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posted: 8/8/2013 5:00 AM

Buff, tough Damon stars in a more brawn-than-brains thriller

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  • Max (Matt Damon), right, beats up a government thug trying to kill him in the spectacular, but botched science-fiction thriller "Elysium."

      Max (Matt Damon), right, beats up a government thug trying to kill him in the spectacular, but botched science-fiction thriller "Elysium."

  • Mad Max (Matt Damon) retaliates against government agents working for the wealthy elite community aboard a satellite in the science-fiction thriller "Elysium."

      Mad Max (Matt Damon) retaliates against government agents working for the wealthy elite community aboard a satellite in the science-fiction thriller "Elysium."

  • Video: "Elysium" trailer

 
 

The science fiction thriller "Elysium" wants to be many things, among them a thinly disguised endorsement of universal health care (read: Obamacare), a push for amnesty for undocumented aliens, a warning against ruthless totalitarianism and a futuristic Jason Bourne action movie complete with incomprehensively blurry, strobe-edited fight scenes.

It turns out to be just one dumb, bloated, botched, big-budget disaster film in which the superbly rendered special effects hog all the attention at the expense of the characters and plot.

This deeply disappointing saga, directed by "District 9" visionary Neill Blomkamp, features such ludicrous moments as the Elysium president, in his business suit, charging into a S.W.A.T. team scenario with the cops, then childishly pounding on a sealed door as if his fists could force it open.

Not very presidential.

It only makes sense that a guy this goofy would be the elected leader of Elysium, home of the affluent 1 percent living on a giant space station orbiting the Earth, where shuttle crafts filled with desperate poor people and/or freedom fighters can land anywhere because the wealthy are apparently too cheap to pay taxes for reliable airspace security.

This is the year 2154, when the Earth has become (as the opening scene informs us) polluted, overpopulated, poor and mostly Spanish-speaking.

Long ago, the very rich migrated to their metaphorical mansions in the sky, Elysium, a posh resort community in which every household can speak French and contains a medical chamber that can cure all diseases, restore facial features, fix fractures and regenerate limbs.

But only for the very well-to-do.

Back on the destitute terra firma, an ex-con named Max (Matt Damon) toils away at his menial job manufacturing robots when an industrial accident shoots him full of radiation, prompting a health droid to flatly inform him he will die in five days.

Max's friend Julio (Diego Luna) and Spider (Wagner Moura), an underground rebel leader fighting for universal access to health care, constantly send shuttles of needy people to Elysium, hoping they can get doctors' appointments or something like that, despite the fact they can't do diddly-squat without the necessary citizen IDs.

Spider persuades Max to have a metal exoskeleton surgically attached to his body and head so he can become like Peter Weller's "RoboCop," a robotically enhanced fighter.

The plan: The quickly healing exo-Max will lead rebels to kidnap Elysium's creator (William Fitchner) and download all of the information in his brain so that they can figure out to make all people citizens of Elysium.

This proves to be more difficult than imagined, because Elysium's ruthlessly power-mad (but well-dressed) Secretary Delacort (Jodie Foster) has employed a deranged murderer/rapist/arsonist named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to thwart the rebel plot.

Copley, the star of "District 9," uses many weapons, among them a Samurai sword, knives, guns and F-bombs, which he drops with impunity. (They're one of the few things we can actually understand through Copley's dense, impenetrable accent.)

Max has a personal agenda in gaining health care for the unwashed masses. A personal subplot involves his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), now an L.A. nurse with a tiny daughter suffering from terminal leukemia. He desperately wants to fulfill his childhood promise to Frey to get her to the promised satellite.

Damon worked out in the gym four hours every day during production to look super buff as mad Max. Damon's credibility and dedication to his character give "Elysium" a solid but squandered foundation.

Blomkamp's dulling overuse of slow-motion shots and sloppy attention to detail turn "Elysium" into just one more expensive sci-fi fizzle on the cinematic heels of "After Earth," "Pacific Rim" and "Upside Down" -- the last one another futuristic tale of classes literally living a world apart.

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