In the year 2154 there are two distinct classes of humanity—the bulk of the human race stuck on the ruined Earth, and the wealthy elite who reside in the luxurious orbiting paradise of Elysium. Factory worker Max has been searching for a way to get to Elysium all his life, where miracle medical technologies are the privilege of the wealthy few, but when stricken with a fatal workplace accident, he's offered an extreme option to get into orbit and take the battle to the rich.
Elysium is a highly anticipated film from Neill Blomkamp after the immensely successful District 9, and so has big shoes to fill. What it does have is a great cast—Matt Damon as Max, Jodi Foster (Contact) as Defence Minister Delacourt, Alice Braga (I Am Legend) as Frey, and Sharlto Copley (District 9) as Kruger. It's shot much like District 9, in a gritty realism with similar rapid-fire scenes, this time with a broader palette ranging from the sprawling future Los Angeles to the pristine splendor of the space colony. It all feels like a genuine, livable future, and the technology is (for the most part) believable. As hardware-driven, smartly designed science fiction it's a success, offering innovative and detailed visuals that fans of the genre can really enjoy.
So it looks great, but the story is where things begin to fall apart. Elysium is all about class warfare, which is pretty relevant. But it doesn't entirely succeed in conveying its ideas with a solid plot or characters. There are plenty of plot devices—the Elysium miracle medical technology (and I'm not exaggerating—it's pretty much a miracle machine as far as its healing powers) is there only as a target for the put-upon people of Earth. The denizens of Elysium are far too one-dimensional to be even remotely realistic. Why be a stoic, stuck-up robot when you have a machine in your house that can heal you nearly instantly? If that's the case, one would think Elysium would be a riotous party place where anything goes. But it's the opposite. So there are major flaws in the suspension of disbelief that accumulate over the course of the movie.
My other problem with Elysium is the failure in creating a believable dystopia. The world-building looks stunning, but I struggled to understand how the society of 2154 came about. It's far enough in the future to allow for quite a bit of technological advancement as well as geo-political and economic change, but how did it get there? Why do the billionaires on Elysium behave like such dicks? They not only horde the miracle medical technology but take great pains to keep it from everyone on Earth for no good reason. What kind of government do they have? It feels very fascist, but there's no great insight into the inner goings on of the place. And there's little indication of what people do all day (unless you're stuck running a corporation on Earth). All we see are kid's birthday parties, yet people don't seem to be home long enough to prevent illegal immigrants from breaking their front door and hopping into their medical beds on a regular basis.
Character actions cause some head scratching too. As much as I love Jodi Foster, her Delacourt was outrageously cold to the point of absurdity. Matt Damon was relatively believable as the self-sacrificing Max, and even Sharlto Copley as Kruger (though he also exhibits some bizarre shifts in motivations that don't get a great deal of insight). The same can be said for Julio's actions in the final act. It's enough to add up to a heck of alot of mental distractions when attention should be focused on the story.
Elysium is a visual treat. Special effects are amazing, and the set design is top notch, conveying a realistic lived in view of the future that lacks the glitz and polish of a lot of science fiction movies (for the better). But Elysium suffers from inevitable comparisons to the far superior District 9, which isn't fair at all to Neill Blomkamp (mostly). While we can't expect grand science fiction with amazing ideas each time out, Elysium's trailers did imply that we were getting the next installment of Blomkamp's thoughtful science fiction. In that respect it failed. It's likely audiences will not be debating the moral issues of the film to the same extent as District 9. As an entertaining summer movie, I was satisfied, but not enough to pick this one up on Blu-Ray.