Elysium Can't Stay Aloft

The new film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp boasts stunning visuals, but the plot leaves much to be desired.
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The year is 2154, and the Earth--ravaged by disease, pollution, and overpopulation--has become one vast, apocalyptic slum. The wealthy, accordingly, have moved to a better neighborhood: a gleaming space station called Elysium, an orbital oasis where sleekly coutured "makers" have at last escaped contact with grime-encrusted "takers." In this ring-shaped Galt's Gulch in the sky, everything is lushly green or glinting with chrome, each dwelling the equivalent of a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. Back on the home planet, by contrast, all is dirt-brown and rubble-gray, and the masses struggle through days of Morlock drudgery while Elysium gleams down on them like the celestial middle finger of the Eloi: Take that, takers.

Elysium is the second feature by South-African-born director Neill Blomkamp, following his 2009 breakthrough District 9. With that earlier film, Blomkamp, then all of 29 years old, offered up a fluid, seamless blend of handheld camera-work and CGI effects, a kind of sci-fi verite. These striking visuals were enlisted in the service of a pointed political parable about South Africa (and, in particular, an atrocity committed in 1966): apartheid, but with aliens.

If District 9 advertised the artistry of which Blomkamp was capable with a relatively paltry $30 million budget, Elysium demonstrates what he can do with a Hollywood-sized bankroll. The world on display here is imaginative yet utterly convincing, from the battle-dinged security robots to the various transport ships (civilian, military, luxury) that ferry between Earth and Elysium, to the cityscapes of his future Los Angeles, a pan-American melting pot of post-urban decay. Elysium itself is a particular marvel, a revolving torus open to the "sky" on its inner edge, such that shuttles can glide directly into its atmosphere to land on the "surface." (Somewhere, one hopes, Ringworld author Larry Niven is nodding appreciatively.)

But if Elysium is a testament to Blomkamp's extraordinary skill as a visual filmmaker, it does not speak nearly so well for his gifts as a writer. The plot revolves around Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), an ex-con who now works in a plant that makes security bots. (Like Doug Quaid in last summer's forgettable Total Recall remake, he's manufacturing the means of his own oppression.) An industrial accident results in Max's exposure to a massive dose of radiation and as a result, he's given five days to live. Nor is he alone: the young daughter of his childhood best friend (Alice Braga) has leukemia, and her health, too, is declining quickly.

Luckily for both of them, although health care on Earth is scarce and low-tech, on Elysium every home has its own medical pod, capable of instantly healing virtually any condition--from broken bones to old age to (as we will learn) a face entirely blown off by explosives--by "re-atomizing" the patient. Moreover, a byproduct of the station's open-air design and near-total absence of defense mechanisms is that Earth refugees frequently commandeer shuttles to make uninvited visits, usually in search of medical treatment. These interplanetary illegals are subsequently rounded up and deported, but when the alternative is certain death from an illness that can be cured in seconds on Elysium, that's a decidedly minor disincentive.

So Max makes a deal with a local crime lord: He will kidnap a captain of industry (William Fichtner) in order to download information held in his brain, and in return he'll get a ticket on the next illicit flight to Elysium. To help with the gig, Max even has a powerful exo-skeleton grafted painfully onto his body. The intended kidnappee, however, turns out to be a pawn in a substantially larger scheme, and Max soon finds himself on the wrong side of Elysium's ambitious Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster, affecting an almost unidentifiable--maybe South African?--accent) and the brutal mercenary she employs on the ground (Sharlto Copley, the star of District 9, here much louder and more ill-tempered). Without going into details, very little of what follows--a plot to steal the Elysium presidency that makes the most extreme Diebold conspiracy theories seem tame, a computer virus more game-changing than any since Independence Day--makes even rudimentary sense.

There were shortcuts and plot lapses in District 9 as well--why, for instance, did the fuel that powered alien spaceships double as a biogenetic substance that turned human beings into aliens?--but in Elysium the head-scratchers pile up far more quickly. Blomkamp is a holder of strong political convictions (in interviews, he has said of his film, "This isn't science fiction. This is today. This is now.") and as his issue horizon has expanded from apartheid to immigration, health-care access, and the general divide between haves and have-nots, his narrative focus seems to have gotten hazier.

There's still much to recommend Elysium. Damon gives a characteristically appealing performance. Blomkamp generously spares us the kind of tedious exposition--how Elysium works, why its atmosphere doesn't float away, etc.--that so often clogs up science-fiction fare. And the visuals are terrific enough to merit the price of a ticket all on their own. For a while, they enable Blomkamp to create a world so physically persuasive as to keep disbelief suspended. But eventually the accumulation of illogic is too heavy, and Elysium crashes back to Earth.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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