Matt Damon and Jodie Foster star in “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp’s latest politically tinged sci-fi feature, about a factory worker’s attempt to hijack his way onto a space station inhabited by the elite.
A politically charged flight of speculative fiction makes an exciting launch, only to tailspin into an ungainly crash landing in “Elysium.” Coming in the wake of “After Earth” and “White House Down,” this marks Sony’s third big-budget disappointment of the summer, the problems this time stemming from deflating final-act script problems that one would think could have been easily identified. Like Neill Blomkamp’s out-of-nowhere triumph with “District 9” four years back, this one puts rugged action and convincing visual effects at the service of a sociologically pointed haves-and-have-nots storyline, but when the air goes out of this balloon, it goes fast.
All the same, the growing contemporary disparity between the privileged classes and the poor in many parts of the world is plausibly extended for dramatic effect in Blomkamp’s script, which has the wretched Earth dwellers kept in line by robocops and where anyone who actually has a job is counted as lucky. Among those is former convict Max (Matt Damon), now holding down a lowly factory gig but maintaining ties with the criminal/revolutionary underworld, part of which is devoted to running “illegals” up to the spinning celestial orb.
Trying to orchestrate a coup for her own interests is Armani-clad regime iron lady Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has an Earthbound stealth agent, Kruger to do her dirty work. Unfortunately, Kruger all but hijacks the film in the late-going with his irrational behavior and cackling – his sword-twirling villainy comes off as something more appropriate for a live-action cartoon bad guy, or an enemy in a “300”-like bloodbath.
Max’s transformation into a part-metal fighting machine may have been conceived as a noble act of self-sacrifice, an existential act or both, but dramatically it has a highly constricting effect on his behavior, as well as on the viewer’s ability or desire to relate to him. Bereft of full mobility and reduced, in effect, to a simple fighting machine, the character loses his unpredictability along with much of his appeal. Had the climactic action been pitched in a less ordinary way, Max could have emerged as a genuine tragic hero, but the character’s full potential is missed by a longshot.
With his head shaved, Damon comes off credibly as a ticking time bomb early on but becomes unduly constrained by his metal apparatus later. Foster is all official business and ambition as the devious politician, often speaking French to her colleagues and then English in a firm international accent of sorts.
As in “District 9” the excellent effects and location work (Mexico City stood in for Los Angeles, while Vancouver represented aspects of Elysium) make for a vivid, convincing backdrop.