Elysium is superbly directed and anchored by a great performance from Matt Damon. The main problem, though, is that Damon ultimately has a better character to inhabit than most of the cast. Ultimately, the movie doesn’t let its message grow from its plot, and that’s to its detriment.
Damon plays Max, a guy who really is trying to do the right thing. The movie is really at its best early on, showing Max struggling with a system so uncaring and impersonal he never sees a human after a misunderstanding with the police and nearly loses his job. The movie does a good job of illustrating that Max is badly off, but by trying… and nonetheless, he’s only one bad day away from something ruining his life.
Then, of course, something bad happens to him. Damon really plays this for all it’s worth; he’s willing to ding his movie star looks and act like a bit of a jerk to a small child simply because he’s in a bad mood. The problem is that none of his costars have a damn thing to work with.
For example, William Fichtner’s arms merchant is such a raging douche he has Max thrown out of his factory’s medbay after a severe dose of radiation poisoning because he’s too cheap to swap out the bedding on the gurney. Jodie Foster’s defense secretary is just straight-up bigoted, and Sharlto Copley, while playing a convincing scary badass, never gets another note to play other than “psycho.” Foster suffers in particular: She can play an officious bitch in her sleep, but she never gets enough screen time to develop her character as anything else, and it seems a waste of a great actor.
Not helping is the medbay McGuffin, a magic device that basically cures everything and is limited to the citizens of Elysium because the citizens of Elysium are, apparently, dicks. The movie never establishes why, precisely, they can’t just have these things on every street corner; they apparently cure all damage and take five seconds to use. And for that matter, they never establish why people are trying to sneak on Elysium for them instead of just stealing the Medbays off the back of a truck; manufacturing jobs are obviously still on Earth and we see plenty of organized, greedy criminals. In other words, it bends its characters and plot in service to its message, a disappointment after the slightly more subtle District 9.
Visually, though, it’s a feast. Blomkamp uses his R-rating for all its worth, with action scenes that are both visceral and violent. He never goes over the top, but the trailers haven’t really shown just how messy this movie can get. It’s also a smartly paced and plotted movie, at least in terms of our hero: Everything he does, albeit sometimes kinda stupid, makes sense from a desperate man’s perspective.
Also, it’s a masterpiece of production design. This used future is carefully planned out down to the last crumbled wall, but it never feels fake or engineered.
In short, it’s a well-made action movie, with something on its mind. It just needed to give its villains more screen time, and make them more interesting, to really earn its message.