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Future Imperfect

by Ross Douthat

A review of Elysium

To give life to an imaginary world, it’s necessary to give it physicality — flesh and bone, bile and blood, and, in science fiction, gears and wires as well. This defiant fleshliness is what made Peter Jackson’s take on Middle Earth seem gritty and plausible, even to viewers who didn’t know Gondor from a gondola. It’s what made the original Star Wars movies — with their battered model spaceships, their puppet Yoda — feel so much more authentic than the glossy, friction-free, entirely virtual prequels. It’s why the dripping horror of Alien still terrifies, why the acid-eaten Los Angeles of Blade Runner is always worth revisiting, and why so many effects-driven blockbusters today fall short — inspiring a “wow” but lacking the kind of tactile immediacy that separates reality from simulacra.

And it’s why so many of us were eagerly anticipating this summer’s Elysium, the second sci-fi film from the South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. Four years ago, in his surprise hit District 9, Blomkamp took a $30 million budget and made one of the best alien-invasion movies of recent years: a vivid, visceral story about bug-like aliens marooned in a Johannesburg refugee camp, variously hated, exploited, and misgoverned by their human hosts.

The plot of District 9 was sketchy and imperfect, but the movie still felt brilliantly real: The aliens and the weaponry and the stinking, sprawling shantytown had exactly the right mix of the familiar and the foreign, the normal and the grotesque. And it helped, too, that the movie’s politics were nice and messy. There was an apartheid allegory in there somewhere, but the film wasn’t just a “good aliens, bad humans” message movie: It had a real feel for the moral and political complexities of the scenario it conjured up.

The good news, for Blomkamp fans, is that the fatter budget he was handed for Elysium has been employed to the same visceral effect. This time the year is 2154, and the world’s rulers have escaped a teeming, half-ruined planet to a space station in the sky — a spinning ringworld, with lawns and swimming pools filling its inner rim, hanging high above the chaos down below.

That sweeping contrast — between elegance and ruin, a techno-utopia and its crumbling mirror image — lets Blomkamp play with a range of aesthetics, from steampunk to the sleek futurism of sci-fi’s golden age, while remaining firmly grounded in the raw immediacy of dust and earth, metal and blood. There are no aliens this time, but there are robots and cyborgs, locked in combat with ordinary mortals, and it’s a testament to the director’s visual gifts that once again his inventions feel more convincing than most of their competitors for your summer movie dollars.

Unfortunately that’s where the good news ends. The visual elements of Elysium fulfill the promise of District 9, but Blomkamp’s sophomore effort disappoints on every other front. As in his first movie, the Afrikaner émigré’s imagination seems to be feeding off an interesting mix of white guilt and white anxiety, and his vision of a Malthusian Earth abandoned by its elite plays as a kind of worst-case scenario for post-apartheid South Africa, or even — given that his main earthbound setting is a ruined, Spanish-speaking Los Angeles — a fulfillment of every American immigration skeptic’s darkest fears.

But that reactionary subtext is buried very deep, and the movie’s text is a thuddingly predictable morality play — a kind of left-wing Atlas Shrugged, in which the planet’s only problem is that the elite have fled to orbit, and everything down below would somehow be magically fixed if only the rich and powerful cared enough to do it. There is no attempt to even vaguely humanize the Elysians, no explanation for their inhumanity and indifference: There’s only the clear and pressing need to shatter their technological monopoly, spread their wealth, and (hint, Obamacare, hint) bring their fantastic health care to the masses down below.

The man for this job is a working-class hero named Max, played by Matt Damon with his customary diligence. One of the few Anglos left in the L.A. of 2154, he’s a former car thief who suffers an industrial accident that leaves him with just days to live, and he volunteers for what amounts to a suicide mission, sponsored by an underground figure named Spider (Wagner Moura), to kidnap an Elysian billionaire and download crucial secrets from his brain.

This mission is complicated, inevitably, by a love interest from Max’s past (Alice Braga) and her leukemia-stricken daughter, who needs to reach Elysium to obtain access to its state-of-the-art healing machines. (The absence of a planetside black market in Elysian technology is one of the film’s many painful departures from verisimilitude.) And it brings our hero into conflict with the film’s two baddies: Elysium’s defense minister, played by Jodie Foster with an air of boredom and what I think is supposed to be a South African accent, and her off-the-books henchman, played by the definitely South African Sharlto Copley (he starred in District 9) with much more bloodthirsty zest than the script deserves.

Fortunately for Max’s chances, Elysium is protected by a military that’s even more incompetent than the Starfleet in J. J. Abrams’s latest Trek film. Blomkamp has conjured up a space-age utopia that seems to rely for its defenses on a lone L.A.-based soldier with a rocket launcher, and that’s governed by a computer system that can be easily reprogrammed to . . . well, that’d be giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that in real life, a space station whose custodians were this egregiously stupid would never have made it into orbit, or even off the ground.

A similar stupidity permeates the whole script: The world-building is lazy, the plot has yawning holes, and the political message becomes so didactic it would embarrass Aaron Sorkin. Blomkamp has a gift, that much is clear, but not a gift for screenwriting. So the next time his visual imagination is turned loose, let’s hope it’s on someone else’s story.

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