2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke posited that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's a thought that must've emboldened writer-director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) as he set to work on his science-fiction actioner Elysium, which hinges on a piece of seemingly magical technology.
For the sake of the parable (and the gun battles and the explosions), audiences will have to accept the existence, in 2154, of "med bays" that can heal anything short of physical obliteration. These med bays are the pride of every home on Elysium, a Kubrickian, spic-and-span Stanford torus space habitat for the 1% that spins serenely above a ruined Earth. But the way this technology fits into Blomkamp's futuristic dystopia isn't a logical conclusion (why the wholesale denial of the technology from the 99% when it's such a powerful incentive?), and it raises questions for which he has no time (since any sign of old age has effectively been eliminated, is there population control? sterilization or mandatory death at a certain age?).
But forget all that. Guns! Okay, okay, let's meet Elysium where it lives. In a galvanizing performance that reminds us why he's a movie star, Matt Damon plays Earth-bound Max da Costa, a Los Angeles car thief on parole. Max makes his living "on the line" at the factory of missile-defense outfit Armadyne. He's trying to keep his head down, but not hard enough (the stop-and-frisk robots on his way to work don't get his humor). Max has long held a dream of one day escaping the slums of Earth and relocating to Elysium, having promised to his childhood sweetheart Frey that he would take her there one day. But the heat is on when Max gets a lethal dose of radiation at work: if he doesn't get to Elysium in five days, he's dead.
At the hospital, Max bumps into Frey (Alice Braga) for the first time in decades (what, he never looked her up? Sorry—guns!). Turns out Frey has a daughter in the final stages of leukemia, so Max would be a really big jerk if he didn't find a way to get them all up to that gleaming wheel in space. His only way there is to lean on space-coyote Spider (Wagner Moura), who outfits Max with an body-boosting exoskeleton and embroils him in a plot to hijack brain-data, the victim of choice being Armadyne CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner).
Serendipitously, Carlyle's brain just now holds "the keys to the kingdom," which raises the stakes for the high and low populations. Max thus puts himself on the radar of Elysium’s politically ambitious Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster, employing a meandering accent), who sics on him her off-the-books junkyard-dog Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley of District 9). Blomkamp's taste for overstatement can be seen in his casting and direction of the eye-bulging likes of Copley and Moura, who only put Damon's valuably grounding psychological realism into greater relief.
As in his calling-card debut, Blomkamp uses science-fiction allegory as a vehicle for action and artfully convincing special effects. Elysium tells a tale that literalizes "class warfare," depicting the illegality of immigration as heartless and the willful ignorance of solvable squalor (including sweatshop labor conditions) as the ultimate sin. There's a tough-mindedness there that's admirable, even if it's preaching to a mall-multiplex choir. But one wishes Blomkamp were less concerned with his Halo-style run-and-gunning and more interested in the subtler repercussions of such a society.