NEW YORK — In the desert of big-budget summer moviegoing comes, like fresh water, Neill Blomkamp's "Elysium," a dystopic science-fiction thriller bristling with more ideas than all this year's superheros and action films combined.
Like Blomkamp's first and previous film, the South African alien apartheid allegory "District 9," ''Elysium" is a rogue burst of originality — a futuristic popcorn adventure loaded with contemporary themes of wealth discrepancy, immigration and health care. Blomkamp, a 33-year-old South African native with a background in digital effects and a head for sociopolitical tumult, has emerged as a rare thing in today's movies: a maker of science fiction with soul.
"What's somehow gone away from science fiction is that it's meant to represent ideas," says Blomkamp. "It's meant to be this looking glass through which you can look at society a different way."
Whereas most science fiction today is all sleekness and impressive spaceships, metaphor — not exactly the stuff of movie posters — comes first for Blomkamp, who sees his film in the tradition of Fritz Lang's similarly allegorical "Metropolis." Set in the year 2154, "Elysium" finds the Earth a dilapidated slum, with the wealthy living in an orbital space station, a kind of floating Beverly Hills hamster wheel modeled after Syd Mead's Stanford torus design for a space habitat.
Elysium, guarded fiercely by a defense secretary played by Jodie Foster, looms in the sky as an unreachable oasis of high-quality living and limitless health care. (Every home is equipped with beds that immediately cure illness.) The First and Third World divide has gone cosmic.
In dusty Los Angles (shot in a Mexico City slum), Matt Damon stars as a reformed car thief working in a giant factory in grueling conditions, overseen by an infinitely more rewarded CEO (William Fichtner). When a radiation mishap gives Damon's character days to live, he endeavors to reach Elysium at all costs.
"I sit there a lot of the time wrestling with balancing metaphor and also balancing entertainment," says Blomkamp. "Anything I do creatively comes from a place of instinct. I don't wake up one morning and say, 'I want to make a film about wealth discrepancy.' It seems to happen organically."
Los Angles holds particular fascination for Blomkamp, who lives with his wife and frequent writing partner Terri Tatchell in Vancouver. He considers its segregated sprawl, close to the border of Mexico "a milder version" of his hometown of Johannesburg. But his relationship with Hollywood is considerably more at odds.
"I would be as far from the film industry as physically possible as I could," he says.
Blomkamp first caught Hollywood's eye for his commercial work and shorts, including "Alive in Joburg," which he would later expand into "District 9." Peter Jackson and his wife and producing partner Fran Walsh were particularly impressed by Blomkamp and helped get him hired to helm a big-budget adaption of the video game "Halo."
But after months of development, the film was shut down. It was an early lesson for Blomkamp on the loss of control in directing studio films based on material not his own. "I count my lucky stars every day," he says now of the "Halo" fallout, since it led to Jackson and Walsh's suggestion that he turn "Alive in Joburg" — a documentary-styled story about aliens marooned in Johannesburg — into a feature.
Famously made for just around $30 million, "District 9" had the look of a much more expensive film, boasting far more political subtext than often makes it into the multiplexes. It starred Blomkamp's longtime friend Sharlto Copley (the two first met when a teenage Blomkamp began doing 3D animation work for Copley's production company) as an Afrikaner bureaucrat who mutates into one of the interned aliens. Parts of it were shot in Soweto.
"District 9," which received four Oscar nominations including best picture (a rarity for a genre film), made Blomkamp a phenom. In an earlier Time magazine issue on the 100 most influential people, director Ridley Scott wrote: "From time to time, there are people in the film industry who appear on the horizon with a unique vision. South African director Neill Blomkamp is one of those rare people."
The success of the film (it made $210.8 million worldwide) led to numerous studio offers of major franchise movies, including entreaties regarding "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."
"I get offered those kind of films less and less now because I just seem to be saying 'no' so much," says Blomkamp. "What I want to do for the next few films is find exactly my own voice."
"If I get into other people's ideas without fully fleshing that out, there's some of that that I could lose," he adds. "It can become impersonal if you're not careful."
In September, Blomkamp will begin shooting in South Africa the $60 million "Chappie," a sci-fi comedy he wrote with Tatchell. Though he cautions that he could change his mind in the two years it will take to make and release "Chappie," he would like to follow it with "District 10," a sequel to "District 9" for which he's written a treatment.
"He protects his artistic area, and he's been like that since I met him," says Copley, who plays a mercenary in "Elysium" and will star in "Chappie." ''I've noticed in Hollywood, anything that has any kind of political thing, people get terrified. Coming from a place that was as explosively politically as where we came from, those are things that really interest us."
Certainly, some critics will deride "Elysium" as heavy-handed and others will chafe at its liberal politics, seeing advocacy for universal health care. Though President Barack Obama's health care plan didn't specifically figure into Blomkamp's thinking, he says that if a pop culture film like "Elysium" were to get political blowback from talk show pundits: "I think that's cool. Otherwise, what was the film? It just came and went."
Rated R satires about inequality don't typically set the box office on fire. So it will be interesting to see how moviegoers respond to "Elysium," made with financing split between Sony Pictures and Media Rights Capital for more than three times the budget of "District 9."
Blomkamp professes no answers to the issues he raises, rather insisting there are none. Economic disparity, he says, is an age-old problem that's "inherently unsolvable."
Sounding slightly mischievous, he says: "I hope the population likes the movie."