If his directing career ever dries up (not likely), Neill Blomkamp could make a killing in the merchandise biz: Dystopia R Us, featuring rusted toaster ovens, custom graffitied bathroom fixtures, tattered T-shirts, and temporary tattoos.
In Elysium, Blomkamp's rabble-rousing sci-fi allegory, Earth is a wasteland. It's the mid-22d century, and the whole world is the Third World: shantytown sprawl; high-rise ruins; a planet that is, we're told, "diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated."
It's as if the squalid precincts of Johannesburg depicted in the South African filmmaker's 2009 debut, District 9, had spread everywhere. Blomkamp, handed a bigger budget and a big movie star to go with it - Matt Damon, shaven-headed and angry - paints a canvas of epic decay.
Among the slew of recent futuristic hell-in-a-handbasket spectacles, Elysium takes the cake.
And while the teeming and miserable masses eke it out on terra firma, orbiting up there in the sky is the giant, gleaming hubcap known as Elysium, where the elite live in elegant McMansions, swim in endless-horizon pools, partake of gourmet feasts, and, of course, speak French. This is the ultimate gated community: Wealthy expats from Earth stroll their sumptuous grounds and strike their supermodel poses, and if a shuttle ship crammed with illegals breaches the perimeter, Secretary of Defense Delacourt (a suitably officious Jodie Foster) orders it blasted beyond what's left of the ozone layer.
And if, by chance, a band of dirty immigrants makes it onto Elysium's surface, deportation is immediate. An army of droids makes sure of that.
There's nothing subtle about Blomkamp's message in Elysium, which finds our hero, Damon's Max, outfitted with an "exo-suit" that turns him into the combat equal of the droids. He's got a hard drive screwed to the back of his skull, and he's got five days to make it from Earth to Elysium. Thanks to a mishap at work - he's on the assembly line at a droid plant, and he's been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation - that's all the time he has.
Unless, that is, he can get himself onto one of those Elysium medical bays: They look like tanning pods and can re-atomize your body, curing you of cancer, warts, and bad breath. No one is sick on Elysium.
There are plot complications: Frey (Alice Braga), a hospital nurse Max has known since they were children, has a child of her own, a daughter with leukemia. And Secretary Delacourt has Kruger (Sharlto Copley, District 9's Afrikaner eviction officer), a madman enforcer with a posse of mercenaries, chasing Max down. Delacourt has a plan, too, in cahoots with snooty industrialist John Carlyle (William Fichtner), to usurp the presidency. A program that would reboot Elysium's computer systems - a coup d'etat in cybercode - is the movie's MacGuffin.
Thumping and thrilling, Elysium takes its Haves vs. Have Nots parable seriously. There's not much in the way of comic diversion here, although Blomkamp pokes fun at the weary indifference of government bureaucrats by turning them into funhouse automatons - literally.
Yes, the inevitable climactic square off between Max and Kruger slips into the Hollywood generic - haven't we just seen all this head-bashing, hanging-from-catwalks, mixed-martial-arts mayhem in The Wolverine and Iron Man 3? But as summer movie sci-fi extravaganzas go, Elysium is easily the best thing out there right now.
And the bleakest, too.
Elysium *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp. With Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copely, Alice Braga, and Diego Luna. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: R (intense action, violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters