[General plot/premise discussion within; no major spoilers regarding big developments.]
One of the great threats to any film is that the people who are making it live too much inside it. Just as you learn to navigate a city without looking at signs, they learn to navigate the world they've built so well that they forget to make it comprehensible and important for people who have just arrived.
That's particularly true with a film like Elysium, which is intended to serve as a diorama inside which writer/director Neill Blomkamp – whose 2009 first feature, District 9, was a surprising Best Picture nominee – will comment on income inequality. There's nothing wrong with science fiction to make a point; it's quite standard. District 9 itself is a politically charged film about the abusive segregation of disfavored populations and the inevitability of their rebellion — not a surprising topic for Blomkamp, who was born in Johannesburg. But when an entire world is constructed to make a point about a filmmaker's vision of social justice, what ultimately matters is not the sociological parallels of the world that's constructed, but what then happens inside it.
In Elysium, Blomkamp constructs his mid-22nd-century Earth, perhaps not post-apocalyptic as much as post-laissez-faire, in which unchecked overpopulation and disease exacerbated by economic collapse have devastated the entire planet, but the very wealthy have retreated to a space station called Elysium. There, they live in splendor without having to have day-to-day contact with the impoverished suckers they left behind. They get their labor cheap back on Earth while being waited on by pliant robots, and they fiercely guard the borders, which in this case means that they beef up their air defenses against undocumented shuttles. Perhaps most important, they hoard access to magically evolved medical care pods, which can mend the broken and heal the sick. Down on Earth, the poor crowd into hospitals where harried doctors tell them this is not Elysium – people can't just be cured.
Are you picking up what Neill Blomkamp is laying down here? Because he's laying it down with a trowel.
And that's okay. Blomkamp doesn't lack ideas about building a world with parallels to what he understands to be the modern Western economy. He constructs the spinning Elysium, full of perfectly manicured lawns (the robots do the mowing, it would seem) and mysterious marks that distinguish and guard the privileged. He throws in interesting details about what has happened in the next 150 years in his Los Angeles, including that it's a primarily Spanish-speaking population and that contact with the government has almost entirely eliminated the human element – as seen in a fine, creepy exchange with a mechanized parole officer.
There are a million stories to tell about Elysium, and about the structural impossibilities of segregating the rich and protecting them forever. Hearing this setup, all kinds of questions leap to mind: Is there resistance on Earth? Is there guilt on Elysium? Does anyone up there consider coming down here? Do kids on Elysium appropriate the music of Earth? How do these two parallel worlds of human beings relate to each other, beyond the official structure?
The story Blomkamp chooses to tell, unfortunately, doesn't really have anything to do with what's interesting about Elysium. Our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker who finds himself in a medical emergency requiring that he get to one of the pods on Elysium. But getting there means doing a favor for a mercenary, so the movie diverts into a goofy MacGuffin plot that's all about getting the MacGuffin so that he can give it to the guy so that he can get on the shuttle so that he can heal, which means he spends perhaps the central third of the movie doing something he doesn't really care about so he can go do something he does care about. The first act crisis sort of ... goes away, after seeming like it's going to be the driver for the rest of the plot.
Into this, we throw a beautiful woman he knew as a child, who now has an adorable daughter of her own. And you'll never guess: the daughter is sick. The daughter needs help! Help the adorable daughter, you rich jerks!
Meanwhile, up on Elysium, a political plot that wouldn't make the cut on a CBS Wednesday night drama about a mayor's office is unfolding. The president (Faran Tahir) is beefing with his defense secretary, who is unfortunately played by Jodie Foster in a misguided performance that never fastens on a characterization other than a hard-to-place accent. It seems that even though they seem to observe some sort of parliamentary process in meetings, Elysium is run by a computer program, and she can reprogram it to make her the president. (...What?) And the guy who can write that program for her is the rare Elysian citizen dispatched to Earth to make a factory run better (...What?). Also working for her is a mean weaponized dude down on Earth with a samurai sword, who the president has angered her by deactivating. (...What?)
Between Max's medical emergency, the mundane political struggles of the Elysian government, the sick daughter, the MacGuffin, and the guy with the samurai sword, we're in pretty deep, and we haven't even gotten to the part where Max gets guerilla surgery that equips him with a metal exoskeleton.
Essentially, Blomkamp has built a really interesting parallel society, a backdrop in which to tell some kind of a cool story about haves and have-nots and what happens to deprived populations over time. But then the story he actually tells is utterly pedestrian, both incomprehensible and silly, thuddingly obvious at times and totally mystifying at others. By the time you reach the conclusion, you already know everything that's going to happen, almost shot for shot, beat for beat, music choice for music choice.
There's a sharp distinction between the care that seems to have gone into building this world – imperfectly, but thoughtfully, to create a sort of alive, defiant allegorical space in which to make an argument — and the care that went into the story and the characters. The creation of that space is not the story. As fully realized as Middle Earth or the Enterprise or Walnut Grove or Westeros may be, a built world is just a built world. However important the point you want to make, you rise or fall on what happens on the stage you've built, not on how immersive an experience that stage creates. And it's that action that fails this really ambitious, sometimes imposing piece.