In 2154, the setting of director Neill Blomkamp's science-fiction story Elysium, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown so wide that the two sides are literally not even on the same planet anymore.
The poor are stuck on a broilingly hot, over-populated and disease-ridden Earth where everything is covered in dust or rust or graffiti. The wealthy, on the other hand, have relocated to a silver wheel in the sky known as Elysium, a place of palm tress, mammoth McMansions, sparkling swimming pools and meticulously manicured lawns.
Robots do all the work, which means the inhabitants of Elysium can spend most of their days attending parties or cleansing their bodies of any possible health risks in what look like high-tech tanning beds. Of course, many residents of Earth would like a shot at getting to Elysium, and one of them is ex-con and factory laborer Max DaCosta, played by Matt Damon.
After he's accidentally blasted with a lethal dose of radiation in a workplace mishap, Max is told he has five days to live. So, with nothing to lose, why not attempt a trip to Elysium where he may be cured? Unfortunately, Elysium's defense secretary Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster, is something of an Unwelcome Wagon. When she sees unauthorized vehicles approaching Elysium airspace, she shoots first and never gets around to asking any questions.
The South African director Blomkamp scored a major hit in 2009 with "District 9," which re-imagined Apartheid with extraterrestrials as the oppressed minority. He's still tackling topical subjects here, showing how the possible consequences of the increasing inequality of wealth. For its first two-thirds, Elysium draws a striking, scary picture of a world in which the privileged have every possible comfort and the less-fortunate are left to fend for themselves in ghastly urban war zones.
Production designer Phil Ivey has done a superb job of conjuring up both environments. Max is continually hassled not only by former criminal cohorts who are hoping to lure him back into his old ways, but also by verbally and physically abusive robots that insist on reminding him how powerless and worthless he is. Damon believably illustrates Max's battered spirit and his life-long desire to finally break out of the hellhole he's in.
Foster doesn't register nearly as well. Speaking in a wacky accent that sounds alternately British, French and Russian, she goes overboard with the histrionics. At times you can almost see her twirling an invisible mustache as she plans her next diabolical scheme.
District 9 star Sharlto Copley plays Kruger, Delacourt's Earthbound henchman who cheerfully does her dirty work and seems to get a kinky kick out of terrorizing people like Max's long-time friend Frey, played by Alice Braga. Frey is a nurse with a young daughter who is suffering from leukemia, a situation that further motivates Max to invade Elysium.
Blomkamp has no shortage of ambition and he is certainly in no danger of running out of storylines. Elysium is dense with subplots and underdeveloped ideas, and unfortunately the movie's attention-getting set-up is more or less pushed aside in the last 45 minutes as Blomkamp turns his attention to gruesome visual effects and exploding bodies. Admittedly, the action is swiftly edited and well-choreographed, but what started as a smart, thought-provoking thriller eventually becomes your standard shoot-'em-up/blow-'em-up.
There's much to appreciate and admire about Elysium. At the same time, you wish Blomkamp had boosted the movie's brainpower instead of increasing its firepower.