Something about this first US studio feature from the South African-born director of District 9 just doesn’t feel right. While Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 debut was a bracing blast of whipsmart sci-fi, the work of a committed writer-director with talent and integrity to burn, Elysium feels like the product of a cautious Hollywood committee. It retains the action-movie-with-a-social-conscience template of District 9, but ditches that film’s sense of dizzying, anything-goes vitality.
Matt Damon is sturdy – if a little faceless – as the futuristic blue-collar grunt whose life nosedives when he receives a fatal-in-five-days radioactive blast at work. His only hope is to get to Elysium, the orbiting paradise reserved exclusively for the rich and heartless, run by Jodie Foster’s clipped, frosty and unconvincingly French CEO.
There are moments in Elysium that recapture the breath-stopping intensity of Blomkamp’s debut, most of them involving South African actor Sharlto Copley as a mangled Afrikaans mercenary, the only character here with any spark (although it’s worth noting that the cast also includes Brazilian actors Alice Braga and Wagner Moura, made famous by the role of Captain Nascimento in the two Tropa de Elite films). The special effects are uniformly superb, and a handful of action sequences – including a magnificent mid-film Smart-car heist – justify the price of admission.
But this is a messy, poorly structured film, riddled with plot holes and lacking any kind of satisfying conclusion. Perhaps it’s another case of raised expectations: from a first-timer, Elysium might seem more exciting. But in the wake of District 9, we’re all too aware what this risk-taking filmmaker is capable of, and it’s far more than this conceptually bold, sporadically engaging but ultimately bland blockbuster.