Here's one of my favorite jokes of all time. There's no punchline, it's just a sentence. "I've been rich and miserable, and I've been poor and miserable. And I'll tell ya: rich is better."
I don't know if this is what director Neill Blomkamp had in mind as the ultimate message of 'Elysium,' his visually stunning follow-up to 'District 9,' but beneath the dazzling spectacle, there isn't much else beyond that aphorism to cling to.
In the future, it is better to live on space station Elysium, with all the swimming pools, nice lawns, clean white suits and slick indoor lighting, than to live on Earth; dirty, hot, crowded and full of crying babies and dudes with tattoos. The laws of the land are left vague (is this a fascist government, or just extreme capitalism?) as are the racial politics (on Elysium you hear snatches of French, on horrible Earth everyone seems to speak S-S-S-Spanish!) But the president of Elysium, the orbiting Newport, Rhode Island where everyone is rich and gorgeous, is played by Faran Tahir, though lurking around the corner is Jodie Foster, looking to take over in a rather unexplained coup.
But, Foster's government intrigue plot is very much the B-story. 'Elysium' is really a survivalist tale about Matt Damon, our would-be Space Jesus and the redeemer of Mankind (a nun tells us so in the early flashback scenes), who is just another grunt trying to survive in the gross, dystopian future. He used to be a car thief but he's trying to play by society's rules – difficult to do surrounded by wretched bureaucracy, represented by mean robots who'll break your arm over a little misunderstanding (still better than staying on hold with Time Warner Cable.)
At his assembly line job (making robocops, a nod to Willem Dafoe's Jesus making crucifixes at the beginning of 'Last Temptation of Christ'?), he gets an accidental zap of lethal radiation. He will die in five ticking clock days! That is, unless he can somehow make it to the Elysium space station, where in every Richie Rich's home there is a prominently placed healing tube that will rid you of our ailments with just one scan.
With this brutal display of social injustice now shoved in our face, everything is now set to let Blomkamp do what he does well – let the videogame inspired battles begin.
First, Damon needs to get suited into some sort of cyborg outfit (it's unclear what this actually does for him, other than make him look awesome) and then he's got to get information out of William Fichtner's brain, and then he's got to go mano a mano against the summer's greatest villain, Sharlto Copley.
Copley plays Jodie Foster's hired assassin and, man, is he having a good time. He chomps up all the grimy metal scenery and gives this movie the shot of adrenaline it really needs, basically making up for the unusually poor performance by Jodie Foster. It sounds strange to accuse an Oscar winner of “bad acting” in a movie like this, but let's just say I don't quite understand the choices she makes in this one. Too bad they couldn't get Tilda Swinton.
Ultimately, the real star is the look of the film. The fight scenes teeter on the edge of brutal – Blomkamp definitely has his own style and there are moments in the second half reminiscent of 'District 9.' The space station is gorgeous (I look forward to the Blu-ray when I can hit freeze-frame and really study the fonts) and the computer tech is neat, too – glowy and painterly up on Elysium, while ragged and scraped together (and half-Russian) on grimy Earth.
It's definitely not the script that's gonna win you over with 'Elysium.' It is obvious and on-the-nose. Good luck not rolling your eyes when the moppety little girl tries to soften the determined Damon by telling the story about the hippopotamus who wants a friend. It all feels like an average story from the pulp pages of 'Asmiov's Science Fiction,' which in a few short pages would have benefited from an elliptical ending.
Maybe Blomkamp's next one will get a shot of nuance and take a cleansing ride through a medical scanner to rid itself of plot inconsistencies. (Those who like to gripe will have a lot of “wait, why didn't he just...?” type of complaints.) Still, this is my kind of movie. It's visually arresting, swings for the fences, has crazy weapons, wild technology and presents a world where a cyborg can stumble down the street and no one blinks an eye. Maybe the future isn't all that terrible?
'Elysium' opens in theaters on August 9.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen in the New York Daily News and on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.