In the bleak dystopian future of Elysium, mankind has been cleanly segregated by altitude. While most of the population still lives on the surface of the planet, now a crime-infested and pollution-choked hellhole, the fabulously wealthy have retreated to space-station paradise Elysium—a kind of orbiting gated community, where the 1 percent enjoys access to magical “medpods” that instantly mend broken bones and clear cancer-ridden bodies of disease. Though that might sound suspiciously similar to the plot of this spring’s dual-gravity fable Upside Down, it’s actually the new brainchild of District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, who apparently never met a metaphorical high concept he couldn’t reduce to genre-flick window dressing. As allegory, Elysium is less risible than its predecessor, in that it doesn’t equate apartheid victims to slimy space bugs. But it’s ultimately even less concerned with the social issues it pretends to tackle; any focus on wealth inequality or the failures of the health-care system basically evaporates once the heavy artillery comes out.
Much of Elysium is set in 22nd-century Los Angeles, envisioned—like the alien-imprisoning Johannesburg of District 9—as a crumbling urban wasteland, above which floats an enormous hunk of machinery. Here, in a shamelessly maudlin flashback, an impoverished urchin reaches skyward, toward the ozone utopia he’s too poor to live in. Jump forward a couple decades, and the boy is now a weary, tattooed ex-convict (Matt Damon, in man-of-action Bourne mode), raging impotently against the machine and trying to win back the childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) he once promised to take to Elysium. There’s an element of almost-potent satire to these early scenes, which present a world where sticking it to the little guy is now completely automated. (In the film’s funniest scene, Damon tries in vain to reason with his robotic parole officer, a clunky-looking contraption that offers him pills to quell his distress.) Blomkamp remains a gifted inventor of environments; there’s a lived-in quality to his slummed-out L.A., evident in technology that seems at once futuristic and outdated, like the rustic hardware of the Alien franchise.
Elysium is, in other words, a triumph of art-direction, but not of storytelling: Its backdrop established and its midpoint arrived at, the film quickly devolves into another hyper-violent chase picture—a slicker, more expensive remake of the all-action, all-the-time second half of District 9. Desperate to reach Elysium—where the medpods can heal the effects of the lethal radiation poisoning he receives during a freak accident—Damon allows underworld doctors to graft an exoskeleton onto his frail frame. Soon he’s caught in the middle of an information war between upwardly mobile gangsters and Elysium’s secretary of defense (Jodie Foster, trying out a ludicrous accent), with his brain serving as a storage space for some vital intel. The action, a series of chaotic gunfights set to the Inception-like sonic boom of Ryan Amon’s score, is visceral and robust. But it’s also kind of numbing. Unlike Terminator 2—another sci-fi shoot-’em-up that begins in Los Angeles, and to which Elysium is clearly indebted—the movie never varies the nature of its run-and-gun spectacle.
Appealing though he usually is as an action hero, Damon doesn’t have much to do here but scowl and look cool brandishing giant weapons. Driven solely by self-preservation, his hero eventually gets invested in the fate of Braga’s sickly daughter; like Bogie in Casablanca—which also involved sought-after tickets to a better world—Damon decides to stick his neck out for someone. Yet the change is so sudden, and the protagonist by that point such an inhuman force of nature, that the dramatic arc feels negligible. It doesn’t help that all the other characters are stick figures: Braga basically embodies the saintly perseverance of the lower class, while the villains are either dimestore sociopaths (Sharlto Copley’s vicious mercenary) or boo-and-hiss-worthy millionaires (William Fichtner’s heartless industrialist). Elysium feeds off of lingering traces of Occupy outrage, but its fantasy rewiring of the rigged financial system hinges on a technological MacGuffin, not an actual transformation of society. Blomkamp’s interests clearly lie elsewhere, with big guns and bigger spacecrafts—a reminder that District 9, which announced his arrival as a purveyor of “intelligent” sci-fi, grew from the ashes of a Halo movie. With Elysium, the director proves that he still has one hand on the X-Box controller; maybe he should give the allegories a rest already and just get back in the game.