By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The poor inherit the earth and the rich leave it to them in Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp's vision of a 22nd century without universal health care. Not a pretty sight, but pretty entertaining until brawn overcomes the screenplay's brains.
Matt Damon stars as Max Da Costa, who needs extraordinary medical measures after being irradiated in a work accident. The only place he can find help is somewhere he can't afford, thanks to a technocracy radically segregating haves and have-nots.
The utopian Elysium glistens like a blinged-out Mercedes-Benz hood ornament in the sky, separated from the rabble of Earth by a 19-minute shuttle ride. Buying a ticket on one of those escapes is practically impossible for anyone not there yet. Even the movie's middle class representative, a hospital nurse named Frey (Alice Braga), can't afford care for her daughter stricken with leukemia.
Frey is lifelong friends with Max, an ex-con and currently an assembly line worker making android servants for Elysium residents. Max gets irradiated at work, leaving him only days to live. Only a session in a fast-healing med-bed, built into ritzy Elysium homes like chandeliers, can save him. A former accomplice in car theft (Wagner Moura) offers Max a way to earn a ticket.
Fitted and riveted into an exo-suit turning Max into a brawling thumb drive, he'll brain-jack lucrative information — bank codes, passwords and the like — from a corporate executive. Max chooses his old boss (William Fichtner), who secretly entered a deal with defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to reboot Elysium's program and oust the paradise's president. Max inadvertently has the keys to the kingdom locked in his noggin, with Delacourt's national security forces on his tail.
The nastiest of the troops is Kruger (Sharlto Copley, District 9), a sadistic enforcer introduced by blowing up an illegal refugee flight to Elysium with women and children aboard. Copley is standard issue evil with only an odd accent separating him from the Zods and Khans of this summer. Somewhere between Foster's sophistication and Copley's snarls there's a villain worth hissing.
Elysium proves better at social polemics than escapism, a balancing act Blomkamp managed well in District 9, with its allegory of South Africa's apartheid era. The setup intrigues, although instead of harping on Earth's slumdog culture, a few sharp jabs at Elysium's affluence would be smart. The third act loses track of Blomkamp's egalitarian themes when bullets and body parts start flying, turning deep thoughts into a typical sci-fi climax.
And about that ending, which won't be spoiled here. See it, take Elysium's resolution to its next logical consequence, and wonder if the conclusion you may reach is what Blomkamp intended, after everything preceding it. Blomkamp sees the future, and it looks a lot like what scares some people now.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Diego Luna, Alice Braga, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Emma Tremblay
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp
Rating: R; strong sci-fi violence, profanity
Running time: 109 min.