It seems contradictory, but the secret ingredient in a great science-fiction film is realism. We want to see a reflection of the world we inhabit, even if it’s coming from another planet. In the case of “Elysium,” the titular outpost is a satellite circling the earth. If you recognize this world of mansions and swimming pools from your personal experience, congratulations. The rest of us will surely recognize the world below, a polluted place where the masses fight for survival under the watchful eye of armed guards. This vision of a violent future makes “Elysium” well worth seeing, even as the conventional violence of the thriller finale makes it a missed opportunity.
The setting is the late 21st century. High above the earth, a giant hamster wheel called Elysium shelters the richest citizens in luxurious style. Meanwhile, down below in parched and polyglot Los Angeles, reformed car thief Max (Matt Damon, muscled and shorn of hair) tries to evade the same robo-cops he helps build in a factory.
A segment where the killer robots order Max to report to his parole officer (another robot, covered in graffiti and impervious to Max’s sardonic humor) promises a social satire as pointed as director Neill Blomkamp’s previous film, “District 9.” But after Max gets an industrial dose of radiation and needs to reach Elysium for life-saving medical treatment, the movie gets sidetracked into a too-familiar chase narrative.
An outlaw hacker called Spider (Wagner Moura) agrees to smuggle Max onto a space flotilla if first he can kidnap a visiting factory owner (William Fichtner) whose brain contains codes that can free the population that’s stuck on Earth.
The scene where Spider’s tattooed henchmen fit Max with a cyborgian exoskeleton is another feat of FX wizardry. The gear enables Max to go toe-to-jackboot with an assassin (Sharlto Copley) who is unleashed by the Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster, affecting a bad South African accent). But tin-man Max has a heart, and he entangles his lost love, a nurse named Frey (Alice Braga), into the mission, along with her dying daughter.
The rationing of medical care is another potent theme that Blomkamp stuffs into his script, but when Max and his rebel brethren crash-land on the satellite, subtlety is jettisoned for bombastic music and shaky-cam shootouts. Nonetheless there are wonders to behold in “Elysium” and lessons to file in the collective consciousness for the coming showdown.
What “Elysium” • Three stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:48 • Content Bloody violence and strong language