South Africa-set District 9 had a clear apartheid allegory built into its hyper-violent sci-fi stylings, and writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up film is similarly concerned with social commentary, this time to do with accessible healthcare and immigration. District 9 wasn’t subtle, but the solemn Elysium is even more thinly veiled and oppressive with its socialist slant; it also proves a much weaker film overall.
In the mid-22nd century, overpopulation, deforestation and all that miserable stuff has seen the super-rich vacate our planet for a floating space station called Elysium, where they enjoy such benefits as medical machines that instantly repair all damage to one’s body. Among the downtrodden souls left down on Earth is LA criminal-gone-straight Max (a solid Damon), who suffers a mishap that sees him desperately needing to reach Elysium for that precious medical assistance. Further complications see him clashing with the space-base’s scheming Secretary of Defence (a bafflingly terrible Foster) and a tyrannical, psychopath mercenary (an incomprehensible Copley).
This is a film with potentially interesting ideas undone by underdeveloped world building. In a frantic rush to cram as much narrative as possible into 109 minutes, far too many of this dystopia’s important attributes fail to receive full clarification, while the one-dimensionality of everything, particularly that of every antagonist, undermines investment in the story. For all its attempted scope it also feels strangely insular; we never find out how Earth is doing outside of Los Angeles, nor do we even get to see very much of the workings of Elysium itself.
To its credit, the film is stellar in regards to its special effects and art direction, and certain action sequences have a potent physicality. Close-up fights, though, often prove unintelligible; District 9’s shaky-cam technique is carried over, but it at least made sense there with that effort’s faux-documentary elements. The spectacle ends up suffering – another problem for a film that, free of exploring its concepts with any depth, is ultimately little more than great production design for a world undefined.