Of all the movie villains we’ve met lately, few are stranger than Delacourt, Jodie Foster’s evil, white-blonde, power-suited and power-hungry defense official in Elysium, the much-awaited but ultimately somewhat disappointing new film from director Neill Blomkamp.
From her command post on a ritzy space station high up above 22nd-century Earth, a demitasse of espresso at her side, Delacourt doles out orders in a foreign but unrecognizable accent.
“Send them to deportation!” she barks, when “undocumented” ships breach her borders. “Get them off this habitat!” Blomkamp, whose sci-fi parable District 9 came out of nowhere four years ago to earn a best-picture Oscar nod, is crystal clear in his intentions here. He’s making obvious statements about immigration and universal health care, and whether the frequent references bother you or not will greatly influence how much you enjoy the film.
One thing you can’t deny, though, is its visual beauty, and, as in District 9, his masterful use of special effects. It’s not for nothing that Blomkamp, at the tender age of 33, has been called a visionary artist of the genre. His Elysium — that space station in the sky, looking a lot like present-day Easthampton — is an enormous wheel, on the rim of which its wealthy residents, having left the teeming and polluted Earth, inhabit pristine white homes with bright green manicured lawns. Brilliant sunlight dapples the blue waters of their swimming pools. Classical music and clinking glasses echo in the background. For some reason, people seem to speak French.
Most importantly, Elysium’s inhabitants are eternally healthy, because each home holds a “healing bay,” which looks like a tanning machine, except it cures all illness.
Down on Earth, things are different. Los Angeles in 2154 is grimy, gritty and poor, with minimal medical care. Children look longingly to the sky, dreaming of Elysium. In a flashback, Max, a young boy in an orphanage, promises a young girl named Frey that one day, they’ll go there together.
Frey grows up to be a nurse; Max, a car thief. But Max — portrayed by an earnest, committed and perhaps overly grim Matt Damon — has reformed himself when, one day, at the hands of a heartless boss, he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in the factory where he works. Within five days, he will die.
To get to Elysium and save his life, Max makes a deal with an underground revolutionary (Wagner Moura) who runs a fleet of illegal shuttles. All Max needs to do is kidnap the evil billionaire who runs the factory (a creepy William Fichtner) and, oh yes, export data from his brain.
He gets the data, but up in the sky, Delacourt, desperate for the information now in Max’s brain, has activated an agent on the ground. Suddenly Max is being hunted by the vicious Kruger, a character so over-the-top, he takes over the film. It’s fun to watch the manic Sharlto Copley, who played the hunted man in District 9, now play the hunter. “Did you think you could get through me?” he crows, in an extremely heavy South African accent.
Eventually, Max will make it to Elysium, and so will the beautiful Frey (Alice Braga), with the critically ill daughter she’s desperate to save. There, despite the always-smart and crafted action scenes, the movie lets us down a bit with a reliance on action-hero formula and some pretty lame dialogue.
As for Foster, what could have been an interesting character never really gels into anything but an oddity. But Blomkamp is talented enough that it doesn’t matter too much. If Elysium doesn’t nearly live up to District 9, it shows enough panache to leave us waiting enthusiastically for his next effort.