It’s the mid-22nd century and disease and pollution have driven the 1%—or, given the overpopulation, more likely the .001%—into space, where they live on a pretty spinning wheel called Elysium, get plenty of artificial daylight and receive medical attention from all-purpose healing beds that can eradicate a cancer or perform massive reconstructive surgery in seconds. Meanwhile, somewhere in a sprawling shantytown called Los Angeles, a paroled ex-criminal named Max (Matt Damon) works the assembly line in a factory that produces the very robot cops that routinely beat the shit out of him. One day Max’s asshole foreman tells him to fix a glitch and winds up giving him radiation poisoning that’ll kill him in five days. So Marx finds his old Chicano gang, who run a coyote operation that takes illegals to Elysium—this is, among other things, a border-crossing movie and a plea for universal health care—and insists that he gets put on the next flight. The gang boss says Max can go so long as he performs a wildly dangerous “data heist,” which means kidnapping a top-ranking Elysian and draining his brain of all sorts of codes that can be used to start a revolution, or something. To prepare Max for his mission the gangsters provide him with an exoskeleton that turns him into a fleshier Robocop.
If that strikes you as a lot of synopsis already, trust me, that ain’t nothing. Part of the problem with Neil Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 is that it’s overloaded with plot. What Elysium does well are the big, broad concepts and the action bits; things like details or character development, not so much. Elysium spends a lot of time on secondary characters, yet all of them—Jodie Foster’s evil, leaden secretary of defense most of all—remain boringly one-dimensional. Not that Max is all that nuanced. Damon has a knack for bringing an unlikely soulfulness to his action roles, but Max is humourless and the script’s one stab at endowing him with psychological need is a shopworn trope that has Max longing to go to Elysium since childhood. We get this information not from anything Max says or does but rather from gauzy, corny flashbacks that, like much of the subplot material, are extraneous and make the film drag, right up to its nonsensically hopeful ending.