So what, basically, is wrong with the film?
It drags. The film is fairly short but it takes awhile to get going. The establishment of who Max is and what Elysium is takes far too much of the running time. Pacing is a huge part of the problem with this movie. The overall plot is fairly thin too. Is it a comment on immigration? Egalitarianism? Healthcare? Even the final resolution is a little head scratching in its lack of sophistication.
The characters are not particularly well-drawn (except perhaps Matt Damon's Max). There is very little surprising about the movie at all. The villains do what villains do; they sneer, they snarl but are otherwise uncomplicated. The acting is hard to figure. Jodie Foster seems wooden, which is hard to imagine for an actress of her caliber. Sharlto Copley, who acquitted himself so well, as Wikus Van De Merwe in District 9, is pretty close to a Saturday morning cartoon as a psychotic mercenary. Damon manages to give his character some depth but he also has much more screen time to do it.
It isn't that these actors, or others in the film such as Alice Braga (that you may recall from Predators), are bad, they are simply not given very much to do or time to do it in. There are too many characters as well be they friend or henchman. If you want to have a lot of characters to be blown to bits? That is fine. But why add people whose deaths are supposed to move the audience when there isn’t enough time to make the audience care.
What is good about the movie? Damon puts in a fairly solid performance—making his futuristic felon trying to get his life back on track believable and sympathetic. It looks good. The scenes on earth have a similar feel to large parts of District 9. It never lets special effects take over which is what most thinly plotted sci-fi films do.
While its pace is uneven it isn’t so bad that the audience will completely lose interest either. There are worse movies that come out every year in the genre and part of the problem here may also be the high expectations for Blomkamp as a director. District 9 was that good and Elysium is just mediocre.