Elysium has many of the same elements that made director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 such a revelation. Set in a dystopian near-future, it has a slick, compelling aesthetic and a readily accessible parable that casts a light back on a few of the problems we're facing in the here and now.
Despite the presence of bona fide stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, Elysium isn't quite the success that Blomkamp's preceding film was, though it does have its moments. Damon plays Max, an ex-con who is barely able to keep a job manufacturing police robots in a Los Angeles factory. The year is 2154, and for the bulk of humanity that still resides on Earth, misery abounds. Pollution, overpopulation, crime and a crumbling healthcare system are facts of life. The extremely wealthy have simply vacated the planet, moving to a space station that gives the film its name. On Elysium, clean air and green, open spaces are plentiful. There are even MRI-like devices that can zap a malignant tumor out of your body in a matter of seconds.
It's not a particularly subtle setup for an allegory, but that doesn't mean it lacks merit. Blomkamp touches on the major challenges humanity (and particularly the United States) is facing right now -- income inequality, climate change, mass incarceration, caring for the sick. This is the path we're on, he proclaims with Elysium, and I can't argue with his rough sketch of our collective future that he outlines.
To carry the metaphor a step further, I wish he hadn't drawn a bunch of other stuff over that rough sketch. Layered over an examination of those big themes is a straightforward action film that doesn't advance the message in a substantive way. When Damon's Max is irradiated on the job, he decides to try and break in to Elysium so he can reverse what amounts to a certain death with the technology available to the mega-rich. He's supported by a small-time gangster Spider (Wagner Moura) and decides to bring along the terminally ill daughter of his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga).
Max's desperation sees him fitted with a Doctor Octopus-esque exoskeleton and pits him against a depraved and ruthless mercenary, Agent Kruger, who is played menacingly by Sharlto Copley. Kruger is working at the behest of Foster's Defense Secretary Delacourt, a Rumsfeldian figure who uses bluster about security to justify all sorts of crimes against the denizens on Earth. Blomkamp has a talent for the race-against-the-clock action story, and this one is decent, though Foster and Copley can't seem to get out of each other's way.
The problem is that the action story doesn't blend at all with the themes Blomkamp seems intent on exploring at the film's outset, jettisoning those ideas one by one as Max moves closer and closer to his goal. District 9 is so much better because it uses Copley's character in that film to delve deeper and deeper in to the themes it explores. Elysium seems to turn that inside out, and in doing so becomes incapable of living up to the standard set by Blomkamp in his feature-length debut.