Escape from planet Earth


Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga

Rated R for strong bloody

violence and language throughout

1 hr. 49 min.

Hoping to strike gold again with another summer hit like 2009’s District 9, director Neill Blomkamp returns from a four-year hiatus to give us his second big sci-fi film: Elysium.

This time, instead of dealing with alien abuse, he divides humanity into two separate classes: the haves and have-nots. The rich have taken their toys and gone to live high above Earth in a giant utopian space station. The rest of Earth’s inhabitants have been left to rot on a desolate and polluted planet.

Blomkamp loves to take on big ideas as part of his plot. District 9 dealt with racial segregation. Here, the emphasis is on severe economic inequality. In the case of District 9, it worked. With Elysium? Ehhh, not so much.

It’s 2154 and Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former car thief, has gone straight. He builds robots for worldwide defense contractor Armadyne and lives a quiet, meager existence in a Los Angeles barrio.

One day, he receives a lethal dose of radiation on the job and is given five days to live. His one chance for survival — to steal a ride to Elysium, where there is a medical machine that can cure him. The problem is, no one from Earth is allowed to travel to Elysium, and those that try are ruthlessly hunted down by Elysium’s secretary of defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster).

Max seeks out an old friend, local coyote Spider (Wagner Moura), who sells illicit rides to Elysium. Spider agrees to help him but wants something in return:  a software program owned by Armadyne CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner) that can reboot Elysium’s online defense system. It’s (literally) been downloaded into Carlyle’s head. In return for a ride, Max has an exoskeleton attached to his body and head that can serve as a human flash drive.

As you might expect, things go awry and Max ends up being pursued by covert assassin Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Hitch a ride to Elysium? Hell, Max is just trying to avoid being cut into pieces by Kruger’s samurai sword.

If this all sounds a bit overblown, you’re right. Trying to wrap your head around all these ideas is like hanging onto the wheel of a 787 while it’s taking off. It’s dizzying, bursting with possibilities, but so large and (perhaps) forward-thinking that it literally blows away the story line.

Add to this a subplot about a love interest with former childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and you have a whirling dervish of a film.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Blomkamp’s intention — to burst our thinking, to daze and bewilder us. But in doing so, he’s left his audience in a quandary.

It takes a delicate touch to bring characters to life. Words do matter and in this case, screenwriter Blomkamp’s sprawling plot, dialogue and technical wizardry do not always match up.

What’s more, his story feels as if it’s built around ideas rather than actual flesh-and-blood characters, and he’s made some technological assumptions about humanity and science (especially life in space) that seem far-fetched.

Still, while Blomkamp may struggle with the plot, he knows how to stage a damn good fight. Damon resurrects his Jason Bourne mentality. Copley as the demented assassin is a worthy villian. If Blomkamp had streamlined the first hour and focused on Elysium’s action sequences, the film would have been far more taut and enjoyable.

You can’t fault a director for taking risks. What’s lacking here is clarity and a minimum degree of plausibility.

Elysium is a sci-fi missile that strays off course. There are flashes of good ideas and well-staged action sequences; but if, as I suspect, Blomkamp intended to be thought-provoking, the end result is a film that stirs up lots of dust and noise but falls far short of its target.