies with gory/freaky/explode-y visual effects.
But given his subversive intent, one wishes Blomkamp could be a little more inspired by the cerebral Stanley Kubrick, whose forays into satire — Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange — managed to achieve classic status without a gratuitous fight scene every five minutes.