It's been a brutal summer for science fiction movies, especially the outer space adventures that typically enjoy healthy support at the box office no matter how uninspired they are. Tom Cruise's career may never recover from Oblivion, and Will Smith's recent commitment to several "safe" sequels over the next few years may have something to do with the embarrassing failure of After Earth. Elysium deserves a bigger audience than either of those films. But this second feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who burst onto the scene four years ago with the widely admired and Oscar-nominated District 9, allows its sharp social satire to be buried by an avalanche of action-movie cliches. There's an interesting film in there somewhere, but it's held at bay by endless fistfights and gun battles seemingly determined to subdue the more thoughtful movie within. Spoiler alert: The action movie wins.
Elysium's basic premise is a sci-fi natural. The year is 2154, and a polluted and overpopulated Los Angeles resembles present-day Mexico City (where the film's earthbound landscapes were shot). The ultra-wealthy have abandoned Earth for a space station called Elysium that's 19 minutes away by space shuttle and looks like a luxury car hood ornament when viewed from below. The rich folks on Elysium enjoy comfortable McMansions and proprietary technology, including tanning beds that instantly heal whatever ails them, from gunshot wounds to leukemia, through "re-atomization." The sad-sack denizens of Earth work in filthy and dangerous factories that service the 1 percent in the sky. Who will lead an uprising of the people?
When factory worker Max DeCosta (Matt Damon) suffers a terrible industrial accident, he must find his way to Elysium for treatment or die trying, which takes us directly to the fistfights and gun battles. While he's up there, he may be able to save all humanity. The movie's villains are exactly what they should be: conscience-free corporate CEOs who'll do anything to protect their financial interests. Jodie Foster (sporting an odd but somehow effective accent) and William Fichter (the outlaw Butch Cavendish in recent flop The Lone Ranger) play bad guys to the hilt, intentionally chewing the space-bound scenery for maximum entertainment value. But the newly muscle-bound Damon seems to take the movie much too seriously to succeed as an old-school action hero.
Elysium avoids the technology-driven fetish for mass destruction of people and cities that has characterized so many blockbusters this year, instead using a potent mix of digital and in-camera special effects to create engaging worlds in admirable service of its story. The movie's similarly soft-pedaled politics might have carried it over the top. One day, the obviously talented Blomkamp will get the alchemy just right and deliver a sci-fi classic, probably set in some wondrous and previously unimagined world. He should probably start by leaving all the mindless gunplay back on Earth where it apparently belongs. — KEN KORMAN