Matt Damon plays an angry and well-armed member of the 99 percent in "Elysium," the most blatantly political sci-fi movie of the summer, if not of all time. It's written and directed by South Africa's Neill Blomkamp, whose brilliant debut, "District 9," imagined an apartheid system of privileged humans and shantytown space aliens. "Elysium" gives us a giant slum called Earth, whose populace supports a wealthy 1% ensconced in a pretty space station called Elysium.
The year is 2154, the place is Los Angeles and Max (Damon, bald and tattooed) is dying of radiation poisoning from a workplace accident. His health plan is lousy -- a robot prescribes daily pills "until you are dead" -- but Elysium has miracle MRIs that can cure anything. Unfortunately, the machines function only for "legal" citizens, and Elysium is well-defended by secretary Delacourt (a snooty Jodie Foster), who shoots "undocumented" ships on sight.
Blomkamp has fun setting up this combination of "Escape From New York" and Michael Moore's "Sicko." Los Angeles looks like Mexico, Elysium looks like Southampton and robocops everywhere keep the peace. Gradually, though, "Elysium" gets bogged down by a tortuous plot that defies its own internal logic. A coyote named Spider (Wagner Moura) hires Max to kidnap a CEO (East Meadow's William Fichtner). For strength, Max screws a metal exoskeleton to his body -- a cool idea, but why doesn't everyone have one? Max's childhood crush, Frey (Alice Braga), and her dying daughter (Emma Tremblay), add sentiment but not substance.
For all the complications, "Elysium" is ultimately simple-minded. Max's grand plan is to hack a database so that all "illegal" Earthlings become "legal" Elysians. Thematically, this feels unsatisfying, a trick rather than a triumph. Politically -- and this movie is always political -- the idea of simply opening the floodgates feels embarrassingly naive, a grade-schooler's solution to immigration reform. Even in the context of a fanciful sci-fi film, this bit of wishful thinking runs smack into the wall of realpolitik.
"Elysium" serves up some imaginative effects and pyrotechnics, most of them involving a black-ops nut job named Kruger (an outrageously good Sharlto Copley, of "District 9"). But the movie is both sloppy in its details and too literal in its thinking. A less blunt allegory might have made for sharper entertainment.
PLOT A dying man from the giant slum called Earth attempts to reach a space station reserved for the rich.
RATING R (violence, language)
CAST Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga
BOTTOM LINE Sharp satire and blunt allegory make for an uneven mix in this sci-fi flick. Sometimes fun, but ultimately frustrating.
THROUGH DIRECTOR'S SCI-FI LOOKING GLASS
"Elysium" director Neill Blomkamp, a 33-year-old South African native with a background in digital effects and a head for sociopolitical tumult, has emerged as a rarity among today's directors: a maker of science fiction with soul.
"What's somehow gone away from science fiction is that it's meant to represent ideas," says Blomkamp. "It's meant to be this looking glass through which you can look at society a different way."
Whereas most science fiction today is all sleekness and impressive spaceships, metaphor comes first for Blomkamp, who sees "Elysium" in the tradition of Fritz Lang's similarly allegorical "Metropolis." Set in 2154, "Elysium" finds Earth a slum, with the wealthy living in an orbital space station.
Blomkamp first caught Hollywood's eye for his commercial work and shorts, including "Alive in Joburg," which he would later expand into the Oscar-nominated "District 9." The success of that 2009 film (it made $210.8 million worldwide) led to numerous studio offers of major franchise movies.
"I get offered those kind of films less and less now because I just seem to be saying 'no' so much," says Blomkamp. "What I want to do for the next few films is find exactly my own voice."
-- The Associated Press