Elysium doesn’t quite deliver what it promises

A super-slick, action-heavy thriller headlined by Matt Damon and directed by District 9's Neil Blomkamp.

Matt Damon, centre, gets to grips with his foes in Elysium. Kimberley French / AP Photo / TriStar / Columbia Pictures / Sony,
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Director: Neill Blomkamp Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley ***

This has not been a vintage year for dystopian future-shock sci-fi blockbusters. Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, Will Smith’s After Earth and Brad Pitt’s World War Z all proved to be critical misfires or commercial flops – or both. Elysium is a superior film to all three, but still not without flaws.

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the young South African best known for his 2009 cult smash District 9, Elysium stars Matt Damon as Max Da Costa, a factory worker living in Los Angeles in the year 2154. Like everyone on Earth, Max struggles for survival in shantytown housing and brutal working conditions. Meanwhile, society’s pampered elite have all relocated to the orbital space station Elysium, a luxury gated community for the super-rich.

When desperate refugees from Earth make an illegal dash for Elysium, their vessels are blasted into pieces by the ruthless defence chief Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). But Max has powerful friends in the people-smuggling underworld, and a compelling reason to attempt breaking into the floating fortress above. With his sick body wired into a mechanical cyborg suit, he will soon die if he cannot access Elysium’s superior medical facilities.

Elysium is a much more visually impressive and action-heavy thriller than District 9, yet there are striking parallels. While Blomkamp’s debut used extra­terrestrials as a metaphor for apartheid in his native South Africa, Elysium is an allegory for our increasingly divided world. Peter Jackson produced the first film and his special-­effects company Weta Workshop worked on both. Sharlto Copley, the star of District 9, returns here as a psychotic villain.

Sadly, both films also lose their nerve in the final act, dropping social and political subtext in favour of simplistic action-thriller convention. Blomkamp is unquestionably skilled at orchestrating spectacular carnage, but the end of Elysium feels like a cop-out after such a promising set-up. Defying its own clearly established logic, the plot allows major characters to die while others with fatal injuries are healed. The clumsy final twist suggests a single feeble computer programme can irreversibly reverse the power imbalance between Earth and Elysium, as if nothing substantial was ever at stake.

Elysium is still smarter and sharper than the majority of big-budget sci-fi thrillers. But it drops the ball, underestimating the audience’s intelligence and undermining its own good intentions. It succeeds as a razzle-dazzle spectacle, but fails as a brainy blockbuster.