We’ve screwed up the world again in “Elysium,” another futuristic dystopia in which mankind has turned Earth into a dusty, overcrowded and polluted hellhole.
The watchful eye of writer-director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) gives us a groovy kind of doom, with the vast majority of mankind struggling to stay alive on a desiccated planet while the .001 percent live it up on Elysium, the ultimate gated community — an orbiting satellite replete with mansions and rolling lawns.
Science-fiction is, of course, often used as a vehicle to tell stories about the here and now disguised as tales of the future — and lest anyone miss out on Blomkamp’s thoughts on contemporary immigration and health care, “Elysium” underlines and italicizes them before going over them again in yellow highlighter.
Blomkamp is a master of creating action out of a grimy, quotidian kind of next-gen hi-tech, but when it comes to metaphors, he prefers the sledgehammer.
Ever since his earliest days in an orphanage, Max (Matt Damon) has dreamed of fleeing Earth for the glories of Elysium. As an adult, he’s working an exhausting gig building robots on an assembly line, and when an on-the-job accident leads to a lethal dose of radiation, he’s willing to do anything to get up to the satellite so that he can heal himself with the machines that keep the residents up there young and healthy forever.
Early on, Blomkamp shows a flotilla of immigrants flying up to Elysium, but they’re not looking for jobs — robots do all the labor — they’re looking for health care in a healing chamber that resembles that doohickey that performed surgery on Noomi Rapace in “Prometheus.”
Dedicated to keeping grubby terrestrial outsiders from this interstellar pleasure dome is Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who’s willing to employ all manner of underhanded tricks to keep Elysium pure, even if it involves hiring the psychotic Kruger (“District 9's” Sharlto Copley) as her Earth-bound enforcer.
Max’s plan to get to Elysium involves stealing financial data out of the brain of corporate CEO Carlyle (William Fichtner), but Max doesn’t realize that Carlyle’s cranium also happens to contain the codes that could turn Rhodes into Elysium’s iron-fisted new ruler, thus forcing Rhodes and Kruger to try to capture him at all costs.
So basically, plot-wise, we’ve got a mix of “Metropolis” and “Pickup on South Street,” but Blomkamp keeps things rousing, whether he’s outfitting Damon and Copley with exo-skeletons for their inevitable showdown or introducing weapons that make robots explode in cool slo-mo fashion. One of Blomkamp’s most satisfying choices is too much of a spoiler to discuss, but it shows the kind of moxie that too few blockbusters possess.
Damon’s role often seems more physically than emotionally taxing, but he plunges into it enthusiastically. We can’t help rooting for Max, no matter how stacked the cards are against him in this exploitive society.
Besides overplaying its subtext, the other major flaw of “Elysium” is Foster’s performance, perhaps this accomplished actress’ most risible work since “Siesta.” Strutting around in power suits, barking at lackeys and doing her best Alexander Haig, it’s like watching a Joan Crawford impersonation delivered in that vexing accent from “After Earth.”
Still, as an effects-laden action piece, “Elysium” delivers the goods. It might not be the thinking man’s fill-in-the-blank that some viewers were eagerly anticipating, but it’s a solid adventure that oversells its deeper meanings.