It’s a bit silly talking about a science-fiction film like Elysium as an allegory. That’s almost a tautology; at its core, all science fiction and fantasy is fundamentally allegory. Genres exploring other worlds — future, alien or imaginary — have always been ways for us to explore our own world. Tolkien knew it, Rod Serling knew it, Gene Roddenberry knew it, George Lucas knew it: We need a way to talk about heroism, injustice and our human struggles to do the right thing in a way that makes those ideas bigger than a political idea of the moment.
But there’s allegory, and then there’s the shoulder-shaking, rib-nudging, painfully strained storytelling that Neill Blomkamp throws at Elysium. As visually striking as Blomkamp makes his 22nd-century world, he never for a moment lets us forget that this is A Movie That Says Something Important About Our Time.
Elysium posits a world where the 1-percenters don’t just live in their own world philosophically; they’ve literally left the planet behind. Orbiting above the earth is the titular satellite/habitat, where those who can afford it enjoy the bliss of cure-all medical technology and breathable air, while the surface world has turned into one massive, overpopulated, disease- and pollution-ridden favela. Among the denizens of that world is Max da Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con trying to put his life back on the straight and narrow. Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation doing that job; his only chance of survival is finding a way to get up to the medical marvels of Elysium.
Blomkamp made his name with the South African science-fiction tale District 9 a few years ago, and brings the same gritty aesthetic to a bigger-budget enterprise. In a summer full of bloodless violence, it’s almost refreshing to find a movie that acknowledges genuine trauma to the human body.
Yet as inventive as Elysium is to look at, it’s barely passable as something to think about. Where District 9 fully built its world as a unique metaphor for alien apartheid, Elysium trots out an extended riff on the immigration debate that doesn’t even bother to wrap the idea in new clothing. Earth residents employ the equivalent of coyotes to try to smuggle them to Elysium; the vessels full of “illegals” themselves are referred to as “undocumented ships.”
The only real focus on life on Elysium comes in the form of Jodie Foster, playing its hawkish defense minister Delacourt in a performance so staggeringly terrible it infects the rest of the movie. Snarling about needing to preserve their way of life for the children, Foster never even bothers trying to make Delacourt more than a cartoon of militaristic xenophobia.
What remains is a piece of genre filmmaking with some brutal, body-exploding set pieces, buried inside a feature-length public service announcement for an amnesty program.