In his press tour promoting "Elysium," star Matt Damon has distanced the film from its much-buzzed about political subtext, and he is wise to do so. As entertainment, "Elysium" is thrilling. Writer and director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9") creates a visually striking dystopic future and Damon carries the hero's burden – not to mention a clunky robotic exoskeleton – ably. But "Elysium" also takes on the "Occupy" movement, illegal immigration and the health care debate in one sweeping gesture and is perhaps too ambitious in doing so. It creates complicated but familiar political problems, and then discards them for an emotive but simplistic resolution. While "Elysium" offers an effective visceral experience, it lacks the depth or deftness other summer action films have had in embedding social commentary into their narratives.
With Earth overpopulated, under-resourced and consumed by pollution and crime, the world's 1 percent have taken to a satellite society called Elysium, settling on a space craft that hovers above the planet, with people able to reach the colony after a brief 19-minute space ship ride. It's where Max (Matt Damon) dreams of escaping since his childhood in an orphanage, portrayed in a series of over-stylized and over-sentimental flashbacks. But he's stuck in Los Angeles, which by 2154 has devolved into a favela-town policed by robot cops, sweat shop bullies and street gangs. A workplace accident gives his life a very short expiration date and Max's only chance for survival is to finally make good on his dream to go to Elysium, where the health care borders on miraculous. With an old buddy (Diego Luna), Max reaches out to Spider (Wagner Moura), a crime boss who runs a cartel that smuggles "illegals" (as the poor earthlings are called by Elysium's residents) to the luxury space craft. But in exchange for a ride, Max must steal "brain data" – invaluable information that could include bank PINs, company codes and the like – from a billionaire corporate titan (William Fichtner), by downloading them to his own mind.
Unfortunately, Spider's plot inadvertently inserts Max into the middle of a planned political coup. His target is a defense contractor (William Fichtner) commissioned by Elysium's sectary of defense, Delacourt (Josie Foster) to create a code that will reboot Elysium's systems and install her as ship president. Once Max has stolen the data, Delacourt spares no measure to chase him down, sending Kruger , a demented assassin, to do the dirty work. Max's childhood sweetheart, Frey (Alice Braga) joins him on his journey to Elysium with her daughter (Emma Tremblay), who is also fatally ill.
As a sci-fi action flick, "Elysium" passes muster, following the standard script of a reluctant hero, a helpful love interest and the downfalls of technological advancement. The aesthetic of Blomkamp's earthly despair is as gray and grimy as ever, creating a future that looks utterly third world. In contrast, Elysium, is comically shiny and perfect, with inhabitants who speak French, sip champagne and listen to Bach on repeat.
Damon does his best as the tattooed, tough guy (Eminem was originally considered for the role), though, aside from a few wisecracks, "Elysium" wastes Damon's limitless charm. As Delacourt, Foster plays rational evil with ice in her veins; it's a disappointment to see how her character whimpers out in the end. As her irrational counterpart, Kruger is certainly menacing, if you can get over his uncanny resemblance to Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.
But "Elysium" hits you over the head with its political rhetoric. The police state rests on droids (and their drone accessories) who take stop-and-frisk to a whole new level. Delacourt shows no mercy for the "illegals" who try to sneak their way into the compound, with an attitude that makes Jan Brewer look like the Angel of the Desert. Delacourt's border security vision involves Kruger shooting down "undocumented" vessels from Earth in covert, extrajudicial missions. When Spider realizes the magnitude of brain data Max carries in his head, he begs Max to use it to make everyone a citizen of Elysium, with all the benefits it offers. And it is health care, more than any other resource, that makes Elysium desirable to Earth's have-nots, particularly Elysium's "medpods," which look like a tanning beds but can cure nearly any ailment in moments.
Where Blomkamp's political subtext fails is in its lack of follow-through. Max is not a political actor. His motivations are strictly personal, first self-preservation and then the preservation of Frey's daughter. And the conclusion wraps up so neatly, as to suggest all the problems of the world are strictly just as personal, and not the consequence of decades of structural inadequacies.
"Elysium" will delight the eyes, but won't be changing hearts and minds. It's simply another round of summer popcorn fodder.