I don’t even know what to say about Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. This is a movie so wrongheaded, that it can’t have been made by the same gifted filmmaker who gave us District 9 four years ago. I can only assume that Blomkamp was attacked by the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, replaced with an ultra-inferior doppelgänger, and programmed to do harm to the nation’s moviegoing audience. Elysium is bad, almost on a cosmic scale. It’s boring from nearly first frame to last, riddled with uninteresting characters and poor dialogue, lacking in suitably sinister villains, and it contains a message about social inequity that’s about as subtle as being blasted in the face by cannon fire. But the most egregious offense, as if those other things aren’t bad enough, is a key supporting role by Jodie Foster, who gives her worst performance as just about the blandest bad guy I think I’ve ever seen. To put it more bluntly: I think I actually hated this film.
The plot is not an easy one to follow, so hang on with me, if you can: It’s late-21st century, when the world is overpopulated, and inundated by waste. The wealthy have fled to an enormous structure in outer space called Elysium, leaving the have-nots behind to fend for themselves. Elysium, which is shaped like a giant wagon wheel and must have required billions upon untold billions of dollars and more man-hours than I’d care to think about to build, is a self-contained world with its own atmosphere, and essentially functions as a planned community, much like Reston, Virginia. The rules are strict, the government totalitarian, but the price in return is a neatly manicured atrium, days spent by the pool or playing polo, and advanced medical technology that can heal any illness or wound. National security on Elysium is overseen by Secretary Delacourt (Foster). Delacourt goes about her job with an almost comical absence of mercy. She never smiles, essentially delivering her orders in few words of clipped staccato notes. When the peons of earth attempt to send three ships filled with the sick to Elysium for treatment, Delacourt callously orders them shot out of the sky. This isn’t a woman to be trifled with, as evidenced by her no-nonsense platinum blonde haircut.
Back on earth, working-class ex-convict, Max (Matt Damon), takes a full blast of radiation at his job, and is informed by a medical droid that he has only five days to live. He has few resources to turn to for help in his town, which is essentially a slum filled with Hispanics. I don’t know what Blomkamp is trying to say here, but everyone speaks Spanish, including Max, so I guess we’re supposed to be in L.A.? Texas? Arizona? Nothing is made clear on that front, and there’s no mention of how things look in, I don’t know, say Lincoln, Nebraska. Max seeks the help of his childhood playmate, Frey (Alice Braga), but she has her own problems: her young daughter, Matilda, is in the final stages of leukemia. So, conveniently enough, we now have two central characters with a need for Elysium’s magical healing technologies. Max thinks there might be a way to get there: the company he works for on Earth just so happens to have built Elysium, and the VP overseeing terrestrial operations has Elysium’s entire technical and mechanical blueprints encoded on his brain via a device implanted in his head. Yes, you read that right. Convenient, again, no? Max devises a cunning plan, with the help of a couple of local resistance leaders: they’ll hijack the VP’s jet back to Elysium, download the data from his brain, reboot Elysium’s core computer system, and reconfigure the space station’s entire computer sequence in one fell swoop to make the citizens of earth citizens of Elysium and give them all access to advanced medical care. I suppose it’s somewhat incidental at this point to mention that Max wants to get to Elysium mainly to save himself, and quite begrudgingly agrees to take Matilda with him for treatment. Some hero. If you think I’ve given away too much, believe me, I haven’t.
To say the plan goes off without a hitch would be a lie. Secretary Delacourt taps into her deep arsenal of weaponry to stop La Résistance before it gets out of hand, and pulls out an earth-bound sleeper cell agent called Kruger, who’s played with some relish by District 9‘s Sharlto Copley and looks like he was thrown out of the touring company of The Road Warrior, to put the hurt on the insurgency. We get a lot of scenes of pulse rifles and hand grenades, exploding bodies, and expletive-ridden dialogue, as Max and his gang interrupt the VP’s travel plans. This sequence, which lasts all of ten minutes, is the most exciting in a 109 minute movie. Frey gets mixed-up in the mayhem, and basically spends the entirety of the film shielding her dying daughter from gunfire. Once everyone makes it to Elysium, there’s more chaos as the roving band of misfits attempts to reboot the computer sequence. Do they succeed? I’m not saying, and I’m only gently insinuating that you shouldn’t care. None of it is even remotely interesting or engaging in any way.
Which brings me to two more final thoughts, and then I’ll go (spoiler warning): 1) Jodie Foster either chose, or was directed by the script, to play Delacourt with a French accent. Here’s a woman who was schooled at the Lycée Français de Los Angeles and speaks fluent French. Why oh why, then, does she fall in and out of her accent, and how did she manage to do it with so few lines? Delacourt has almost no dialogue in the movie. It’s jarring and frustrating to watch one of the world’s finest actresses crawl through the muck of a bad role, and then sink completely because she can’t keep a hold on her accent. It makes her look bad, and it makes the movie look bad. 2) Max takes a series of fundamentally horrific beatings in this film. First, he’s seemingly doomed by a radiation blast that leaves him practically unable to walk, and then is fitted with an unwieldy hydraulic contraption that gives his limbs superhuman strength, and is controlled by a small device implanted in his brain. During a brief but grotesque sequence, Max’s head is literally cut wide open and the device implanted. But the next morning, he’s up and running as if he’d done nothing more than stub his big toe. Later, he’s stabbed by an absurdly long knife — up to the hilt! — but manages to drag himself for miles to get help, and is, again, up and running a few days later. And all the while, he’s thrown, punched, kicked, beaten, flayed, folded, spindled and mutilated by Kruger, droids, and anything else that can get its hands on him. And yet somehow, miraculously, he manages to keep on going. If anything is going to be fatal to a movie’s credibility, it’s this.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go absolve myself of this exhausting review by watching a better movie.