Neill Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, was an intriguing resuscitation of the increasingly stagnant alien invasion genre. It presented the aliens as mere commoners — prawns, as they’re derisively called in the film — vulnerable to the violent machinations of humanity and committed to many of the ideals we embrace. As an action film it was tremendous fun, capitalizing on its scant budget with great finesse and cleverness. As a political allegory, though, it was little more than a blunt instrument. See if you can keep up: the prawns are segregated and treated unfairly…in South Africa…so it’s apartheid, but with aliens! And that’s about it.

With his new offering, Elysium, it’s becoming clear that Blomkamp doesn’t do subtlety. “Thought-provoking” or “deep” aren’t words you’ll attach to this film — but, happily, it doesn’t matter. Sure, Elysium is a little indelicate. It’s also exceptionally well-engineered, it features robust performances from Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley, it maintains a ferociously kinetic pace, it presents an enthralling and digestible story, it’s often surprisingly funny, and it’s visually stunning.

Here’s the skeleton plot: it’s the year 2154, Earth is a sputtering wasteland stricken with crime, overpopulation and disease and Damon’s character, Max, naively thinks he can make enough money at his squalid factory job to hop aboard a shuttle to the paradise known as Elysium. Elysium is an enormous space station devoid of even the most basic social ills. It contains the vast culmination of humanity’s technological achievements — including personal medical bays that can eradicate any disease and heal any wound. Only the wealthiest people are capable of securing citizenship on Elysium, and it hangs mockingly right outside Earth’s atmosphere (its outline can be seen vividly from the ground). While at work, Max is poisoned and has to find a way to Elysium within five days to stay alive, but he must first help a band of criminals kidnap a man named John Carlyle (William Fichtner) and hijack the contents of his brain. Due to what Carlyle had downloaded onto his brain earlier that day (you can do things like brain downloads in 2154), their cerebral loot is of critical importance to Elysium’s Homeland Security and they must decide what to do with it.

One of the main villains is Elysium’s Secretary of Defense — a merciless, robotic shrew named Delacourt (Jodie Foster). She glides around the administrative building on Elysium in the most outwardly sinister way, prodding politicians with taunts about pointless “fundraisers” and “inaction,” all while oozing evil self-assurance. She has no reservations about torching “undocumented ships” for trying to enter Elysium’s airspace, regardless of how many innocent people are on board or how easy it would be to simply capture and deport the Earthlings upon landing. On a side note, her bizarre accent must be intended to sound erudite, but it comes out like a bad impersonation of a drunken Victorian dandy. Delacourt is insufferable, as she is no doubt supposed to be, but some of her repulsiveness is clearly unintentional. It all amounts to one of Jodie Foster’s worst, most overwrought portrayals to date.

Delacourt employs a savage rogue named Kruger (Copley) to do her filthy work on the ground. A nebulous council to which Delacourt is ostensibly beholden (but which is later circumvented by her wartime authority) notes that Kruger is even guilty of “human rights violations,” as if Elysium’s soulless bureaucrats cared about such trifles. Among his assorted atrocities is the blasting of the aforementioned shuttle-loads of refugees seeking passage to Elysium (demonstrating one of the film’s many illogical annoyances: Elysium’s air defense system consists solely of one guy with a rocket launcher). Kruger spends most of the film in pursuit of Max to retrieve the valuable documents he’s jacked into his brain. And though Kruger isn’t exactly layered or dynamic, Copley brings more than enough energy and a palpable sense of cruelty to the role.

Although it’s an entirely new story and backdrop, the overarching flaw that plagued District 9 persists in Elysium — the pointlessness of its sweeping metaphors. The issues it addresses — immigration, environmental decay, access to healthcare, international income disparity, etc. — are impossibly broad, so no real attempt is made to answer any questions. However, as with District 9, this isn’t enough to unhinge the components that make Elysium great. Blomkamp’s musings on contemporary political and social institutions are intentionally relegated to a vague, subtextual level. And although this may frustrate some viewers who were expecting a poignant meditation on the above issues, that’s where they belong. Any explicit attempts to offer solutions to the catalog of problems framed in Elysium would have been hopelessly diluted, ineffective and distracting. Instead of wasting your time with rudimentary political philosophy, Elysium does its job — it entertains you.

The action sequences are exquisitely crafted jolts of energy suffused throughout the film, the shots of Elysium both from its surface and from above are beautifully rendered, and the relentless pace never wavers (partly the result of Max’s frantic attempts to sustain himself and ward off Delacourt’s henchmen, all of which is expertly executed by Damon). After witnessing the visual splendor of films like Avatar and Star Trek, it’s difficult to find oneself totally immersed in a new sci-fi world, but Elysium is sure to seize your attention. There’s also an unapologetically brutal quality to the film. Max’s pale, sweating visage is striking and memorable, as is the wince-inducing operation that fortifies him with a metal exoskeleton — “Bring down the bone saw!” Max is a swaggering, bloodied guerilla, and nobody is better at playing an embattled hero than Damon. Much of the violence is delightfully battering, and it’s there to thump you in the back of the head every few minutes. It undergirds the unflinching momentum that will keep even the most fickle gazes fixed on the screen.

In keeping with the straightforward nature of the film, the revolting inequities and callousness on display have a raw, visceral effect. It’s disgusting to watch Max’s childhood friend and love interest, Frey (Alice Braga), struggle to provide even the most basic care for her daughter (Emma Tremblay) who has terminal leukemia while thousands of miracle medical bays lie unused on Elysium. And the vicious, snarling countenance of Kruger is counterbalanced by the detached malice of Delacourt and the nauseating self-satisfaction plastered to Carlyle’s face. No one even seems to be working up there — it’s just an endless, pristine landscape of cocktail parties and barbeques. Of course, a quick glance at one of the more sordid stories on CNN on your 50-inch HDTV should produce the same incredulity, and this diminishes the necessity of the allegory.

Still, Elysium is about as much fun as you can have at the movies this summer. Although it vaguely ponders a few of the largest sociopolitical questions of the day, it ultimately knows what it’s supposed to be — an entertaining sci-fi film for a diverse audience. If you’re looking for a mind-altering treatise on the nature of human existence, you probably shouldn’t be plunking down $10 on an action movie anyway. As for the rest of us, Samuel L. Jackson encapsulated it quite effectively: “Not everybody goes to the movies to get their life changed.” Elysium is a solid effort, and although it won’t change your life, it’ll keep you fully engaged for a couple of hours.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“Elysium” opened nationwide on August 9, 2013.

Trailer Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Featured image: Matt Damon stars in TriStar Pictures’ “Elysium.” Photo Credit: Stephanie Blomkamp. © 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cincopa WordPress plugin