Admit that you miss the future where we were all going to live on the moon with robots simply because that was the next step in awesome human progress, not because greedy, super-rich people and their corporations (also people, remember) absconded with all the health care and whatever natural resources weren't nailed down, building a glowing, luxurious, Kubrickian pleasure terrarium and leaving the rest of the population sitting on a garbage dump of crumbling car parts and the rotting corpses of children dead from the measles. But that's the future we're getting if movies are to be believed; the mood has been sour for some time now and the hope of the past has turned into a filthy fictional mirror of present realities. We're going to eat each other alive in a dystopian dirt-world. Pass the Junior Mints.
But Neill Blomkamp, the man behind District 9, still believes in a particular sort of movie hope, the kind where One Brave Man named Max (Matt Damon) does whatever it takes to save humanity. A factory worker and former criminal, Max finds himself exposed to toxic radiation at his soul-crushing job and has only a few days before his organs shut down. If he can make it up to Elysium, the rotating space paradise of pristine living and no disease, he can save not only himself but also the sick daughter of his childhood soulmate Frey (Alice Braga). But Elysium, presided over by cruel elites (like Jodie Foster, hilariously evil in Armani power-suits) will stop at nothing when it comes to keeping the have-nots at bay, so a more complicated plan involving disgruntled mercenaries (District 9's Sharlto Copley), kidnapping, hacking, skin-grafted super-exo-skeletons and major violence is required to advance the cause of justice.
Like Blomkamp's debut, it's a film with a mission, this time commenting on the dual inequalities of immigration injustice and health care for the few who can afford it. But the filmmaker takes a top-down approach to making his case for a fairer world, placing the agency of millions of people into the hands of a single super-guy instead a more cooperative approach to taking back power. He seems to prefer Christ figures to Great Escape-style group efforts. And that's fine, just not the inventive step up audiences might be expecting after the out-of-the-blue wallop of District 9.
In the end, its standard action film moves are tweaked (and nicely, abandoning the typical in significant ways) but not dismantled or re-arranged; and its resolution will inspire political debate, which means it still has more on its mind than most. And if the future has to be this grimy, at least it'll have a conscience. Better than being chased around by hyper-evolved monsters, After Earth-style, right?