"Elysium" is a gripping, visceral, disconcerting bit of business. Just as writer-director Neill Blomkamp intended.
Matt Damon stars as Max, a reluctant hero who, in trying to save his own life, might just change the course of his fellow Earth-bound inhabitants.
With his second feature, the South African-born director of 2009's "District 9" confirms he knows how to create a convincing, if ruined and morally compromised, vision of the future for multiplex audiences.
The movie opens in 2154 upon a long-devastated L.A. It's an image of dun desolation where a kind of daily chaos mixes it up with social regimentation.
Max is an ex-con working in a factory that builds the type of robots that keep citizens just like him in line, literally and figuratively.
Elysium is the name of the vast, upscale space station that orbits above Earth. But the movie's title also gives a heady nod to the fictional and perfect land the Greeks wrote about centuries ago.
Jodie Foster brings a chilly glare, a drawn mouth and a French accent to Elysium's secretary of defense, Delacourt. There's much to defend: "A way of life," as they say. And she's the hard-liner to do it.
Citizens here don't get sick: They slip into a machine and their cells are regenerated, lickety-split.
When Kruger, the mercenary in Delacourt's employ (played by "District 9" star Sharlto Copley), gets grievously wounded, don't worry. It's hardly a spoiler to say he'll be back.
Health care is part of the allure the space station holds for those brave or desperate enough to hazard the journey across the space-border: They may be able to cure their loved ones if they're able to land on Elysium, escape capture - and get the right coding.
The director has a true talent for visually imagining worlds in conflict. Full of adrenaline-rousing action, "Elysium" seems to move effortlessly through the landscapes it creates: the slum Max and old partner in crime Julio (a soulful Diego Luna) live in, the spirit-crushing factory Max works at, the hospital his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) is a nurse at, the black-market and the nerve center of coyote/revolutionary Spider (Brazilian star Wagner Moura).
A sci-fi fable about what ails us at this peculiar moment, "Elysium" is not without flaws.
Its ruined Los Angeles appears overrun with Hispanics. Spanish is the language spoken at the orphanage Max is raised in.
Who's vision of catastrophic failure is this, exactly?
Then again, one might argue that the movie's vision of Elysium's lucky few also represents a fear/fantasy projection. Its 1-percenter world is as clean, lush and mostly white as Earth is dusty, desiccated and mostly populated by brown-skinned people. It's the extremes that doom us.