Oh, the perils of the Hollywood handshake. Four years ago, writer-director Neill Blomkamp made a splash with “District 9,” an aliens-among-us drama that served as a pointed metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa while working just fine as a straight-up science-fiction thriller. The film was nominated for four Oscars (including best picture) and, as is the way in these matters, the American studios came calling. “Elysium” is the result, and it’s essentially “District 9” with bigger stars and less reason to exist.
Which hardly means it’s terrible, just that it falls squarely into the dystopia-after-tomorrow genre so familiar from “Logan’s Run,” “Blade Runner,” “Gattaca,” and (arguably the gold standard) 2006’s “Children of Men.” Once again we’re in the future — 2154 Los Angeles — and the future is hell. The Earth is a cancerous ball of overcrowding and pollution on which 99 percent of the population roil in poverty. Somewhere beyond the ionosphere is Elysium, an orbiting paradise for the wealthy 1 percent that resembles a cross between the space station in “2001” and a hood ornament on a Mercedes.
Matt Damon, in his scowly meat-and-potatoes mode, plays Max, an ex-con factory worker who has dreamed of getting to Elysium since he was back in the orphanage and the sisters told him he was destined for greatness. Getting a lethal dose of radiation at work just speeds up the timetable: With five days to live, Max cuts a deal with a local black-marketeer (Wagner Moura) that will get him on a shuttle to Elysium and, hopefully, its healing med-pods.
Max’s job? To download the data from the neural circuitry of Elysium fat-cat John Carlyle (William Fichtner), conveniently on Earth to squeeze more profits from the factory where Max works. Inconveniently, among the programs in Carlyle’s bionic brain is one of those MacGuffins that will Change Everything, and once Max gets it in his head, he’s both the most valuable man on Earth and the most wanted.
To Blomkamp’s credit, he has held on to the ratty, dusty, DIY aesthetic of “District 9” for this film. The Earth scenes of “Elysium” feel like they take place in an endless South African township, or a beaten-down city in the Middle East; this de-evolution of the First World into the Third is the movie’s most shocking and pointed gambit. The screenplay sets up with brute metaphorical force the marginalizing of the planet’s inhabitants into “illegals” desperate to cross over to the promised land of Elysium.
After which the notion just sort of lies there. Fan-boys on the conservative side of the spectrum have already worked themselves into an online froth over the perceived “liberal message” of “Elysium,” but aside from some novel ideas about (literally) universal health care, that message gets drowned out by fistfights, crashing spaceships, and neat-o guns. Blomkamp, it turns out, isn’t all that interested in the denizens of Elysium other than the space-station’s fascist Minister of Defense, whom Jodie Foster plays in what has to be the hammiest, most-mannered performance of her career.
The more original aspects of “Elysium” — its look and energy, mainly, and the distressed details of its universe — are eventually overshadowed by genre clichés: the damsel in distress (Alice Braga) with the sick daughter (Emma Tremblay), the hero’s trusty wingman (Diego Luna), the villain’s unstoppable assassin (Sharlto Copley, the director’s good luck charm and “District 9” lead), the climactic fight that goes on for frickin’ ever.
It’s a letdown, but this director’s still a talent to be reckoned with. At one point in “Elysium,” the assassin’s face gets rather graphically blown off, after which it magically reconstructs, “Terminator”-style. With any luck, Blomkamp’s career will do the same.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.