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Movie Review/’Elysium’ good summer sci-fi despite heavy political overtones

Christopher Lawrence
Christopher Lawrence

If Ann Coulter’s head hasn’t exploded from rage by the time you read this, it’s surely only a matter of time.

In “Elysium,” the Third World — i.e., the entire world — struggles to survive in filth while the wealthy live above it all, quite literally, on the luxurious outer-space colony of the title.

Every so often, a desperate, ragtag band of the unwanted, complete with fake citizenship documents, will attempt to sneak into Elysium, lured by the promise of a better life and, most importantly, unlimited free health care.

In one scene, several of Elysium’s lily-white citizens flee in horror from a group of recently arrived brown-skinned “illegals,” who are summarily rounded up by force and deported. Assuming they survive their encounters with the border patrol.

“Elysium” is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them.

It’s too bad, really, because otherwise, the grim, grimy tale from “District 9” writer-director Neill Blomkamp is a quite good — excellent by this summer’s standards — rough-and-tumble sci-fi tale of the haves vs. the have-nots.

In 2154 Los Angeles, ex-con Max (Matt Damon) gets by as best as he can making robots on an assembly line. Roughed up on his way to work by a pair of robocops, he reconnects at the hospital with Frey (Alice Braga), his childhood sweetheart from their days in an orphanage when they dreamed of escaping to Elysium.

After that brief bright spot, Max’s day grows progressively worse. He’s subjected to a lethal dose of radiation at work and given meds and five days to live before being sent home by John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the company’s heartless CEO, who doesn’t want Max’s impending death to mess up the sheets in sick bay.

Max’s only hope is to get to Elysium.

On the space station, hovering above Earth looking like a tricked-out rim from the glory days of “Pimp My Ride,” every McMansion is equipped with medical bays that can cure any ailment or disfigurement in seconds. The catch? They only work on citizens.

There’s hope, though, thanks to Spider (Wagner Moura), Max’s one-time partner in crime, who’s moved up to smuggling illegals into Elysium. The only way Spider will agree to get Max there, though, is if Max downloads vital information straight from an Elysium citizen’s brain into his.

The endeavor requires a bulky, metallic exoskeleton that’s screwed into his nervous system — a process that’s closer to a NASCAR pit stop than delicate surgery — making Max as strong as the robotic droids he’ll encounter along the way.

It’s one of the movie’s several enjoyable, decidedly low-tech touches. Despite its sophistication, the exoskeleton’s style is rudimentary at best. The fact that it’s put in place over Max’s filthy T-shirt and jeans only adds to the disconnect between the hardscrabble Earth and the pristine Elysium. Even Max’s graffiti-covered robotic parole officer looks like a relic from an ancient theme park — or the Johnny Cab driver from the original “Total Recall.”

Max unwittingly downloads plans for a bloodless, electronic coup through which Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), severe both in looks and political beliefs, would seize control of Elysium.

That scheme, involving a colonywide reboot, has the unintended power to make everyone on Earth a citizen of Elysium, ending the firmly entrenched class system once and for all. As a result, much of the movie involves Max being hunted by Kruger (“District 9’s” Sharlto Copley), Delacourt’s Earth-bound, off-the-books mercenary.

Damon and Foster class up the joint considerably, and Copley adds a unique dose of menace — even when “Elysium” enters its action-heavy “droid rage” segments.

The scenes in which Max and Kruger beat each other silly are only marginally more brutal than the heavy-handed way “Elysium” delivers its political message.

That likely will be the film’s legacy. And it’s a shame.

Because of all of the year’s movies involving a ruined Earth, and there have been several, “Elysium” is the best yet.

• • •

Christopher Lawrence is the movie reviewer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com

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