TERRY GROSS, HOST:
"Elysium" is this year's latest dystopian sci-fi movie set on a dead or dying Earth. It was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who made the 2009 hit "District 9." It stars Matt Damon as a worker on the ruined, overpopulated planet and Jodie Foster as the defense secretary who guards an orbiting space refuge for the very rich. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Elysium" begins with a good, angry, satirical premise: It's the year 2154, and Earth has been polluted to the point where the rich have decamped for a humongous, ring-shaped super-space-station in orbit - a paradise of manicured lawns, swimming pools, robot servants and even machines that cure cancer in, like, 15 seconds.
It's called Elysium, and, down below, the poor in their dirty slums gaze on it like the brass ring on an old merry-go-round. But it's hard for them to immigrate. Elysium's defense secretary welcomes illegals with guided missiles. The writer-director is 33-year-old South African Neill Blomkamp, who in his Oscar-nominated sci-fi action picture "District 9" re-imagined apartheid with giant shrimp from outer space.
There's nothing as audacious in "Elysium," but then this is a studio film with major stars. Matt Damon plays Max, a luckless parolee who once had big dreams but is now beaten down. He wants only to keep his dangerous factory job and stay out of trouble. The problem is that he has a way of mouthing off to authority figures, especially a cheap-looking robotic dummy that won't let him speak.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELYSIUM")
MATT DAMON: (as Max) Hello. Uh, before we start, I'd just like to explain...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as robot) Max DeCosta. Violation of penal code 2219 today at bus stop 34B.
DAMON: (as Max) Yes. That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, I believe there's been a misunderstanding.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as robot) Immediate extension of parole by a further eight months.
DAMON: (as Max) Wait. What? No, no, no. No, no. I can explain what happened. I just made a joke and, uh, you know...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as robot) Stop talking. Elevation in heart rate detected. Would you like a pill?
DAMON: (as Max) No. Thank you. What I'd like to do is explain...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as robot) Stop talking. Personality matrix adjusts a 78.3 percent chance of regression to old behavior patterns - grand theft auto, assault with a deadly weapon, resisting arrest. Would you like to talk to a human?
DAMON: (as Max) (in robotic voice) No. I am OK. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as robot) Are you being sarcastic and/or abusive?
DAMON: (as Max) (in robotic voice) Negative.
EDELSTEIN: If the rest of "Elysium" were like that, it would be golden. But director Blomkamp uses his ripe conceit and twisty, stylish, state-of-the-art techniques in the service of a plot more suited to 19th-century melodrama. Jodie Foster plays the defense secretary of the orbiting Elysium, the person who orders space ships bearing families destroyed in defiance of a president who tells her just to send them back to Earth.
So she plots to take him out by getting a robotics mogul, played by William Fichtner, to shut down and reboot Elysium, which would make her president. It sounds ridiculous to me, too, but then nothing about Foster's performance makes sense. Her accent is either English, South African or Martian - it's hard to tell; it's different in every scene.
And she moves more stiffly than the robots. Foster joins the ranks of outspoken liberals who can't manage to play their political opposites. Damon is much better, but still not convincing. After Max gets a lethal dose of radiation in a factory, he has one motivation - not to die. That takes precedence over doing good things: joining some rebels or even helping the adorably inquisitive cancer-ridden daughter of his childhood companion, Frey, played by Alice Braga.
But I'm sorry, Damon looks and acts like too much of a sweetie. You can see his moral trajectory from miles away, from his crisis of conscience to the face-off against the paramilitary psycho villain played by the star of "District 9," Sharlto Copley.
Director Blomkamp makes up for the creaky plotting by shooting everything with a hand-held camera that's always super-tight on the actors. So when Max gets pummeled by fists and lethal objects, we get pummeled by light and noise and rock-'em-sock-'em editing. The action is thrilling. "Elysium" revs you up, and on its own dumb terms, delivers. But it's less fun when Blomkamp blows something up than when he sends it up, as he does the incorrigible insensitivity of the rich, or the absence of empathy in robots programmed to punish the poor for showing impudence.
The rest of the movie is lowest-common-denominator stuff. It also seems programmed, by studio executives who dream of grabbing the brass ring right here, right now.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
We'll close with a recording featuring the keyboard player George Duke who died Monday from complications after being treated for leukemia. He was 67. He started out as a jazz pianist but also played keyboards with rock and funk bands. And he played for many years with Frank Zappa. This is a 1972 Zappa recording featuring George Duke on electric piano. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)