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Salvation for the 99 percent in 'Elysium' ★★★

Director Neill Blomkamp and star Matt Damon navigate a sci-fi story of harsh class warfare

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

9:55 AM EDT, August 8, 2013

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Viewed from an aerial narrative perspective, writer-director Neill Blomkamp's 22nd-century-set "Elysium" is about an ex-con factory worker (played by Matt Damon), a man suffering from a radiation dosage strong enough to kill anyone whose name isn't above his movie's title. Max, Damon's character, dedicates an eventful few days on a decrepit, polluted Earth and a fancy gated community in the sky to ensuring legal citizenship and health care coverage for all.

With most films, that'd be enough to cut out half the potential American audience. But effective, evocative science fiction, which "Elysium" is, has a way of getting by with an ILA (Insidious Liberal Agenda) in the guise of worst-case dystopia.

Loaded with action, a lot of it excitingly imagined, "Elysium" boasts many of the teeming strengths of South African filmmaker Blomkamp's previous R-rated sci-fi success, "District 9" (2009), which replayed a host of immigration and apartheid themes with humans and aliens. This time we're in a world photographed mostly in and around Mexico City, standing in for a dusty, forbidding Los Angeles after the destruction of the ozone layer. Up in space, the richest of the rich swan around in beautiful clothes and apparently endless sunshine on an immense space station known as Elysium. This carefully manicured Eden resembles the better parts of your tonier Southern California enclaves, without the conspicuous service industry underclass.

On Elysium, everything from a broken wrist to cancer can be cured by a quick lie-down in the home-installed "med bay." On Elysium, the fearsome defense secretary, in cahoots with EPI (Evil Private Industry, personified by William Fichtner), is played by Jodie Foster. By design, her performance is only slightly less robotic than the Maschinenmensch robot woman, Maria, in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," a major influence on Blomkamp's movie.

After Max suffers the life-threatening radiation blast in an industrial accident, he joins forces with an underground revolutionary (Wagner Moura) intent on kidnapping Elysium's CEO. In exchange, Max receives his sole hope for survival: a free ride on an illegal flight to the promised land, where he can be cured in a near-instant.

Start to finish, "Elysium" puts its main man through the mill. With only days to live, Max must fend off attacks from a psychotic mercenary recently let go from Elysium's payroll. He's played by Sharlto Copley, the feverish overactor who starred in "District 9."

Damon has an awfully good nose for material; even when "Elysium" grows allegorically simplistic or familiar, the script avoids pounding cliche, and Blomkamp and his design and effects teams give us a plausibly harsh idea of things to come.

Some things are fun, such as the bubblelike opaque cocoons designed to keep 22nd-century bullets from doing any harm. Other things decidedly are not fun, such as the artful panoramic vistas revealing just how lousy a life we'll be inheriting in the year 2154.

As did Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" (2006), "Elysium" relies on a protagonist who isn't puffed up with bravado, the way a prototypical Tom Cruise hero tends to be in these kinds of stories. Damon has true regular-guy appeal, and while she hasn't enough to play, Alice Braga (as his childhood sweetheart) matches up well with Damon's man on the run. I like Blomkamp's casting; we're spending time with a multinational array of interesting faces and voices. The future according to "Elysium" may rest on the shoulders of a bankable, likable American movie star, but he's fighting for something larger than himself.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Elysium' - 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language throughout)

Running time: 1:49

Opens: Friday