Elysium: Heavy-Handed, Totally Hollywood, Still Great
You need to go into Elysium with the understanding that it's got a heavy-handed premise. In the 22nd century, the poorest 99 percent of the population lives on a polluted, overcrowded Earth. On a space station called Elysium (which conceptually owes quite a bit to Larry Niven's novel Ringworld), the 1 percent—actually, it's probably more like the .00001 percent—lives in a sprawling green paradise of mansions and swimming pools. They never get sick. Mostly, they lounge around in swimwear looking down on Earth, not thinking about poor people. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE METAPHOR YET?
But writer/director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 was a heavy-handed representation of South African racial politics, too, and it was still one of the best original science-fiction film concepts of the last decade. And Elysium is a worthy successor to District 9. Max (Matt Damon, solid as always) is a typical Earthling: Screwed from before birth by the system, he's scraped by as a career criminal and is now trying to go legit with a shitty unregulated factory job. But playing fair just doesn't pay, and soon he's trying to get to Elysium to cure a fatal dose of radiation poisoning.
Elysium's strong cast makes some interesting choices (as the wealthy bad guys, William Fichtner and Jodie Foster both speak English cautiously, as though it's their third language), and the special effects are breathtaking. The amount of detail in each scene is never anything less than immersive, and Blomkamp finds new ways to present classic science-fiction concepts. It's too bad, though, that the second half of Elysium doesn't even try to match the intelligent world-building of the first half. The social problems that the film allegorizes so eloquently at the beginning can't be resolved by a fistfight on a catwalk with a sociopathic mercenary (Sharlto Copley, menacing at first, cartoonish by the end), but Blomkamp is so confident in his filmmaking powers that you want to forgive him for going Full Hollywood.