Science-fiction is the genre of big ideas, which is why it's always such a shame when its creators confine themselves to a narrow path. Whether it's the half-assed story that gives us an excuse to explore Avatar's intoxicating Pandora, or the vast amount of seemingly smart sci-fi that lose track of their themes with the arrival of some psychotic entity, there's countless examples of amazing worlds diluted by the unconvincing tales told within them.
Such is the case with Elysium, as it was with District 9 before it. That comment is a little unfair on director Neil Blomkamp's feature debut: it at least offered more aesthetic robustness and fully-formed allegory than its follow-up. Still, it was a film that ultimately drowned in its fondness for a gunfight - the film literally divided into two between its engaging sci-fi mockumentary and a rather bog standard action adventure. Elysium, however, is even more often defined by its bog-standardness.
The setup is a strong one: the upper class has fled Earth to an orbiting utopia known as Elysium, while the majority of humanity is confined to an increasingly overpopulated, polluted and basically fascistic Earth. What potential this offers! It's an exaggerated world, but with strong connections to our own: inequality, elitism, power mad authorities, illegal immigration, heartless corporations, robotic administration, rampant urban sprawl etc... The iconography is sometimes startlingly resonant - such as the one-sided drone warfare waged through remote control by people far, far away. Even the ludicrous central plot McGuffin - the convenient 'insta-heal' medical centres, confined to Elysium - is a smart nod to the unbalanced healthcare systems of the world, and explains why the Earthbound will risk almost certain death to try and break through to the orbital paradise. Blompkamp is no doubt a great ideas man - he's even smart enough to minimize the opening exposition: two brief title cards introducing the setting, and allowing us to work out the details for ourselves.
It's the execution where Blomkamp frequently falters. Take Elysium itself - equal parts lush, horrible, beautiful and doomed. Its spherical architecture is fascinating, if overly reminiscent of video game series Halo (Blomkamp, we can never forget, was frequently associated with the cancelled film adaptation of the series). We get a solid glimpse at the chaos on Earth, but we're equally curious to explore the orbiting space station above it. Alas, glimpses are all we get. The majority of the action is confined to a generic government / military barracks, and we only briefly glimpse the rest of Elysium (a few empty houses here, an empty field there). Damningly, we spend more time on an industrial walkway than anywhere else on this fascinating floating world - a few pink flowers along the side do not make said walkway any more exciting or interesting a venue for the lengthy final battle sequence. We spend a good percentage of the film on Elysium, but crushingly we never learn anything of interest about it. It's a brilliant setting, devastatingly wasted - even more so because of Blomkamp's tendency towards rapidfire editing, meaning we only catch a glimpse of the breathtaking sights before we move on to something else (preferably involving guns).
When, at film's end, the doors to Elysium are thrown open to everyone, the repercussions of that status quo decimating act are plenty intriguing, but relegated to a brief, boringly triumphant montage. Instead, I was just disappointed at how much time was wasted on as familiar an action / race against time story as they come. Taken on its own terms, it's solidly paced and well shot (if, again, overfond of overexcited cutting). But it's damned by a wholly undercooked narrative.
There's Matt Damon as Max: our anti-hero suffering from a conveniently narcoleptic radiation sickness caught during a nasty industrial accident - apparently he only has five days to live, but bizarrely he only gets stronger as the film progresses thanks to some magical pills and a strange robotic exoskeleton. There's Blomkamp's muse Sharlto Copley returning as a psychotic gun-for-hire - Copley's not inconsiderable screen presence and charisma wasted as a pantomime villain (Jodie Foster's rebellious administrator also exists in purely one-dimensional terms). There's Alice Braga as Max's long-lost first love, who has an innocent child needing urgent medical attention (guess where that one's going). There's a lot of gunfights, there's a lot of running away. There's a noble sacrifice, preceded - of course - by a sentimental, confessional phonecall. There's a final boss fight, a further indication that perhaps Blomkamp is secretly trying to make that Halo adaptation he was harshly denied. There's nothing but predictability, and it's such a goddamn waste of such a wonderful setting. (There's also a nifty if inevitably brief facial reconstruction scene, which if nothing else proves the effects budget was well spent).
The poetic potential of Elysium's imagined future are limitless - a fictional world that could shine a delightfully unflattering light on our own. Blomkamp is clearly aware of this, planting lots of food for thought in both the foreground and background. But, it's all for nowt: after a promising opening, the inherent themes are never explored or utilised in anything approaching a satisfying way. Elysium is ultimately nothing more than a cruel tease, a sad example of genuine potential squandered.