MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Elysium’

Neill Blomkamp, the writer-director of “Elysium,” has insisted that his sophomore film — a sci-fi actioner starring Matt Damon set in a future world where the rich live in luxury on a beautiful space station while the working-class live in squalor on a dying Earth — isn’t a message movie. 

‘Elysium’ doesn’t have a message,” the “District 9” director said in an interview with “Wired.”

This is about as convincing as cigarette company denials that smoking could possibly be harmful. “Elysium” isn’t just a movie with a message. It’s a movie with a thuddingly obvious political perspective and agenda.

It is also, however, a first-rate action movie, as well as a one of the most richly imagined and visually inventive science-fiction films in years. I loved every minute of the movie that didn’t make me want to roll my eyes and shout “Gimme a break!”

Unfortunately there are far too many of the latter moments. I have seen pro-wrestling body slams considerably more subtle than “Elysium’s” politics, which are focused on the evils of immigration restrictions but run the gamut of liberal causes from income inequality and suburban sprawl to defense-sector villainy, workplace safety and health access.

Matt Damon stars as Max, one of the Earthbound have-nots. After a factory accident leaves him with just days to live, he ends up rigged with a super-powered suit on a mission that puts him in conflict Elysium — the orbiting suburban luxury haven to which the world’s elites have fled.

Mr. Damon is charming, as always, but he doesn’t have the grit to pull off a tattooed slum-dweller. Sharlto Copley, on the other hand, makes the summer’s most engagingly ferocious villain as the special agent Kruger, who works in the service of Elysium’s curt, cruel Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster).

As in his far-superior debut, “District 9,” Mr. Blomkamp’s visuals have a gritty, believable, lived-in feel. And his gory, unrelenting action scenes are designed with a brutal, exacting efficiency. 

The problem is the script, also by Mr. Blomkamp, which has a terrible case of just-in-case-you-didn’t-notice-the-metaphor disease. It seems to have been written under the impression it’s necessary to label all of its parable components using today’s political terminology: Miss Foster’s Defense Secretary Delacourt is warned that she’s supposed to “deal with illegals quietly.” A system-rebooting MacGuffin is said to “open the borders” to Elysium. Ships that crash the space-city’s party are labeled “undocumented shuttles” and their inhabitants whisked off to “deportation.” OK! It’s about immigration. Thanks! We get it already.

It’s not even that I’m in disagreement with all of the movie’s messagey under (and over) tones. It’s that even where I found myself in agreement, or close enough, I also found myself cringing at the obviousness of it all, and put off by the film’s urge to simplify, rather than complicate.

Politically inclined drama — even in blaster-wielding B-movie form — is best when it reveals how knotty our social problems are, and plays with viewer sympathies for both sides of the argument. “Elysium” barely recognizes that there are any valid arguments to be had. Instead, there’s good and evil, humble struggling citizens and callous elites — and nothing in between. 

Mr. Blomkamp seems to be aiming for a subversive effect: a big-star Hollywood movie about the cruelty of the super-elite and their obsession with wealth and beauty. Instead it comes off as unintentionally ironic — the product of someone who thinks he’s being subtle while he drops a ton of bricks on your face. That’s “Elysium’s” real flaw — it’s a message movie, even if its creator doesn’t know it.

★★★

TITLE: “Elysium”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp 

RATING: R for bloody sci-fi violence

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

 

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