There is a moment during the explosive, confused third act of the new sci-fi action movie “Elysium” when mercenary agent C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley) is stomping down the corridor of a space station in hot pursuit of hero Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) and shouts, “Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of me coming to get you!”
Maybe we can forgive Kruger’s literalism in light of the fact that he only realized he was the movie’s villain five minutes earlier. But even for a sci-fi audience there for the robots and occasional explosion, it’s an embarrassing line, like a placeholder for something at least passably clever someone was supposed to write but didn’t quite get around to.
Not all the movie goes down this badly, but a lot of it does. Set in the familiar sci-fi territory of the not-too-distant future, “Elysium” tells a story of a world split into two groups: The haves, who live on a prefab planet called Elysium about a 20-minute spaceship commute from Earth, and the have-nots, who toil in dust-covered shantytowns stacked on hillsides, like a hyperbolically run-down vision of Mexico as seen from behind the border wall in El Paso.
The have-nots live impoverished, fearful lives; the haves sip Riesling on neoclassical verandas. Max, an ex-con trying to make good, buses to a dangerous factory job and comes home at night to a one-room apartment with cinder-block walls, while up on Elysium they have sparkling green lawns and what amounts to all-access healthcare pods capable of healing everything from a grenade wound to leukemia within seconds.
If all that sounds familiar, that’s because they movie’s makers really want it to. “Elysium” strives to be an allegory for modern life at almost every turn, not so much drawing parallels as laying them down in thick black paint. Of course, plenty of sci-fi movies show us terrible futures meant to represent endgames for the way society seems to be going now. What drags “Elysium” down isn’t the story, which is forgivably convoluted, or the characters, who are only given brief chances to be human beings, but the lack of imagination that went into what you could call the movie’s decor — in other words, the way it makes all its familiar sci-fi conventions clever and fun.
Take, for example, the Elysians. Besides conniving Secretary of State Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), we don’t meet any of them personally, which is fine. But do they have to drink white wine and be introduced to the sound of the same Bach cello suite that Rich People are always introduced to in movies? Or the Earth scenes, which are supposed to take place in Los Angeles, but seemingly for no other reason than that lots of other dystopian sci-fi movies take place in Los Angeles. Or the sequences of data being uploaded and downloaded into chunky, USB-like devices that plug into peoples’ heads. For a sci-fi movie, “Elysium” feels oddly dated, and the few parts where it tries to assert that it was made in 2013 are awkward: Besides Max and his parole officer — basically a drive-thru pole painted to look like a human being — everyone in Los Angeles’ first language appears to be Spanish, while Elysium’s forcibly multicultural presidential cabinet looks like a Kashi Good Friends box at a shareholder’s meeting.
It all matters because on some level, genre movies live and die by style. It’s not the story you tell, but how you tell it, and with what wild new wild devices or reality-bending conceits. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s last movie, “District 9,” was similar to “Elysium”: gritty, sweaty, tactile, and driven by old-fashioned storytelling virtues like heroism and moral uprightness (which is different from, say, the more searching, philosophical tone of a movie like “Blade Runner”). And to be fair, the movie is probably slower than a lot of action movies are now. While being chased through the streets of Los Angeles by a military craft, Max is temporarily hidden under a cart of pigs by a woman in the marketplace — a scene not played for its heart-pounding, hectic, second-to-second thrills, but the opportunity to show us the dynamic of the world he lives in. But we don’t get moments like this often, and in the absence of an idiosyncratic vision to carry the movie, it falls on Damon’s shoulders. In preparation for filming, he spent four hours a day working out. The movie needs and uses all of him.