In the 22nd Century, Earth is overpopulated and polluted. People live in poverty, but the very rich and powerful live on Elysium, a space colony in Earth orbit. Homes are equipped with Med-Bays that cure all injuries and diseases, while those below die young. A laborer in Los Angeles named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is exposed to radiation at work. With only five days to live, he and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) hire a smuggler named Spider (Wagner Moura) to get him to a Med-Bay on Elysium.
When three immigrant ships attempt to enter Elysium, Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) orders Security Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot them down. The third makes it to Elysium, but everyone is deported or killed. The President of Elysium, Patel (Fran Tahir) orders Delacourt to fire Kruger, but she recruits Elysium-designer John Carlyle (William Fichtner) to program the computer to make her President. The program is in Carlyle’s brain and will kill anyone who tries to reverse it.
Spider agrees to take Max to Elysium if he steals the data from Carlyle, and Max is fitted with a powered exoskeleton. Max shoots down Carlyle’s ship, killing him. Delacourt reinstates Kruger and sends him to recover the program. Julio is killed and Max is wounded but escapes. His friend Frey (Alice Braga) will help him if he takes her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) to be cured of leukemia, but he refuses to expose them to the danger. Kruger takes Frey and Matilda as hostages and Delacourt orders a citywide lockdown.
Max delivers the program to Spider, who realizes it can make those on Earth Elysian citizens, eligible for Med-Bay use. Kruger’s ship leaves Earth, Spider and his men head toward Elysium. Kruger is injured and the ship is disabled. It crashes on Elysium, where Max, Frey, and Matilda are captured. Max is taken to Delacourt, who orders Frey and Matilda locked up and Max killed. Kruger is restored in Med-Bay and kills Delacourt. His team kills Elysian leaders and seizes control of the colony. Max kills Kruger’s men and frees Frey and Matilda.
He meets up with Spider, who takes Frey and Matilda to a Med-Bay and heads for the computer core to make everyone an Elysian citizen. But they are ambushed by Kruger in a more powerful exoskeleton. Max kills him in a battle, activates the life-saving program, and dies as a fleet of medical ships are launched to treat all the people of Earth.
The film was written, produced, and directed by Neill Blomkamp, after his highly successful District 9. It was a modest success and received positive reviews, though not as highly praised as his remarkable first movie. It was a box-office success, however. The scenes on Earth were shot in a dump in the Iztapalapa District of Mexico City. Those on Elysium were shot in the very wealthy Huixquilucan-Intercomas suburbs of the same city, and in Vancouver, BC. The futuristic designs were created by Philip Ivey, inspired by Syd Mead. The Elysium colony was based on the Stanford Torus design by NASA. Weta Workshop created the exosuits. Other special effects were by Image Engine, with the help of Industrial Light and Magic.
The production was sued for copyright infringement, but the studio won. Hell, I’ve been writing about the rich in orbiting colonies and the poor on a ruined Earth below since the Eighties. When I first read about Gerard K. O’Neill’s space habitats in the Seventies, my first thought was: What do they need Earth for? The Cloud-Minders episode of Star Trek aired in the Sixties. It’s hardly an original idea. Neill Blomkamp thought the idea had been good, but it was not what he had been hoping for. Matt Damon shaved his head and worked out religiously for the role. Blomkamp’s favorite actor, Sharlto Copley, gave his director an American, an Eastern European, and a British version of Kruger, but they decided to make him a South African after all. The Civil Cooperation Bureau Kruger works for was a real intelligence agency during the Apartheid years.