If District 9 advertised the artistry of which Blomkamp was capable with a relatively paltry $30 million budget, Elysium demonstrates what he can do with a Hollywood-sized bankroll. The world on display here is imaginative yet utterly convincing, from the battle-dinged security robots to the various transport ships (civilian, military, luxury) that ferry between Earth and Elysium, to the cityscapes of his future Los Angeles, a pan-American melting pot of post-urban decay. Elysium itself is a particular marvel, a revolving torus open to the "sky" on its inner edge, such that shuttles can glide directly into its atmosphere to land on the "surface." (Somewhere, one hopes, Ringworld author Larry Niven is nodding appreciatively.)
But if Elysium is a testament to Blomkamp's extraordinary skill as a visual filmmaker, it does not speak nearly so well for his gifts as a writer. The plot revolves around Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), an ex-con who now works in a plant that makes security bots. (Like Doug Quaid in last summer's forgettable Total Recall remake, he's manufacturing the means of his own oppression.) An industrial accident results in Max's exposure to a massive dose of radiation and as a result, he's given five days to live. Nor is he alone: the young daughter of his childhood best friend (Alice Braga) has leukemia, and her health, too, is declining quickly.
Luckily for both of them, although health care on Earth is scarce and low-tech, on Elysium every home has its own medical pod, capable of instantly healing virtually any condition--from broken bones to old age to (as we will learn) a face entirely blown off by explosives--by "re-atomizing" the patient. Moreover, a byproduct of the station's open-air design and near-total absence of defense mechanisms is that Earth refugees frequently commandeer shuttles to make uninvited visits, usually in search of medical treatment. These interplanetary illegals are subsequently rounded up and deported, but when the alternative is certain death from an illness that can be cured in seconds on Elysium, that's a decidedly minor disincentive.
So Max makes a deal with a local crime lord: He will kidnap a captain of industry (William Fichtner) in order to download information held in his brain, and in return he'll get a ticket on the next illicit flight to Elysium. To help with the gig, Max even has a powerful exo-skeleton grafted painfully onto his body. The intended kidnappee, however, turns out to be a pawn in a substantially larger scheme, and Max soon finds himself on the wrong side of Elysium's ambitious Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster, affecting an almost unidentifiable--maybe South African?--accent) and the brutal mercenary she employs on the ground (Sharlto Copley, the star of District 9, here much louder and more ill-tempered). Without going into details, very little of what follows--a plot to steal the Elysium presidency that makes the most extreme Diebold conspiracy theories seem tame, a computer virus more game-changing than any since Independence Day--makes even rudimentary sense.