Blomkamp is, like that other high-minded fantasist Christopher Nolan, a professed devotee of Michael Bay, and in "Elysium" it shows. The action movie framework of "Elysium" is much more formal than "District 9," which included scrappy elements of dark humor and found footage movies, somewhat limiting Blomkamp's ability to go on flights of fancy like turning his main character into a half-monster. But that doesn't mean that the director can't put together a top-notch action sequence. There are a number of truly awesome moments, like when Damon and his crew are being attacked by a squadron of robots and Copley's villainous Kruger and the final showdown between Damon and Copley. There's a seeming effortlessness to the action sequences that, even though the scale has been greatly amplified, doesn't come across as being unnecessarily complex or ornate. Each character has a very defined set of goals and they will do whatever they can to achieve those goals, even if it means crashing a spaceship into a space station or having a cool battle that involves miniature force fields and samurai swords. Despite some occasionally obnoxious cutting, for the most part the action in "Elysium" is clear, both spatially and geographically, and much is owed to Bay both in terms of what is going on in the moment and editorially, and especially in terms of the pure, propulsive energy and the way that obstacles are stacked up one on top of the other.
Much like “Pacific Rim,” “Elysium” is a triumph of design, concept and world-building, but its storytelling has myriad issues that mar its fascinating original story. One of them that arrives right off the bat and perhaps announces the problems to come is the maudlin and corny flashbacks that introduce us to Max’s nascent beginnings. Perhaps its because Damon’s Max character doesn’t have much of an character or emotional arc (we’ll get to that), but the quick flashbacks to explain who Max is, what his dreams are (getting to Elysium), and tell his origin story (an orphan who turned to crime), is clunky and a lot like the rest of the movie. Much too much on the nose. These sequences are also romantically gauzy and dreamy to the point that they’re cheesy, and borderline dumb and trite (the Frey and Max “innocent childhood pals with a romantic edge” is a little cornball too; especially when they meet again as adults in real life).
We understand the need to provide a backstory for Max and Frey, but boy is it laying on the themes thick and that’s what the movie does too often: lay it on thick.
The Supporting Players
William Fichtner, who was last seen as a similarly odious character in the under-seen "The Lone Ranger," plays another heavy here, the leader of a defense contractor/robotics manufacturer who absolutely hates being on earth (especially since Elysium is 19 minutes from earth). Fichtner is so brilliantly brittle that for a while you half expect a late-in-the-game twist that he's actually a robot too. The problem is while Fichtner is deliciously icy, his character is all one hollow, simple note. Likewise, Wagner Moura and Diego Luna play a pair of street thug freedom fighters who Damon goes to after being irradiated, but they don't have a whole lot to do other than fulfill plot point needs. Moura’s Big Cheese hacker character—who helps Max get to Elysium for a price, basically shouts the entire time, and Luna as Max’s best friend is killed off before he can present a visage beyond “best friend #1 who cares for Max.” Alice Braga is both staggeringly talented and amazingly beautiful but has precious little to do here and for a woman characterized as being smart and determined, is basically the damsel in distress for much of the movie.
Jodie Foster & The Way Her Character Betrays Herself
Where to begin... As the Secretary of Defense for Elysium's idyllic community, Foster should have relished the part of being an oversized villain in a film that throws caution (and subtlety) into the dark recesses of space. Instead of trying to be serious and actor-y, she could have had fun and twirled her (metaphoric) mustache to no end. But instead she makes a series of bafflingly bone-headed decisions that Blomkamp, working with a powerhouse star of her stature, never thinks to correct or rectify. The look of Foster's character, like everything else in "Elysium," is flawless: she's got a blonde bob that's plastered to her head like Robin Wright in "House of Cards" (but less sexy), wears robot-colored power suits and makes decisions in a council chamber that is the color of ores dug up from the center of the earth. If there was a beating heart to the Death Star, it could be her. But everything else is awful: the character is never consistent, focusing on diplomatic solutions one minute and ruthlessly murdering dozens of people the next. Her desperate grab for power seems both unfounded and convoluted, and the accent she chooses to saddle the character with seems to change from scene to scene (what is that? French? Lithuanian?). Instead of being a deliciously evil character that you love to hate, you just kind of hate her and her over-the-top performance is vexing. Her mere presence on screen grinds the movie to a halt and frays your patience. There’s a fine line between entertaining and just noxious villainous scene chewing and Foster definitely falls on the wrong side. A lot of the characters problems are in the muddled writing. After being shown as power hungry and manipulative, the Secretary soon shows her true colors are Machiavellian, heartless and malevolence (all shades of the same color though), but then in the third act, she suddenly grows a 10-sizes-too-late conscience and decides to die. This change of heart is absolutely ridiculous since it’s unearned, comes out of nowhere and essentially betrays everything the audience has learned about the character thus far. Once again, the decision to kill the character seems plot, rather than character motivated and it's at the expense of the emotional credibility and the suspension of disbelief that makes a film tick.
A Distinct Lack of Subtlety
While both Damon and Blomkamp have assured journalists at every turn, that "Elysium" isn't supposed to be a social or political movie, it's too heavy handed to suggest otherwise. In fact, it's kind of broad and dumbed down. Like "District 9," but with the distinct flavor of blockbuster compromise on top (i.e. telling your story in a simplistic manner so Johnny Paycheck gets it). There are a number of big, lumbering metaphors in "Elysium" and they can easily be slotted into the narrative: the "Occupy" movement, immigration reform, the use of private contractors in foreign wars, and environmental issues all have their spot. In fact they're so tightly woven into the fabric of the movie that it plays less like a narrative and more like the kind of flyers that irate underclassmen pass out on college campuses. While it’s great that a summer movie was actually about something and has something to say, there is not nearly enough nuance or subtlety in "Elysium." Everyone on the floating utopia of Elysium is a) white and b) evil while everyone on earth is a) vaguely Hispanic and b) pure of heart (even though many of them appear to be criminals and terrorists). But the lack of subtlety doesn't stop with the movie's "message" (that, again, Blomkamp stresses doesn't actually exist) but it trickles down to the characters (most evidently Foster's character) and plot mechanics, especially when it comes to Damon's convenient cancer. One minute he's utterly crippled by the toxic dose of radiation (and what is clearly substandard medicine), the next he seems to be doing pretty well and after he gets the robotic exoskeleton, he's more or less Iron Man. The exoskeleton is especially baffling since almost everyone responsible for its installation says that it would probably kill him (and should have, right, given his weakened immune system and overall physical health?). While the cancer should have been the engine driving him to get to Elysium, it instead becomes a subtlety-free device that feels more like a means to an end than actual motivation. It's evocative of a larger problem with the movie's disinterest in being anything other than bludgeoning.