Matt Damon-Elysium-485
Photo by Kimberley French - Courtesy of Columbia TriStar

Three summers ago, a film called District 9 came from “out of nowhere” to command our attention, despite a lack of stars or a recognizable filmmaker. It put many higher-priced Hollywood blockbusters to shame and established Neill Blomkamp as a writer-director of talent and substance. As a result, his follow-up feature has been keenly anticipated. Elysium starts out on the same solid footing as District 9, establishing a serious science-fiction premise laced with searing social commentary. (In the late 21st century the “haves” have abandoned Earth for a utopian environment on a space station while the “have nots” remain here, living in squalor.) So far, so good.

Matt Damon, in yet another first-rate performance, plays an ordinary guy who’s had squabbles with law enforcement in the past and continues to buck the system, while holding down a job on an assembly line that produces high-tech robots. His childhood girlfriend (Alice Braga) is now a nurse in one of Los Angeles’ insanely overcrowded hospitals.

It's hard to say exactly why and how Elysium runs off the rails, but it does, becoming harsher and nastier as it goes along. Jodie Foster, in a highly mannered performance, plays the steely, arrogant secretary of defense who protects the privileged citizenry of Elysium from illegal immigrants—by any means necessary. That includes employing a smarmy soldier-of-fortune, played with blood-curdling gusto by Sharlto Copley (the memorable South African star of District 9).

In order to survive, Damon agrees to a drastic operation in which he is outfitted with robot-like armature and a hard-wired link to his brain. His object: to travel to Elysium and save his life.

Unfortunately, what begins as a parable about greed, suffering, corruption, and a society where the gulf between rich and poor continues to grow becomes a grim, gritty shoot-em-up: extremely violent and devoid of fun. In the end, the film is ineffectual as escapist fare or as hard-hitting drama, caught in an unpleasant form of limbo.

It's rare that lightning strikes twice, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who was rooting for Neill Blomkamp to give us another District 9. Perhaps some day he will, but for now, Elysium ranks as a major disappointment.