By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Director Neill Blomkamp and leading man Matt Damon mostly want summer filmgoers to be completely entertained by the action-packed, sci-fi thriller "Elysium." But if the audience could also ponder the question of what to do about world poverty and inequality, well, that would be a bonus.
"Elysium," which opens this weekend, is not the typical light summer fare served up in big-budget Hollywood productions. And Blomkamp, the South African who made waves with his first feature, "District 9," is no typical director.
After all, he employed the alien invasion genre as a vehicle to explain xenophobia and segregation in South Africa, a novel concept that garnered four Oscar nominations in 2010, including best picture.
"Elysium" portrays two distinct worlds in the year 2154 - a diseased and overpopulated Earth, and Elysium, a space station where the elite live far from the seething masses in perfectly manicured mansions. Cancer can be cured in seconds on Elysium.
"Everyone who doesn't have that wealth wants it and will try to get it and the First World will probably try to hang on to it and it will get more dire," Blomkamp, 33, said in an interview. "What do you, as the audience member, think should be done?"
Damon plays Max, a blue-collar worker with a criminal past struggling with robot bureaucrats and policemen in his shantytown. He has given up on his childhood hopes of reaching Elysium when he suffers an industrial accident and needs to reach the First World's medicine to survive.
If the premise sounds far-fetched, Damon says not so much.
"If you look at the difference between the bottom billion people on planet Earth and the top 10 million, the contrast is as stark as living on a space station and living in a third world urban center," the actor said.
Max reluctantly makes a deal with an underworld lord to take him to Elysium, but in exchange he must undertake a mission that will can benefit not just him, but millions back on Earth.
Jodie Foster plays Delacourt, the Elysium defense secretary bent on keeping Max and all other illegal immigrants out. She employs her own covert force headed by rogue operative Kruger when the military can't keep up with invasions from Earth.
Delacourt's ways may remind viewers of certain Washington neo-conservatives, but Blomkamp says he took inspiration from French politician Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund. Foster emulates her blunt haircut, power suits and steely determination.
Blomkamp went outside Hollywood to round out the cast with well-known actors from Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, including Sharlto Copley, who starred in "District 9."
'POWDER KEG EXPLOSION'
As Max fights his way to Elysium, bloody battles and software warfare ensue, first on the dusty fringes of the dysfunctional city of Los Angeles and then in the sleek corridors of Elysium. Blomkamp employs the visual effects that made "District 9" stand out, with robot security forces disintegrating into the ether under withering hi-tech gunfire.
The director had a budget of around $115 million, nearly four times what he had for "District 9," but he said he only really needed to spend more money because he had to construct Elysium.
"Bringing the space station to life required mass resources," Blomkamp said.
The film comes at a crucial time for Sony Pictures Entertainment, a unit of Sony Corp, which is looking for summer box office success after high-profile flops like "After Earth" and "White House Down."
Sony's up-front costs for "Elysium" were pared by tying up with Media Rights Capital, which financed, packaged and produced the film.
The special effects, the ear-shattering action and the fantastical scenery fit the bill for a summer hit. But then it's back to the meaty question of where society is headed.
And there, director and star diverge.
As Blomkamp sees it, man is hard-wired since his days in the cave to protect what he has.
"We are smart enough to build the technology to make a globalized planet and we are not smart enough to get rid of ancient software that governs us," Blomkamp said. "Those two combined will yield a serious powder keg explosion that, in my opinion, is coming."
Damon, whose Max spends much of the movie in distress, is more sanguine than his director.
"He's pessimistic about the future and I am optimistic about the future," Damon said. "You take what message you will from the movie."
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Jim Loney)