Neill Blomkamp may be well on his way to becoming the only sci-fi writer-director who matters. And if "Elysium" is more an evolutionary leap than a revolutionary one from his break-out hit "District 9," it still shows him in great form telling a story from the future ripped from today's political hot button issues.
Blomkamp looked at his still racially divided native South Africa and concocted a tale of "Us vs. Them" that blurred the sci-fi boundaries between an alien species and the natives for "District 9."
He arrived in Los Angeles and picked up on the Occupy Movement, the immigration debate and the rationing-by-cost nature of American health care and came up with "Elysium," a violent, derivative and yet thoroughly entertaining trip into the future through the lens of the today's zeitgeist.
A hundred years from now, Earth has become a Wall-E world -- overcrowded, polluted, littered with high-rise shantytowns where Thomas Hobbes' description of humanity is more apt than ever. Life is "poor, nasty, brutish and short." But on the gigantic, green and sunny space station Elysium, the 1 percent live well, live long and have their every illness cured in a jiffy.
Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) has grown up on this Earth-as-Third-World future, a bilingual ex-con who works in a factory where safety regulations have vanished in a Los Angeles patrolled by armed droids and drones.
The desperate and "undocumented" still make a break for the border. But that entails a shuttle flight into orbit where Elysium's security chief (Jodie Foster, slinging a sort of pan-European accent) has most of them shot down and the rest deported.
An accident at work dooms Max, unless he can get to Elysium for a cure. He makes a deal with crime lord Spider (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) to kidnap Max's former boss (William Fichtner) and download the contents of his brain, a way "in" to Elysium where Max might be cured, his ex-girlfriend (Alice Braga) can get treatment for her daughter and a little fairness can drip back into an unfair universe.
The main obstacle in Max's way? Kruger, an Earthbound mercenary, played with sadistic glee by Sharlto Copley of "District 9."
Blomkamp filters a lot of other people's sci-fi ideas into this, from "Johnny Mnemomic" and "Blade Runner" to "In Time" and "Iron Man." He spares no grisly, realistic detail in showing the surgery Max endures to prep him to fight (an exo-skeleton is added) and download (a dataport is implanted in his skill), and that gives this film a punch that most of the summer's sci-fi and action entrees have lacked.
Nothing looks digital here. This world looks worn, patchwork and lived in.
The cosmopolitan casting works well enough, although Damon often seems smarter than the character, Foster's chilliness is a simple archetype and Copley's psychotic villain turn is WAY over the top. Fichtner is so good at playing villains that it's a pity that's virtually all he gets to play these days (See "Ranger, Lone").
"Don't BREATHE on me" the rich guy hisses at his Earthbound employees, making us smell the planet that the rich have chosen to flee.
Throw-away moments -- a doctor casually and callously taps a restrained Max on the head with his notepad computer in the middle of a conversation with a colleague -- work better than the scripted dialogue, which is too often of the "You IDIOT, do you realize what you've DONE?" variety.
But appreciate "Elysium" for what it is, sci-fi that's smarter, more topical and more invigorating than most of what passes through that genre these days, and another sign that its director is the most promising chap to enter the field since the inception of Christopher Nolan.