Writer-director Neill Blomkamp's second feature, 'Elysium', is another ambitious, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at an allegorical sci-fi blockbuster.
His Johannesburg-set debut, 'District 9' (2009), depicted xenophobic humans oppressing an impoverished alien species, drawing parallels with the South African apartheid. This time a wider range of contemporary socio-political issues are raised, including urbanisation, class polarisation, and US immigration policy. 'Elysium' imagines a 22nd century where Earth has become a giant slum. The rich and powerful have evacuated and established their own private utopia: Elysium, a gated community floating in space. The Elysians guard their privileges jealously, with immigration from Earth strictly banned. In an early scene, a group of (mostly Hispanic) refugees desperately try to enter, and they are either exterminated or instantly deported. As well as the obvious similarities with today's US-Mexico border situation, this futuristic setting seems to be a logical culmination of contemporary trends towards the segregation and geographical compartmentalisation of social classes within many major cities, such as Los Angeles (where, notably, most of the film's Earth scenes take place).
On an aesthetic level, both the Elysium space station and future Los Angeles are wonderfully designed. The latter resembles the Johannesburg of 'District 9' - a dusty, polluted and overpopulated sprawl, littered with crumbling one-storey huts and the battered husks of old cars and machinery. Elysium, shaped like an encircled five-pointed star, is all shiny surfaces and trimmed lawns. Its ageless, hygiene-obsessed inhabitants look down on Earth both literally and metaphorically; at one point an Elysian billionaire angrily tells an American subordinate, "Don't breathe on me!".
The film's setting clearly has the potential for a genuinely interesting, even radical, sci-fi. However, just as with his debut film, Blomkamp struggles to weave his allegory into an engaging story, and after the promising opening, the film soon becomes a forgettable chase movie - Matt Damon has five days to reach Elysium! - in which the setting takes a backseat to some badly choreographed shaky-cam action scenes and a host of bland, clichéd characters.
Damon plays Max, a struggling factory hand who, during a particularly bad day at work, gets beaten up by robots and later receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. To pay for illegal transportation to Elysium and its excellent healthcare facilities, he is forced to return to his former career as a gang member, and becomes embroiled in a convoluted series of confrontations with Elysium's private security forces. Despite Max being clad in an elaborate robotic exoskeleton for these action scenes, they don't amount to much more than him firing an AK47 at hovering enemy gunships or trading punches with a bearded Sharlto Copey (the star of 'District 9'), while the camera jitters and swerves around confusingly.
The characters are neither well-written nor especially well-acted. Damon's Max is simply a bald version of Arnold Schwarznegger's hero in 'Total Recall', but without charisma or a sense of humour. The adult female characters, of which there are precisely two, prove that Hollywood's time-honoured tradition of casual sexism is alive and well. Max's love interest is almost completely passive, to the extent that the only actions she performs are caring for sick people as a nurse or running away from the bad guys. Near the end she's kidnapped and becomes a damsel-in-distress for Max to rescue. Max's nemesis, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is a high-ranking politician and does admittedly get to make some decisions and give some orders; but lest audiences become too discomforted by this, the character gives a speech early on in which she explains that her actions are guided by her 'maternal instincts' for the people of Elysium ("If you had children, you'd understand", she tells us). She has a psychopathic henchman (Copey, in an attention-seeking, 'edgy' performance), and he is given more screen-time and more control over the events of the story.
Meanwhile there are a familiar array of character archetypes used to speed the plot along: a cute but terminally-ill child; a best-friend character who dies early on to give the protagonist extra motivation; and William Fichtner.
To top all this mediocrity off, the film has a hugely unsatisfying ending, in which all the plot threads are cheaply resolved via the last-minute discovery of a technological loophole in Elysium's computer network. Of course, to enable this Max has to face a 'tough moral dilemma', but it's so ridiculously lopsided that it virtually amounts to him deciding between saving his own life or saving the rest of the world instead. It's a shame to see a film start so well and yet end so badly.