Subtle As A Boomsaw: Elysium, Reviewed.S

1. Elysium, like writer-director Neill Blomkamp's much-loved first film District 9, is very concerned with making you understand that it is about something. I wasn't as big a fan of District 9 as most were—it felt like a great idea for a short film, which it was, stretched out to feature length—but the parallel between alien culture and South African apartheid (among other xenophobic ostricizations) was, if not subtle, resonant. I still felt the critical praise for the film was a bit over the top; it was, at its core, well-made geek porn, with thematic elements that made you feel OK about fanboying out. Elysium, Blomkamp's followup, appears to have taken the exact wrong message from all that critical praise and Academy Award nomination; he thinks he's a serious statesman all of a sudden, rather than a purveyor of grimy robot/alien fight scenes. He believed his own press. So he's given us a film that isn't great sci-fi and definitely isn't some sort of grand social statement. He's stuck in the middle of nothing.

2. The film's premise feels engineered to get Maureen Dowd to write an op-ed about it. After ruining the planet through pollution (Think Tank Talking Point No. 1!), the wealthiest humans build their own private community (Think Tank Talking Point No. 2!) in the sky, called Elysium. There, they have universal health care that cures all diseases (Think Tank Talking Point No. 3!), while down on earth, the poverty-stricken working class (Think Tank Talking Point No. 4!) suffers and dies. When Max (Matt Damon), a reformed criminal just trying to ride the straight and narrow, is dosed with radiation during a workplace accident, he attempts to get to Elysium to cure himself, along with other "illegal immigrants" (Think Tank Talking Point No. 5!) who keep crashing the gates of privileged.

3. This is all laid on as thick as it sounds. Blomkamp turns subtext into text into screaming red letters into massive hands that appear from the screen and slap you repeatedly in face. It is not enough that massive numbers of "illegals" attempt to enter Elysium; we actually have to see them through nightvision glasses, climbing over walls. It's not enough that Jodie Foster plays an obviously-Bush-era Blackwater-esque militant isolationist monster; no, she actually has to sneer "those people" when she sees two swarthy Earth residents. And boy does this movie ever have a ton of sick kids! I'd argue that the film was a neverending march of straw men, but Blomkamp barely bothers to dress them up in straw.

4. Perhaps distracted by all the heavy-handedness, Blomkamp also barely delivers on the action. Most of the mechanics and grungy decor feels borrowed from District 9; Blomkamp has a bigger budget but is mostly just derivative here. (He was better off having to be resourceful.) The fight scenes between Max and a sneering, almost Snidley Whiplash-esque supervillain (played with some thankless verve by Sharlto Copley) are confusingly structured and shot; Blomkamp forgets to include the holy-shit moments that highlighted the best parts of District 9. It's just a lot of empty, clunky symbolism. And seriously, calling it symbolism is giving Blomkamp more credit than he probably deserves.

5. The movie is carried by Damon, who has a thin part but gives it his muscular all; he's impossible not to root for, and instantly relatable. You follow him through all Blomkamp's hackneyed constructions, even as you can't stop asking questions about the plot. (Max is supposed to download some reboot software that will solve centuries of the class struggle, apparently. Handy program.) Listen, Blomkamp is still excellent at producing fanboy moments: A scene where a character yells, "Bring me the boomsaw!" feels like the product of countless hours staring at Bruce Campbell's hair. The guy has an active imagination. But someone needs to reign it in; someone needs to edit him, bad. And someone definitely needs to remind him that he's not a statesman. He's a guy who plays with robots. Those two things can work together, as they have in decades of dark, brilliant science fiction. But I'm pretty sure Blomkamp isn't the guy to do it. He should stop trying.

Grade: C