Four years ago, first-time director Neill Blomkamp put a spin on a basic sci-fi conceit and turned it into a parable about apartheid in his native South Africa. A low-budget indie film, "District 9" was not only a surprise box-office hit, but it also earned an Oscar nomination for best motion picture.
Now, Blomkamp is back with his second film, and once again, he has turned a classic bit of sci-fi business (the dystopia with a simmering undercurrent of class conflict) into an allegory through which to comment on modern politics and social failings.
But "Elysium" has a much bigger budget and big-name stars and was made under the studio system -- which may not have worked out for the best. It is not as razor-sharp or as wonderfully surprising as "District 9," although it can hardly be called a complete failure. A disappointment, perhaps, but not a failure.
In "Elysium," it's 2154, and Los Angeles -- all of Earth, for that matter -- is not the kind of place you'd want to live. The City of Angels is a city of hell, a sprawling, polluted, overpopulated slum far worse than modern-day Sao Paulo or Mexico City (where the movie was filmed). There's precious little work, less food and even less medical care.
The rich and powerful? Oh, they have split for a sleek, futuristic space station where they live the good life and keep the riffraff on the planet below at bay. The station, Elysium, is only 19 minutes from Earth by shuttle, but for the huddled masses, it might as well be at the edge of the universe.
This kind of haves vs. have-nots future has been a staple of cinematic science fiction since Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" in 1927. But Blomkamp makes it a truly angry commentary on the arrogance of the 1 percent, restrictive immigration policies and the lack of universal health care.
About the only real work in the Los Angeles of "Elysium" is at the factories of the Armadyne corporation, which developed the space station and all the technology that runs and protects it. Elysium is overseen by a slimy CEO named Carlyle (William Fichtner).
One of Armadyne's workers is Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief whose dream is to one day buy a ticket to the paradise in the sky. But his life is completely altered when he is hit with a lethal dose of radiation at work, giving him only five days to live. His only hope is to get to Elysium, where any illness or injury can be cured in seconds.
For that, he needs the help of Spider (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura), a closet revolutionary who tries to sneak "illegals" from Earth onto the space station. Spider has a plan that involves turning Max into a walking computer, giving him a powerful exoskeleton suit of armor and sending him off to kidnap Carlyle. That doesn't work out as planned, but Max does end up with a download of critical technological data that could topple the government on Elysium.
Delacourt (Jodie Foster) -- the Elysium official charged with security -- is not pleased and unleashes her top agent, the mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley from "District 9") on Max and two innocents he's picked up along the way: his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her young daughter, who is dying of cancer.
For about two-thirds of "Elysium," Blomkamp seems completely in charge of his material, with striking representations of both the grim Los Angeles of the future and the space station, great use of special effects and potent takes on modern-day issues. But then his storytelling fails him, and what had been an absorbing thriller devolves into a standard issue slugfest between Max and Kruger. More important, the internal logic of the film seems to vanish to the point where Blomkamp never quite explains how access to Elysium will be salvation for the millions trapped on Earth.
Damon, as good as he is, never fully clicks as Max. Foster has an interesting character in Delacourt, but she eventually is pushed into a secondary role to Kruger. Copley is quite good as the killer, even with a thick South African accent that makes his dialogue almost intelligible at times.
You wish, though, that Blomkamp had made Kruger more multidimensional. At times, there are hints that Kruger is as much a victim of the Elysium oppression as Max, but it's never developed.
In fact, that may be the biggest problem with "Elysium." You never really get a sense of the people who populate the film -- whether they live on Earth or on the space station. In a more fully developed film, there would be shades of gray to this class conflict, rather than the black and white Blomkamp brings to his piece.
Still, for all its flaws, "Elysium" is an often-absorbing and largely entertaining film from a young director with a great future. That makes it worth seeing -- if not a complete success.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
* * ½
Rating: R (for violence and language)
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley and Alice Braga
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes