“Elysium” has been called a “socialist” blockbuster, thanks to a plot that finds a group of impoverished earthlings rising up to take on a group of 1-percenters who luxuriate on a posh space station without a care in the world.
Star Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp insist the film, which opened last week, has no political message, but it’s clear that “Elysium” has more on its mind than popcorn.
Nor is it alone in using the science-fiction genre to raise questions about social, environmental or political issues. Here are 10 films that don’t ask audiences to check their brains outside the multiplex.
What was brainy: Few action movies draw on Plato’s allegory of the cave, Buddhist teachings and the work of theorists such as Jean Baudrillard to cook up a futuristic world in which machines have created a simulated reality in order to control humanity. College courses sprang up to dissect its layers of meanings.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: Somebody forgot to tell Keanu Reeves to drop the surfer voice.
What was brainy: Steven Spielberg’s thriller focused on a police force that uses psychics to arrest criminals before they commit crimes. The film asks troubling questions about free will and seems to anticipate law enforcement debates involving issues such as stop-and-frisk tactics and the widening expansion of government surveillance.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: The big “reveal” is a howler, and the ending suffers from Spielberg’s addiction to syrup.
What was brainy: In the hands of idiosyncratic auteur David Cronenberg, “The Fly” became a meditation on the horrors of aging, with many critics drawing parallels between the slow dissolution of the mad scientist played by Jeff Goldblum and the AIDS epidemic.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: There are a few cheap shocks, but the real sin was the moronic sequel — made without Cronenberg.
What was brainy: Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a visual feast that did more to establish the look and feel of contemporary science fiction than perhaps any other film. Tucked inside this piece of futuristic noir is a penetrating fable that raises questions about artificial intelligence, the environment and religion.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: Scott apparently spent more time getting the lighting right than coaxing a compelling performance out of a somnolent Harrison Ford.
What was brainy: Before “Jurassic Park,” most moviegoers were blissfully ignorant of DNA — but not after watching a group of hungry dinosaurs munch on some hapless park visitors.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: Yes, the film wrestled with issues involving cloning, but most of the screen time was spent following folks as they desperately tried to avoid becoming raptor feed.
What was brainy: Don Siegel’s low-budget Cold War film about alien pod people taking over the planet is often viewed as an allegory for the dangers of both communism and McCarthyism. Its most dazzling feat may have been sneaking this send-up of the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” era into the mainstream.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: The ending strikes an optimistic note that seems out of place with the rest of this bleak little yarn.
What was brainy: Christopher Nolan investigates the architecture of dreams in this thriller about a gang of thieves who raid their targets’ subconscious for information. It’s a bold examination of the thin line between imagination and reality and something of a comment on the craft of moviemaking. (Just don’t ask us to explain what exactly it’s saying.)
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: Boy, it’s confusing, but the need for CliffsNotes seems to have as much to do with gaping plot holes as it does with its dense story line and any grand ambitions.
What was brainy: Yes, the ape costumes look cheesy. But the original Charlton Heston film served as a warning to a world in the throes of nuclear brinkmanship.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: The film has been parodied so often in everything from “Spaceballs” to “The Simpsons” that it can be unintentionally funny at points.
What was brainy: Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinatory view of space travel is a journey into the mysteries of creation. Set to classical music, nearly devoid of dialogue and filled with balletic sequences in zero gravity, the film builds slowly, but its pacing is deliberate. It never spells out its themes and is one picture that truly rewards repeat viewings.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: Honestly, nothing. Some viewers may find it dull, but they would be hard-pressed to claim it is dumb.
What was brainy: Even before “Elysium,” Blomkamp was interested in using the structure of a science-fiction film to explore issues of inequality. In this dystopian future, an alien race is interned in a Johannesburg slum. The film’s documentary style, setting and plotting evoke everything from the apartheid era in South Africa to the United States’ tortured relationship with migrant workers.
What fell a few IQ points short of intelligent: The movie wants to be about ideas, but its finale is a fairly standard shoot-’em-up.