About midway through “Elysium,” Matt Damon has a steel exoskeleton attached to his body. Though it’s a metaphor in writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi drama, the suit represents things exactly when this thoughtful film tips over from too much action.
The exoskeleton is attached to working-class hero Max De Costa (Damon) to strengthen him after an industrial accident. It’s also required to fight his way into Elysium, a space station that’s only a 20-minute rocket ride from Earth, but impossible for people like Max to reach.
The year is 2154. Pollution and disease have ravaged the planet — Los Angeles is a teeming, steaming wasteland — but the one percent live comfy and cozy and for eternity up in the sky, thanks to machines that repair all ailments.
Those like Max who have jobs on Earth endure wretched indignities for fear of losing what they have. So Max goes into a dangerous area that fills him with radiation, leaving him five days to live.
His only hope is to join the illegal immigrants who have fake IDs burned into their skin, take an unauthorized trip to Elysium, crash into a mansion and use the super-health machine.
But Max’s mission is bigger. He has a program uploaded into his head that could reboot Elysium’s security system, defended by the Elysium president’s chief secretary (Jodie Foster). The steel suit attached to Max by rebel forces dehumanizes him, but he has no choice.
“Elysium” stacks the deck: Max also must get the daughter of his childhood sweetheart to the space station to cure her leukemia. The flashbacks we see of a preteen Max and his true love, Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga), are haunting. That back story works, as do the macabre scenes that suggest where we’re going (computerized mannequins replace clerks; a bottle of pills dumped on the fatally ill).
Damon is sturdy, as usual. Max, a smart guy who’s had a tough life, has an everyman decency with just enough burliness to get his point across. Though he’s never face-to-face with Foster, the two are formidable adversaries. The conniving secretary also has a snarling lackey (Sharlto Copley) on Earth who doesn’t care when he’s made redundant. He just smashes whom he’s told to.
But unfortunately, “Elysium” devolves. It doesn’t address the ramifications of making everyone healthy for eternity, or what it is on Earth they’re making or digging up that fuels whatever economy is left on the space station. For such a well thought-out premise, there’s not a mention of how capitalism works in this futureworld.
Four years ago, Blomkamp’s immigration parable “District 9” was a similar mix of the mental and the muscular, nabbing a Best Picture Oscar nod for Best Picture. “Elysium” is a heavier lift. Like some of the best sci-fi movies, it draws strength from a great idea. Then it settles for crunching battles and predictability. Like Max, it loses what made it special.