Given a big budget and major-studio backing after the success of his 2009 independent sci-fi hit District 9, the South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp is able to do some pretty impressive world-building. In fact, he creates two worlds. The first is the dusty, sun-bleached, over-populated and economically depressed Earth of the 22nd century (filmed in Mexico City), wherein humanity is oppressed by corporate villainy and robotic civil servants.
The second, tantalisingly in sight but out of the reach of the masses, is Elysium: a vast space station in the Earth's lower orbit (filmed in Vancouver), where the exclusive few enjoy opulent wealth, verdant golf courses and a perfect health-care system. Jodie Foster plays the ruthless Elysian defence minister charged with maintaining the sanctity of this ultimate gated community; Matt Damon plays Max Da Costa, an ex-con with nothing to lose, on a mission to infiltrate it.
It's nice to see some blockbuster sci-fi entertainment with something to say, even when its themes are writ so large. And it doesn't matter that immigration and economic disparity were also the themes of District 9. The problem is that, after creating two such interesting new worlds, Blomkamp doesn't give you enough time to look around them.
The establishing scenes are terrific. Elysium looks like the rotating space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey would have if Stanley Kubrick had the same digital effects at his disposal. It's that detailed and impressive.
Meanwhile, in 22nd-century Los Angeles, Max's run-ins with baton-happy police-bots, and an exasperatingly officious android parole officer who apparently shares programming code with Johnny Cab from Total Recall, are respectively shocking and funny. Then Max arrives at his assembly-line factory job and we realise, with a shudder, that he works at a robotics plant, assembling the very tools of his own oppression. (And of course they could use robots to do his job – that's just how evil and appreciative of irony our future masters will be.)
We are also introduced to Max's love interest (Alice Braga) and her dying child; an underground resistance figure (Wagner Moura) who helps smuggle Earth-dwellers to Elysium; a renegade mercenary played by District 9's Sharlto Copley; and the boss of the robotics company (William Fichtner), who is planning a political coup with Jodie Foster. Everyone wants a piece of software code that gets uploaded, Johnny Mnemonic-style, into Max's brain.
But this plot is at the same time too busy and too simple; there are too many characters but too little characterisation. The industrial accident that leaves Max in need of the kind of health care you can only get on Elysium apparently also turns him into a grim and one-dimensional hero. The humour that was the distinguishing feature of District 9 evaporates at about the same time. And as spectacular as it is, the action too quickly degenerates into one long breathless flurry of running and shooting and blowing things up.