The first thing you notice about Elysium is that it looks fan-freaking-tastic. It has just the right blend of gloss and gross, a smooth sleek tomorrow with just enough scuffs and scrapes to look as if people actually live there, not just pass through one set on to the way to the next. Its 2154 Los Angeles looks like Blade Runner’s 2019 LA in daylight, just with Latinos instead of Asians.

Max DeCosta is born into this world, an orphan raised by kindly sisters in a humongous group home. He meets another castaway, Frey, who becomes his BFF. He promises one day to take her to Elysium, the wheel-in-space orbiting high above them where the rich live after fleeing the polluted, overcrowded Earth. There is no more middle class, just the Haves and the Don’t Even Haves, an underclass so under they have fewer rights than the robots they build in high-tech sweatshops. Elysium is more than just a pie-in-the-sky dream for the Earthbound, it represents life itself: Elysium’s miraculous medical bays can cure anything short of death itself. But they’re only available to “citizens” and the only citizens in 2154 are the people who live on Elysium.

When Max is fatally injured in an industrial accident, he makes a deal with Spider, the tech lord who provides illegal passage to Elysium for a price. But Spider isn’t the only one wheeling and dealing; Delacourt Rhodes, the Secretary of Homeland Security on Elysium, feels new leadership is in order, and she has a plan, as does Kruger, the mercenary she sometimes employs to “do what needs to be done.”

Elysium was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the writer-director of District 9, the surprise hit nominated for an Academy Award in 2009. Blomkamp does a tightrope walk in both films, exploring big themes while keeping the story small. The common element in both stories, their big theme, is class warfare. The small element is they’re really about “just a guy,” not even the “average” guy but someone below that, who becomes collateral damage in the world in which he lives. He’s not trying to save that world, he’s just trying to save his own butt. They’re not really “bad” guys but they’re not exactly Boy Scouts, either.

Max is a reformed criminal, his wrongdoing produced more by circumstance than intent. Yet his anger lies just beneath the surface, and it’s not very deeply hidden. And when things get personal, he’s not above looking out for himself, even at the expense of an old friend. But in the end, despite the blows life has dealt him, he finds the “inner Max,” the one he was before life taught him fairy tales don’t always have happy endings.

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