“Elysium” has a nice premise: a 140-odd years from now, the privileged few live in a giant space station, Elysium, an idyllic habitat complete with suburban mansions and swimming pools, high above the polluted and diseased Earth. But that’s where the good ideas end. “Elysium” involves a desperate man named Max, who has only a few days to live after a radiation accident at work, and a race to upload society-upending data—which a lot of bad people would kill for— from his brain into a central computer of Elysium before his time runs out. Doing so would make everyone, a citizen of Elysium, and therefore privy to free health care—you lie down in a bed that heals you if you are stricken with a degenerative illness and reconstructs your face if it was blown off by a grenade. The citizens of Elysium have this technology, the billions suffering on Earth don’t. Max, played by Matt Damon, and about to die, wants to get up there and heal himself. At the same time, the idea is to save humanity, and his loved one’s daughter, because he and some other criminals got their hands on lines and lines of code that would reset the whole system and have it stored in Max’s brain with the help of an exo-skeleton, which also grants him superhuman strength.
The film is directed by Neil Blomkamp, who made “District 9.” The great thing about that movie, sharp and almost satiric, was that it could be summed up in a few words: NO ALIENS ALLOWED. It reversed the dominant alien-invasion concept, and was a stroke of pure genius. What “Elysium” has to say is neither particularly sharp nor satiric, nor does it awe you; it’s an angry fists-in-the-air film about how the wealthy will fall and social equality will prevail. The ending has gleaming medical ships descending down from Elysium and healing the world, which is nice, to be sure, but while watching all I could think of was how “Elysium” seemed to be the product of a group of film students’ Red Bull-besotted minds, while they were playing HALO and television coverage of Occupy Wall Street was on in the background. “Elysium” has great visual effects, and has moments that would make for an impressive reel, but the story reeks of an amateur, inferior, careless, flawed quality.
There’s a scene early on that demonstrates the unblinking iciness of the Elysium security chief, played by Jodie Foster, and a lot of other things too. Three spaceships, full of refugees seeking medical attention, launch from Earth and attempt to reach Elysium. Foster, with parsed lips, and the rest of her team watch the trajectory of the ships on a big screen which flashes big words for the audience’s sake. She doesn’t order them to be shot down immediately but instead sends word down to one of her agents on Earth, who fires missiles up into the atmosphere with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. Two of the ships are blown up; the other does basic evasive maneuvering and manages to land on Elysium (what happened to the missile?), strewing refugees all across perfectly kept green lawns and causing cocktail glasses to be dropped in panic. Homeland Security, represented by gleaming red robots, run around with Tasers. It’s a big scandal. You bet. My mouth was agape with incredulity. Are you telling me that the space station home to the richest people (not) on Earth doesn’t have some kind of automated defense system? Can anyone pick up a big gun and send a missile up to Elysium, or with a little amount of luck fly a spaceship onto someone’s mansion? This might seem like nitpicking, but it’s the kind of filling-in-the-details world-building that is woefully lacking and makes “Elysium,” so full of holes that it’s sinking, suffer. C+