elysiumDir. Neill Blomkamp
(2013, R, 109 minutes)

This doesn’t feel like a film from the director of District 9. It feels like a studio-bred facsimile, which takes the superficial formula of that film – futuristic sci-fi as an allegory for contemporary inequality – increases the body count, amps up the explosions, and leeches the humanity from it. But it is written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, whom I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt, but I can only judge what I see.

Elysium is set in a future where the rich and powerful have fled to the titular space station, leaving the 99% to languish on an impoverished Earth. It’s made blatantly obvious that this is intended, at least in part, as a metaphor for Mexican immigration: one of the earliest scenes deals with “undocumented” ships full of “illegals,” and most of the Earthbound characters we meet are Spanish-speakers – except of course for the white guy, Max (Matt Damon), who happens to be the hero.

But there’s barely a flicker of meaningful social commentary in the film, which uses class warfare merely as the backdrop for a garish, gratuitously bloody shoot-em-up driven by action scenes, but the action, it turns out, isn’t very good either. This is another of those fraudulent spectacles that uses shaky cameras and choppy editing as a kind of sleight of hand, obscuring a lack of interesting content by making the images so visually incomprehensible that maybe the audience won’t notice they’re not being entertained.

jodie fosterBut sometimes the camera does slow down a bit, often to show off lavishly photographed viscera – exploding bodies, grenade-shredded faces, and the like. I’m not a squeamish viewer, but the conspicuous attention Blomkamp pays to the gore is rather nauseous in its pandering blood-lust.

If only he had devoted as much attention to his characters. They’re mostly flat, lacking even basic human dimension, from Damon’s do-gooding hero – whom we learn was once a car thief, and little else – to the villains, who have no personalities at all beyond their villainousness. Jodie Foster, speaking with a distractingly mannered, unplaceable accent – Frenchish, maybe? – is Secretary of Defense Delacourt, a power-hungry authoritarian who happily kills any civilian illegals who dare to approach the space station.

Sharlto Copley, very good in his breakthrough role in District 9, plays Kruger, a sociopathic sleeper agent who carries out Delacourt’s orders. Copley, a South African actor, uses his own accent, but exaggerates his voice to cartoonish, unwelcome effect, though I suppose that’s a good match for a character that is cartoonish and unwelcome in every other way as well. He goes around being evil for evil’s sake, intimidating innocent women and children to more thoroughly establish his evilness, but why should we care about this man? There’s nothing to distinguish him from a hundred other stock movie villains. He, like most of the other characters, is a cipher who exists to facilitate the plot.

alice bragaConsider also: Matilda (Emma Tremblay), the young daughter of Max’s love interest Frey – played by Alice Braga, who is 13 years younger than Damon yet appears the same age during childhood flashbacks … oh never mind. Matilda is adorable and has cancer. Her entire function in the story is to be adorable and have cancer – except a little later on when she is adorable, has cancer, and is kidnapped. In one scene she tells Max a story about a hippo who wants to be friends with a meerkat, and I was so offended by the transparent emotional manipulation that I wanted to kill her off in protest.

The film resembles a video game in many ways, but isn’t it funny how movies that ape the video game aesthetic rarely replicate the good parts? All we get are first-person-shooter-like sequences that emphasize different kinds of mechanical body suits and artillery – and on the final boss level the hero can upgrade to the BFG9000 that shoots through walls! Headshot! The problem is that video games are fun because we get to play them, while a movie like this takes the controller out of our hands.

Elysium itself, both in appearance and function, is like a slightly redesigned version of the Citadel from the role-playing trilogy Mass Effect, but we get none of that game’s narrative depth. Of course, it’s hard to achieve that level of depth in a two-hour movie (as opposed to dozens of hours of gameplay), so maybe, if Blomkamp was really interested in some of the themes only hinted at in this film, he might have been better off taking the story to Sony PlayStation instead of Sony Pictures.