Elysium, the titular utopia of District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s second film, looks like the ritziest parts of Los Angeles. Maybe it will remind you of the Hamptons or St. Tropez (does St. Tropez look like that?), but it was an L.A. ringer to me. It is home to sprawling McMansions, intensely green yards, tanned bodies lying in blissful inertia, elegant dinner parties. It's a beautiful place where no one grows old, and where healing whatever ails you is as simple as lying on a slab and pushing a button.
You understand why the people stuck on Earth in 2154 would want to escape to the halcyon rich-people satellite development that's only nine minutes away by supersonic spacecraft. The planet has become scorched, polluted, overpopulated, and managed by brutish police robots that make Robocop seem like Desmond Tutu. Dubstep is apparently the only kind of contemporary music that made it that far into the future, if the background noise of protagonist Max's (Matt Damon) dirt-road stroll to work is any indication. Even worse, the common language in the run-down future Los Angeles where Elysium's Earth-based scenes take place is (get ready to clutch your pearls) Spanish. There aren't enough "Ay! Dios mio"s in the world. The have-nots are fucked and they can see Elyisum beaming down and mocking them from the sky, looking like the fanciest, most futuristic, Star Wars-iest bike wheel ever devised.
But the film suffers by rendering paradise as what we already have, right now, perched on the west coast. Elysium didn't take me to a new world; it just turned regular old L.A. into a giant space wheel. The decision to hold up a gleaming, manicured L.A. as an aesthetic ideal could be ironic commentary from Blomkamp. Or it could be his way of telling us to be grateful for what we have in 2013 (even if it happens to take us more than 9 minutes to get there). But it's probably no coincidence that the paradise of a filmmaker's first big Hollywood movie is the paradise of modern-day Movie City. Blomkamp has arrived.
Most of Elysium takes place in the dried-up, dystopian, actual Los Angeles of 2154. After being exposed to deadly radiation, Max has five days to make it up to the healing mecca of Elyisum to save himself and possibly the leukemia-stricken daughter of his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga). Children, after all, are the future.
What ensues is a race to the inevitable—the redemption of humanity—that's better paced and more exciting than your average 2013 blockbuster, but still hard to care very much about. Decked out in an exoskeleton that allows him to steal the data he needs for his trip to Elysium, and also, obviously, be badass, Damon is competent in his the clichéd white-guy-messiah role (think Dune, Star Wars, Avatar, John Carter, etc.). Equipped with a bizarre accent, a butcher-than-usual haircut, starchy uniforms, and nothing else—no nuance, no back story, no emotion—Jodie Foster is a non-factor as Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, Delacourt. It makes you long for the days when she had real spunk—seriously, what is she doing here, besides giving us something to contrast with her past excellence?
Elysium rarely isn't hat-tipping to some fashionable and contemporary issue: the divide between the 99 percent and the one percent, Obamacare, data-mining, immigration, pharmaceuticals. But winking reference is about as deep as the commentary goes, and what we're left with is rampant gunfire, some neat explosions, a lot of sand, and some shots of idyllic Los Angeles to remind us that life could be fairer. Again, show me something I don't already know.