I expected better from someone who made one of the most intelligent and thrilling movies of 2009 on a lower budget than The Hangover.
District 9 had big crazy action sequences, but it also served to highlight the inhumanity of apartheid. By taking the character of Wikus, starting him out as a bumbling government employee gleefully carrying out some pretty awful tasks, he then undergoes a transformation that forces him to see things from the perspective of the oppressed and gets the opportunity to make things right. It's not the most original story, but it's well executed and smarter than the average summer movie.
Elysium has the right setting to say some interesting things about inequality, but it never really gets to saying anything. The poor live on Earth while the rich live in an idyllic city in the sky with magic healing pods that can fix any injury and cure any disease, but it's never really established why this magic technology can't exist on Earth. We see that the people on Elysium manage big businesses on the ground where they treat the plebs like crap, but again, if you've got magic healing pods, why not use them on your employees when they get sick or injured, as Matt Damon's character does early in the movie? The movie suggests that rich people are evil because they do evil things, but without a clear motivation or explanation for why they do evil things, it just feels like hollow populism.
When the film touches on immigration issues and border protection it does slightly better (space on Elysium is scarce, so not just anyone can get in) but it doesn't really go anywhere with the subject. There are hints that the movie wanted to go into more depth, as within the ranks of Elysium's politicians there's some conflict between hardliners who would shoot anyone trying to approach versus those with a more humane approach. Jodie Foster gets a nice Col. Jessup moment out of it despite a distractingly bad accent, but the plot thread is dropped partway through the movie, as if someone said the third act was beginning so we need to get to the nonstop action.
And if that action was as entertaining and inventive as it was in District 9, I could at least give the film a pass on being a fun diversion for a couple hours, but it's not. Most action sequences are a jumbled mess of shakycam and gore that's only marginally better than what passes for tolerable in action movies these days.
Elysium is such a disappointment because it's clear that there's so much missed potential sitting there unrealized. The thematic building blocks are there but the movie has nothing to say about society. The action is uncompelling and poorly shot. The plot and acting are perfunctory, but nothing to write home about... I really wish this weren't the case, but it's a major misfire from a director who showed an amazing amount of promise with his first film.