Like it or not (and some certainly won’t), “Elysium” is rare and valuable among recent summer blockbusters, most simply because it proves worthy of conversation beyond the usual, “You know, I think the obliteration of [Major City X] at the end was wicked awesome,” and, “Yeah, man — me, too.”
For starters, writer/director Neil Blomkamp’s futurist dystopia — wherein the world’s richest 1 percent live in gated-community paradise, leaving the vast majority of others to tough it out in squalor — raises the question of whether this sci-fi epic’s dateline deserves to be 2154 or somewhere closer to 2014.
Indeed, for all the film’s ultraviolent, wicked-awesome action, following factory worker Max (Matt Damon) in his desperate attempt to get decent health care, the movie bids to work the brain as strenuously as it does the body.
More talking points: Is “Elysium” too political for a summer movie? Isn’t every summer movie political when you think about it? Is Jodie Foster’s coldly villainous defense secretary intended to invoke Hillary Clinton? And what does it mean that Blomkamp (“District 9”) hails from South Africa?
What’s great about “Elysium” is that it invites and even encourages discussion and debate while delivering proficiently at the levels of plot, action and special effects. As the film opens, Max is a young orphan (played by Maxwell Perry Cotton) who dreams of traveling to Elysium, the space-station sanctuary just outside Earth’s atmosphere, where rich people live forever in perfect health — sort of like having an extended Bel Air country club membership, or an eternal all-access pass to Epcot Center.
Later, as a downtrodden adult and recovering thief, bald-shaven Max toils on an assembly line in what’s left of Los Angeles, hauntingly rendered by Blomkamp in helicopter shots that recall the opening of “Blade Runner,” and on the ground in ways that suggest the most impoverished sections of contemporary Cape Town and Mexico City. The great irony of Max’s work is that he’s forced to participate in his own oppression — helping to build the high-tech robo-cops that beat him and other workers for no good reason other than to keep them down.
On the job, Max, bullied into life-endangering service by his brute of a supervisor, gets a lethal dose of radiation, leaving him with a mere five days to live. Thus the movie incorporates elements of the classic film noir “D.O.A.,” with Max fighting a ticking clock to find an antidote. For this, he consults Spider (a brilliant Wagner Moura), a well-connected gangster who offers Max safe passage to disease-curing Elysium in trade for his help in hacking into the computerized brain of a bigwig CEO (William Fichtner).
One could read what follows as socialism in action — and/or as a bold and imaginative sci-fi film built to last long beyond its opening weekend. Blomkamp’s tone is bleak, but not oppressively so, as Damon’s Max, melded with computer parts to enable a “cerebral upload” of classified data, gradually becomes a sympathetic terminator, straining to save not only his own life, but that of his childhood friend’s diseased young daughter (Emma Tremblay).
Or maybe the movie is merely a despicably left-wing, up-with-the-underclass tract? Or a conservative vision of the right to bear arms? Feel free — even though it’s summer — to discuss.
Rob Nelson writes about movies.