Just four years ago, “District 9” snuck up on moviegoers with its high-concept alien invasion premise and thoroughly impressive special effects, offering up some big ideas on a relatively small budget with zero star power (unless we’re including producer Peter Jackson) before becoming the least likely Best Picture nominee... ever? Now that South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp has successfully made a name for himself, we find ourselves greeted with “Elysium,” a follow-up with another near-future sci-fi premise, still impressive special effects, thuddingly simplistic themes, a massive budget and some considerable star power for a change.
Leading the charge is Matt Damon as Max De Costa, an ex-con in 2154 Los Angeles trying to keep his head down and make his way up to Elysium, an elite space station that hovers above the earth, a fixture that perpetually taunts a downtrodden populace with its promise of staggeringly advanced medical care. Like everyone else in the SoCal slums, Max wants a better life for himself; once he receives a lethal exposure to radiation at his Armadyne factory job, Max suddenly needs to go there, a desperation shared by old flame Frey (Alice Braga) as she cares for her leukemia-stricken daughter.
Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) will do anything to protect Elysium from the unwashed masses, going so far as to employ sleeper agent Kruger (“D9” lead Sharlto Copley) on the ground. Max will do anything to defy her, though, including strapping on a metallic exo-skeleton and committing a heist of sorts against Armadyne head John Carlyle (William Fichtner). What follows is an unexpected big-budget reprise of the Keanu Reeves flop, “Johnny Mnemonic,” with Copley’s despicable assassin chasing down a man whose brain literally holds the data necessary to level the playing field between the 99% and the 1%.
Until that point, Blomkamp echoes “District 9” and its convincingly worn-down world of migrants and machines, employing an aesthetic of neon and grime, of metal and blood that brings to mind Verhoeven’s “RoboCop” and “Total Recall.” Even for the sake of violence, technology has brought forth newer, cooler ways to kill and be killed. When characters cannot die in “Elysium,” they simply don’t, even when they’ve lost their entire face; when they must die, though, they do so in exceedingly juicy detail. The gore is striking, to be sure, but the mayhem that often causes it rarely ever stands out as much as “District 9’s” climactic gauntlet did.
However, Blomkamp’s seemingly limitless imagination in terms of tech finds itself repeatedly and frustratingly grounded by heavy-handed storytelling. Frankly, “Elysium” is a bit of a liberal’s wet dream: the good guys want accessible healthcare, while the bad guys want to do away with undocumented immigrants. Just as Max seeks a literal cure for his problems, the coup-minded Delacourt seeks a figurative one, with a laughably strident Foster forced to recycle sneering post-9/11 rhetoric before an ungrateful President. (Why Elysium’s lone defenses against oncoming ships are then earthbound instead of shooting from space, I’ll never know.)
She gets to employ a French accent, Damon freely switches between English and Spanish, and Copley -- the only performer out-hamming Foster -- growls threats with the thick Dutch inflection of his homeland. What’s meant to be a melting-pot touch feels like the latest trick of Blomkamp’s grab bag, thrown in alongside countless gadgets and maudlin flashbacks in which a sage nun prophecizes little orphan Max’s eventual acts of heroism. As our own personal Jesus, Damon sells all sorts of futuristic fisticuffs and squinty-eyed determination over the course of this ultra-violent cartoon, but even he can’t save the fact that all this more ultimately feels like a whole lot less.
SCORE: 5.9 / 10