PICTURE LOS ANGELES as a slum. Okay, more of a slum. In Elysium, it's 2154, and the City of Angels has been worn down, burned out, and left to rot. A sprawling shantytown, Los Angeles' once-proud skyscrapers are crumbling shadows in the far-off distance, while everything else—from a dull, lifeless sky to warm, hazy water—is a tired, dusty brown. Scrambling through garbage and desperation, its residents scrape by on hard-packed, sun-baked streets, and every once in a while, one of them looks up: If the light is just right, they can see Elysium, a massive, elegant space station hanging above Earth. Like the rest of our worn-out planet, Los Angeles has succumbed to pollution and overpopulation, which means the few who were rich enough to escape did. Elysium is where they went: A haven for the one percent, it's a place where the air is clean and plants can grow and health care exists. For a privileged few, Elysium is home. For the rest of us schmucks it's a thing to look up at, deluding ourselves into thinking that one day we might get up there too.
For a generation for whom class mobility is a myth, it's easy to look at Elysium director Neill Blomkamp—who also made 2009's remarkable District 9—as the sort of filmmaker we need. He's also a difficult guy to nail down: as comfortable with guns, spaceships, and explosions as he is with political and social issues, he runs the risk of turning off both snobs ("Why'd he have to go and turn it into a dumb action movie at the end?") and idiots ("Why'd there have to be so much talking until he got to the action at the end?"). For those who can embrace both the visceral and the allegorical, though, Blomkamp seems aware of both the 21st century's overwhelming ills and the fantastical sort of catharsis we require to escape them, however briefly. Elysium deals with class mobility, health care, and immigration; it also crams in defense contractors, terrorism, police brutality, economic disparity, and ineffective governance. With each, Blomkamp trades subtlety for explosions and gore, which seems like an okay trade: Allegory is hardly required to pussyfoot around.
It's in Elysium's world-building first hour that it works best: We meet Max (Matt Damon, in ever-likeable action-hero mode), who grew up in Los Angeles' dead-end poverty and works a thankless factory job, making the same robot policemen that occasionally beat him up. We also meet Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Elysium's viciously pragmatic chief of security; Max's childhood BFF, Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse in a grimy, overwhelmed hospital; and Kruger, a gleeful, furious, psychotic mercenary (a gleeful, furious, fantastic Sharlto Copley). When Max realizes he'll die if he doesn't get to Elysium ASAP, the guns come out.
Even if Elysium can't match District 9—unlike Blomkamp's lean, mean debut, Elysium's ambition can't help but widen its scope, thus weakening its punch—it still ramps up as a consistently entertaining, unpredictable, bloody experience. It's part action movie, part heist flick, and part PBS NewsHour. That's a potent cocktail, which I guess makes Blomkamp the sort of bartender who'll make you a hell of a drink. A drink that, for better or worse, you won't be able to forget the next morning.