Elysium opens with four distinct advantages. First, it's not about a super hero. Second, it's directed by Neill Blomkamp, the young prodigy responsible for District 9. Third, it has a compelling dystopian premise. Fourth, it stars a white, male, reluctant hero who wears special armor and solves problems by shooting things.*
*Okay: three advantages.
The year is 2154 (why are these always so hyper-specific?) and the world's wealthy have moved to a giant space station called Elysium. The 1% enjoy spacious properties, Greco-Roman estates, and magic tanning bed-like machines that can cure any illness instantaneously (best not to ask). Meanwhile, the rest of humanity lives on lousy old Earth, which is poor, diseased, and dangerously overpopulated. Blomkamp wastes no time flagging our hero and villain. We meet the self-deprecating, hard-working, kid-loving Max (Matt Damon), and the soulless, tyrannical, power-hungry Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Take one guess at who lives on Elysium.
In fairness, both Damon and Foster nail their respective caricatures. Damon walks with a slight hunch throughout, as though he still feels the weight of his (vague) delinquent past. It's Max's only flaw in an otherwise static role, but Damon plays up the regret consistently enough that we never forget he's human. In contrast, Delacourt couldn't be more robotic: she betrays friends, defies authority, and orders the destruction of a shuttle carrying 40 refugees, all without the slightest wince or flinch.
Next to the two leads, Elyisum's most successful feature is the expansive, imaginative setting. Like with District 9 before, Blomkamp employs sweeping overhead shots that capture the bustle of cities and vastness of territories. His futuristic Los Angeles—with its crumbling skyscrapers and barren, treeless surroundings—is a convincing premonition, simultaneously eerie and bleak. And then there's Elysium: gorgeous, shimmering, surreal. You'll drink in every new shot of the utopian space settlement, its splendor made all the more incredible next to the desolate, polluted communities on Earth.
Regrettably, the film soon succumbs to action film clichés and lazy writing. Max gets exposed to radiation in a scene that should be terrifying, but instead smacks of convenience. He resolves to heal himself on Elysium (why not), agrees to undergo complicated surgery in which he becomes half-droid, half-human (just go with it), at which point Robert Downey Jr. makes a cameo, asking why they would so shamelessly rip off the Iron Man series (okay, I made that one up). The film's final half hour is almost shockingly derivative, with lazy, open-this-door-immediately and go-on-without-me tropes accosting the viewer like typos in an Entertainment Weekly feature.
It's a bizarre step backward for Blomkamp, who took so many risks with District 9. Granted, he has a weakness for moral certainty (his characters are either pure good or pure evil), but here, he seems afraid to make his audience uncomfortable. District 9 forced us to confront our subconscious fear of "otherness"—whether in foreign cultures, local immigrant neighborhoods, or the slums of downtown homeless communities. The director made us linger with District 9's alien ghetto, to discover how at the closest (albeit discomforting) inspection, the ostracized extra terrestrials weren't much different from ourselves.
Elysium never earns the same sympathy. The space station residents are far too lifeless, and outside of Delacourt, we're given precious little time to understand any of them. We're happy to root for Damon and his handsome, courageous companions, but against whom? A bunch of robot-like billionaires? In Elysium, even Donald Trump would more readily connect with the poor, pitiful inhabitants of Earth.
Like its own futuristic Los Angeles, Elysium ends in a state of missed opportunity, a once promising production marred by fear and neglect. Utopian societies tend to look best in concept, only to fail during execution. Next time, Blomkamp would do well to keep this in mind.