Movie review: 'Elysium' engages brain and emotions

Review • Futuristic drama blends action, political issues.
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In his first movie, the astonishing "District 9," South African-born director Neill Blomkamp staked a claim to being a filmmaker capable of creating science fiction that combined riveting action, subtle special effects and shrewd political allegory into an entertaining package.

With his follow-up, "Elysium," Blomkamp defends that claim well. The futuristic movie is loaded with action and even more packed with ideas.

It's the late 21st century, and Earth is a decaying mess of pollution, disease and overpopulation. The richest of the rich have made their escape to the ultimate gated community: Elysium, an orbiting space station loaded with ornate mansions, manicured lawns and well-groomed residents.

The Elysium citizens also have access to the best in health-care technology — an MRI-like scanner bed that can heal broken bones and cure many diseases — something the poor down on Earth don't have. Occasionally, desperate immigrants try to sneak onto Elysium to use that technology, but those people are quickly rounded up and deported.

So that's income disparity, health care and immigration, all bundled into one scenario. And if the politics aren't subtle, Blomkamp (who wrote and directed) integrates them smartly into an exciting yarn.

That story begins with Max de Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-convict slaving away in a Los Angeles robotics factory. Harassed by robot law enforcement and pushed to the brink by factory bosses, Max tries to stay straight and avoid the criminals with whom he used to associate. But when he suffers a lethal dose of radiation and is told he'll die in five days, his only desperate hope is a ride to Elysium to use its health-care system.

To get there, Max takes a job with his old gang boss, Spider (Wagner Moura), to heist computer data from his factory's owner, Elysium resident John Carlyle (William Fichtner). When Max gets the data, he soon realizes they're the key to something big — so big that Elysium's iron-tough defense secretary, Madame Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is willing to kill for it.

That's when Delacourt and Blomkamp break out the secret weapon: Kruger, a nasty and effective mercenary agent who has enough armaments and anger to destroy whatever he wants. Kruger is played by "District 9" star Sharlto Copley, who gives a hard-as-nails performance that's a world away from the nervous bureaucrat of "District 9" and a great example of what happens when a director and actor know each other's strengths.

In a cast that includes Alice Braga as Max's childhood confidante and Diego Luna as a fellow street thug, Damon dominates with a powerful and humanist performance. He blends his trademark Everyman humility with a dose of Bruce Willis toughness (along with Willis' shaved dome). He makes Max a down-to-earth action hero — even when he's got a metal exoskeleton screwed into his skeleton.

Blomkamp deftly balances the action requirements with the issues and fills in the background with enough detail to make this multicultural dystopian split between the haves and have-nots feel logical and familiar. He manages to make "Elysium" feel at once fantastic and grounded in reality.

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The director of "District 9" returns with an energetic science-fiction thriller loaded with political overtones.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, Aug. 9.

Rating • R for strong bloody violence and language throughout

Running time • 110 minutes.