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The underlying social critique in Elysium is heavyhanded, but timely. The one-percenters won’t be amused, but those of us in the 99 might recognize a dystopian world shaped by our deepest fears.

White Flight

Spider plants a bug in Max
Spider plants a bug in Max

You’ve heard of “white flight,” the phenomenon whites leaving the cities for the suburbs. In Elysium, the wealthy have made the ultimate white flight, leaving the polluted surface of Earth to live on a paradisiacal gated community of a space station 20 minutes away. At least Elysium says we are post-racial, but that doesn’t mean we’re post-tribal.

Up there, they dress in designer suits, live in Spanish-style tropical mansions, and speak a little French with their English. Down here, people don’t shower, they live in third-world style high density slums, and they speak a little English with their Spanish.

A Matter of Life and Death

Our blue-collar protagonist is Max, played by a beefy Matt Damon. Max is no thug. He’s disturbingly humble — submissive, even — in the face of the robotic bureaucracy that runs his life. His boss docks him half a day’s pay for being late, and he accepts it with gratitude. When his boss tells him to enter a radiation chamber to unstick the machinery, he hesitates only a little before the boss’ threat makes him risk his life. Sure enough, the worst happens — Max gets a lethal dose of radiation. He’s given some pills and told — by the same robot who’s firing him — that he can expect to die in 5 days’ time.

Max’s backstory is dominated by Frey, a girl he grew up with, now a nurse (played by Alice Braga) who has a young daughter with leukemia. Max and Frey dreamed of one day being part of the elite who got to live on that beautiful disc hanging in the sky.

Max is smart and has long been coveted by Spider (Wagner Moura), the greasy but likeable black-market fixer whose most-requested item is a ticket to Elysium, complete with a forged citizenship scar database record. When Max finds out he has five days, he agrees to finally work for Spider to try to get that ticket.

Because the big difference between the haves and have-nots is health insurance. Up there, they have reconstructive machines — one in every house — that can cure not just broken bones but even the most subtle of diseases including cancer and radiation poisoning. Down here, we have the Stephen Colbert insurance plan: a tourniquet, a bottle of Night Train, and a bite stick.

Elysians and Earthlings

We only meet a couple of Elysians. Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, a coldly ambitious politician who sees herself in a higher office. William Fichtner plays Carlyle, an executive in the company where Max works making the robot cops who hassle him on his way to work. Carlyle is slumming it on Earth for a few days to try to turn around the production problems at the factory. And Kruger (Sharlto Copley), while not an Elysian, is nevertheless a sadistic badass working covert operations for Delacourt.

The various forces all come together in a scheme of Spider’s, using Max to steal information from Carlyle — including an encoded program that will help Delacourt become president of Elysium. She sends Kruger to intervene, giving Max enough to do to fill an action movie of this size.

Solid, but Flawed

Elysium lacks the surprising bite of writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Maybe that’s because expectations are higher this time around. Maybe it’s the film’s one-dimensional flashbacks and heavyhanded exposition that set up the film’s universe. Still, if I were a teenager just discovering movies, Elysium would probably be an immediate favorite. It’s exciting, morally meaningful, and intricately plotted enough to withstand repeated viewings. But looking from the other side of my 20s, it’s easier to see the flaws. A free example: Spider is not able to crack the most sophisticated cryptography available, but he is somehow able to determine what the unencrypted program would do, just by glancing at part of it.

If you’re not jaded about action movies and can let yourself get swept up, go see Elysium and enjoy, even if it’s not perfect.

And If your last name is Romney or Koch, best to stay home behind those gates and watch something less hostile to your interests.