It's 2154. Earth has become an endless slum patrolled by robots. Matt Damon plays a man named Max, living in what's left of Los Angeles, conjuring ways to escape to a paradise in the sky.
It's a gigantic spoked satellite called Elysium, like a graceful extra moon just a short space shuttle flight away. Its inhabitants are all rich, intelligent and beautiful in mansions equipped with personal medical scanners to instantly cure them of any disease or infirmity.
No wonder Max wants to go there. Especially after he suffers a lethal dose of radiation that gives him only five more days to live.
Visions of humiliated victims herded into ghettos and factories by grotesque techno-beings will be familiar to audiences who saw "District 9," the breakout debut for "Elysium's" writer-director Neill Blomkamp. Born and raised in South Africa, "District 9's" futuristic, sci-fi allegory was camouflage for his feelings about the apartheid he had grown up with.
"Elysium" smolders with similar, barely concealed rage at injustice in a sci-fi world that looks uncomfortably familiar, now that Blomkamp has moved to Canada and has been embraced by Hollywood. Instead of racial prejudice, the barriers are drawn along economic lines this time - Elysium is for those who have; Planet Earth is where the have-nots live.
Damon, like Liam Neeson, belongs to the next generation of action heroes - the stoic, reluctant avengers. His testosterone is tempered with sensitivity and a good heart, but fueled with seething fury just under the surface at all wrongs done to him and humankind in Blomkamp's bleak dystopia.
Superbly playing his nemesis, Jodi Foster has ice in her veins as Elysium's perfectly coiffed, ruthless defense minister, orchestrating her own coup in a political system where power for its own sake is the only thing that matters.
As a revolutionary underground plots insurrection, and an arsenal of techno weapons keeps things exploding onscreen, "Elysium" displays Blomkamp's talent for distilling complex concepts into powerful cinematic images, relying on crisp action and editing as much as dialogue to tell his story.
The distinction between humans and machines blurs in the characters he creates, but heart and soul haven't entirely disappeared in the scary new world he creates. Tops at the box office, "Elysium" is also a cautionary warning for 1 percenters, a reminder that an island only provides the illusion of security and protection from the consequences of economic inequality, whether that island is in the sky or under our feet.
"Elysium" isn't out to save the world, but to change it. A different kind of film experience coming to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater on Friday has the same goal.
Called "Happy Day," it features 2-D and 3-D films dedicated to promoting happiness through the preservation of culture and the environment. The morning films - "Wild Africa" and an IMAX visit to the Grand Canyon at 10 a.m.; and "Cirque Du Soleil - Worlds Away" at noon are intended for family audiences on tomorrow's school holiday. Admission is free to those 12 and younger.
Other films are slated through the afternoon, before a live 7 p.m. presentation by pioneering Maui artist-scientist Dr. Gary Greenberg leading "A Three-Dimensional Journey into the Magical Microscopic World of Ordinary Things," followed by visionary German filmmaker Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D."
"Happy Day" is a fundraiser presented by Mental Health Kokua and the Angkor Wat International Film Festival, an event I'm affiliated with through my filmmaking activities with the Emmy-award winning Maui team of Tom Vendetti and Robert Stone.
We're trying to use film to change the world, too - but in a kinder, gentler direction, without slaying any robots or blowing anything up along the way.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.