On an artificial structure miles above the planet's surface lives a population of idle, comfortable elites, enjoying the very finest technology and living in what you might as well call paradise. On the planet lives a miserable, ground-down population of working class grunts who slave to keep the elites' world funtioning, without ever getting the smallest taste of the luxury their work enables. The story is an overwrought and frankly pandering commentary on modern class distinctions, though you can't deny, at least, that the writer is passionate and sincere.

That describes Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to another sci-fi message movie, 2009's District 9, but it also describes "The Cloud Minders", an episode of the original Star Trek. A third season episode of Star Trek, no less, which for the uninitiated means that it came during the show's darkest hour of dumb storytelling and strained production. It says virtually everything I might ever want to say about contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, in the most elegantly direct way, that Elysium ends up treating its subject matter with considerably less integrity and commitment than an episode of a TV series noted for being chintzy and corny, and from a period when that series was at its kitschiest. "The Cloud Minders" is junk, basically, but it commits to its ideas and sees them to their conclusion. Elysium takes the first opportunity to throw away all of its heavy-handed sermonising in favor of loud, inconsequential, frequently incoherent action setpieces.

Sometime in the 22nd Century, Earth has long been plagued by overpopulation and pollution, and for a while - a generation or more, at least - the wealthiest humans have moved to the jealously guarded Elysium, a wheel-shaped space station fairly close to Earth's atmosphere, where it looks exactly like a vision of Southern Californian suburban opulence in the 2010s, with the only sci-fi tech being the medical beds that can cure, apparently anything, from skin abrasions to broken bones to a body bursting at the seams with cancer. Down in actual Southern California, everything looks pretty much exactly the way it does right now, only dustier, more run-down, and full of robots, the uncaring, fascistic police force keeping everybody in place. Here, ex-con Max (Matt Damon) is scraping out the most miserable scraps of existence, but when he gets irradiated in an industrial accident, and curtly given five days left to live by a doctor robot, he decides to get to Elysium by any means possible, however illegal, and however dangerous in the face of Security Director Delacourt's (Jodie Foster) policy of shooting vessels right out of the sky as they approach the space station, not even bothering to ask questions later.

The film wears its metaphors right on its sleeve: access to health care, unequal distribution of labor and wages, draconian immigration policy. And here the problems start to creep in; not because Elysium is fucking insulting in how minutely it spells out its political message, clearly assuming the audience to be made up of particularly dense idiots. Which it does, and as somebody who fervently agrees with everything the movie's arguing, I still feel frankly disgusted by the clumsy, bullying way it frames those arguments.

No, the bigger problem is that Elysium wants to be a massive, film-length metaphor for The Way Things Are Today, that also wants to be a dense, lived-in depiction of Life In The Future, and to get it to that point it boasts some titanically wonderful production design (by Philip Ivey) that evokes a whole complex world system that we're only glimpsing around the edges, with machines in the background whose function is never spelled out, little touches in the decoration that suggest histories and cultural shifts that we're only allowed to guess at. It's so complete and detailed, in fact, that it suggests a level of realism and depth that Elysium isn't actually prepared to deal with, and anyway could not deal with if it wanted to: since this is all symbolism and metaphor after all. There's enough physical plausibility to the structure of Elysium itself, that one very naturally starts to wonder how it works, how it was built, the way this functions or that, and none of this matters - in fact, not mattering is the very point, since Elysium isn't supposed to be a real-world concept, but a representation of earthbound 21st Century greed. An unbelievably gifted filmmaker might be able to combine futurism with present-day symbolism in a way that gave both of them room to breath (you could at least think about arguing that Kubrick did so in 2001: A Space Odyssey), but Blomkamp is not that filmmaker, and he curiously manages the paradox of making the world of his film seem both too real for its own good and too shallow and superficial to seem real.

Even that is, truthfully, more at the level of a nitpick. What really torpedoes Elysium is that it's wandering and pointless, punching us in the face with its social commentary and then literally forgetting about it for half the running time, as it indulges in a completely generic sequence of sci-fi action as Max's childhood squeeze, Frey (Alica Braga) and her daughter end up on the wrong side of Delacourt's cyborg thug Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Incidentally, when you name your menacing beast of a villain "Kruger", you lose the right to be considered a creative screenwriter for, oh, let's say five years.

I object to the fact that Elysium is so disinterested in the neon-colored message that it's been suffocating us with for 40 minutes that it drops it like a hot rock the second that a chance for some trivial action sequences comes along; I strenuously object to doing so when the quality of the action is so breathtakingly mediocre. The choppy editing, nauseous handheld camera, and assaulting sound design of all our most tepid modern blockbusters are in full force here; only some undeniably handsome visual effects serve to elevate this material at all. Meanwhile, the characters remain flat and lifeless, with Damon giving an unusually uncharismatic performance that manages to be one of the best pieces of acting in the film by default; what with Copley barking out every line in a monotone, Wagner Moura (as the coyote funneling Earth immigrants illegally into Elysium) shacking and bleating lines like he's fighting an aneurysm, and Foster-

Fuck that, I'm not going to dismiss of Foster's performance in just a clause. She is horrible, horrible in ways I would honestly have declared totally impossible given her body of work. Substitute any performance other than the one she gives, and the whole movie improves: even with only around 15 minutes of screentime, she so dominates the film and its tone. There might not be anything here that so trivialises all of the rest of the movie as Foster's impossible-to-identify accent (in which French, South African, Cajun, and Japanese all seem to be jockeying for prominence atop several other possibilities) and unbridled, melodramatic performance of self-delighted villainy. The whole point of her character is to depict the careless, cold bureaucratic efficiency of people so comfortable in their own lives, that they literally dismiss the humanity of people even a little worse off than they; it is a banal, institutional evil that she stands in for, in the 22nd Century or today. But Foster overplays the sneering meanness of Delacourt as far as possible; she responds to the death of innocent civilians not with callous indifference, but with trembling, lip-smacking pleasure, as though the thought of suffering children make her want to rub one out.

Bad villain = weak conflict, and Elysium ends up suffering on two fronts: it is shallow as social commentary since it seems so cartoonish and artificial, and it's not interesting as an action movie for basically the same reason. It's just shallow here, and shallow there: a film that, when it is being Oh So Serious makes you desperately wish it would shut up and just have a damn plot, and when it is being action-packed is so unimaginatively conceived that it's boring and dumb. It's a bland and mediocre film, not an outrageously bad one, but holy shit, talk about industrial-grade mediocrity!