If Jodie Foster had a mustache, it would be totally in character for her to twirl it in “Elysium,” which is nothing if not sci-fi melodrama.
There's no question who the good guys and the bad guys are in writer-director Neill Blomkamp's second feature-length sci-fi thriller, which follows his 2009 best-picture nominee “District 9.”
The movie's not subtle, but it is a pulse-pounder. Matt Damon and Foster know how to hook you into feeling something about these characters, so you won't much mind the black-white nature of it all.
Blomkamp cranks up the tension and keeps it cranked with one dire, life-threatening situation after another in this politically charged tale about where the divide between the haves and the have-nots could end up.
Damon gives a terrific performance as the lead underdog. In the year 2154, he's Max, an ex-con toiling at a dangerous, dead-end factory job on diseased, polluted, overpopulated Earth. Oppressive droids keep order among the downtrodden rabble.
The privileged class is literally above it all on Elysium, a huge orbiting space station with manicured lawns, swimming pools and machines that can heal nearly any malady in a matter of seconds. Its defense minister, Delacourt (Foster), thinks nothing of shooting down any approaching renegade shuttle full of desperate have-nots that does not have clearance to land.
A work accident causes Max to receive a fatal dose of radiation. He will die in five days, unless he can reach Elysium for medical treatment. He makes a desperate deal with Spider (Wagner Moura), an illicit shuttle runner, in exchange for a ride. It involves capturing highly classified computer files and downloading them into his head, which Spider hopes to use as blackmail against the system. Max's buddy, Julio (Diego Luna), reluctantly joins the fray.
The files come from a scummy defense contractor (William Fichtner), who has made a power-mad deal with the defense minister. Delacourt can't let those files get into the wrong hands.
Foster may be the ice-queen villain, but it's Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) who's her chief enforcer, a snarling nut-job mercenary (think “Mad Max”) hired against the orders of Elysium's president. Copley chews metal scenery.
Just to make everything a little more black-and-white desperate, Max crosses paths with a childhood friend he hasn't seen in years. Frey (Sonya Braga), a nurse, has a daughter with leukemia. She's also desperate to get to Elysium to save the doe-eyed kid.
For some reason, no matter how much high-tech gear surrounds them — and there's tons here — movies like this always come down to a mano-a-mano physical fight with horrible weapons. There are several in “Elysium.” There's also a bloody surgery scene as Max is fitted with limb-strengthening metal trusswork.
Still, the special effects are very cool, Damon is mesmerizing every moment he's onscreen, and the movie's silver-hammer message might get you talking about access to health care and how far politics tilt in favor of the rich.
It's one of the better tent-pole movies of the summer, a slam-dunk to make big bucks.