Film genres that explore other worlds -- whether future, alien or imaginary -- help us explore our own world. J.R.R. Tolkien, Rod Serling and George Lucas all knew that we need to talk about heroism, injustice and our struggles to do the right thing in a way that makes those ideas feel bigger than any political ideology of the moment.
The strained storytelling in Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is a sad excuse for an allegory. Though the 22nd-century world he's created is visually striking, it's barely passable as something to think about. Where the world in his previous sci-fi film, District 9, functions as a unique metaphor for alien apartheid, Elysium trots out an extended riff on immigration that doesn't even bother to wrap the idea in new clothing.
In Elysium, the one-percenters have left Earth behind. Orbiting the planet is their titular satellite, where the mega-rich enjoy breathable air and cure-all medical technology. Meanwhile, the world below has turned into a polluted, overpopulated, disease-ridden favela. Here we find Max da Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con trying to put his life back on the straight and narrow path as he works in a factory that builds the same robot cops that hassle him on the streets. When Max gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, Elysium's medical marvels are his only hope. Here the story gets painfully unoriginal. To get into Elysium, Earth residents hire other people to smuggle them in. Vessels full of "illegals" are referred to as "undocumented ships." The Elysium defense forces are even called "Homeland Security."
Though Elysium is supposed to be an idyllic place, the film tells us next to nothing about what it's like to live there. The only real attempt comes in the form of Jodie Foster, who plays Elysium's defense minister, Delacourt. Cartoonish at best, this portrayal of militaristic xenophobia is so terrible that it infects the rest of the movie.
What remains is a genre film with brutal set pieces, buried inside a public service announcement for an amnesty program. There's been a lot of bloodless violence at the movies this summer, so it's almost refreshing to find a film that acknowledges trauma to the human body. But if you're going to make an allegory, you can't just focus on the "gory."