Elysium begins with a good, angry, satirical premise: It's the year 2154 and Earth has been polluted to the point where the rich have decamped for a humongous, ring-shaped super-space-station in orbit — a paradise of manicured lawns, swimming pools, robot servants and even machines that cure cancer in, like, 15 seconds.
It's called Elysium, and, down below, the poor in their dirty slums gaze on it like the brass ring on an old merry-go-round. But it's hard for them to immigrate. Elysium's defense secretary welcomes the undocumented with guided missiles.
The writer-director is 33-year-old South African Neill Blomkamp, who in his Oscar-nominated sci-fi action picture District 9 re-imagined apartheid with giant shrimp from outer space. There's nothing as audacious in Elysium, but then this is a studio film with major stars.
Matt Damon plays Max, a luckless parolee who once had big dreams but has since been beaten down. He wants only to keep his dangerous factory job and stay out of trouble. The problem is that he has a way of mouthing off to authority figures — especially a cheap-looking robotic dummy that won't let him speak.
If the rest of Elysium were like that, it would be golden. But Blomkamp uses his ripe conceit and twisty, stylish, state-of-the-art techniques in the service of a plot more suited to 19th-century melodrama.
Jodie Foster plays that defense secretary, the sort of person who orders spaceships bearing families destroyed in defiance of a president who tells her just to send them back to Earth. So she plots to take him out by getting a robotics mogul (William Fichtner) to shut down and reboot Elysium, which would make her president.
It sounds ridiculous to me, too, but then nothing about Foster's performance makes sense. Her accent is either English, South African or Martian — it's hard to tell, since it's different in every scene — and she moves more stiffly than the robots. With this performance, Foster joins the ranks of outspokenly liberal actors who can't manage to play their political opposites.
Damon is much better, but still not convincing. After Max gets a lethal dose of radiation in a factory, he has one motivation — not to die. That takes precedence over doing good things: joining some rebels or even helping the adorably inquisitive cancer-ridden daughter of his childhood companion, Frey, played by Alice Braga.
But I'm sorry, Damon looks and acts like too much of a sweetie. You can see his moral trajectory from miles away, from his crisis of conscience to the face-off against the paramilitary psycho villain played by the star of District 9, Sharlto Copley.
Director Blomkamp makes up for the creaky plotting by shooting everything with a hand-held camera that's always supertight on the actors, so when Max gets pummeled by fists and lethal objects, we get pummeled by light and noise and rock-'em-sock-'em editing.
And the action is thrilling; Elysium revs you up and on its own dumb terms it delivers. But it's less fun when Blomkamp blows something up than when he sends it up — as he does the incorrigible insensitivity of the rich, or the absence of empathy in robots programmed to punish the poor for showing impudence.
The rest of the movie is lowest-common-denominator stuff. It likewise seems programmed, by studio executives who dream of grabbing the brass ring right here, right now.