Saucer drones patrol the skies, rail guns cut men to ribbons, robots enforce order, bullets seek their targets and exoskeletons confer superhuman strength and agility.

This is the Pretoria-punk world of director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, a big budget summer sci-fi action adventure where an ex-con played by Matt Damon tackles heavy social issues with a shaved head full of government secrets. Not to mention a rigged-up pneumatic supersuit.

Tablets, smart phones, tasers. The list of technological innovations first dreamed up in the minds of the science fiction writer is too numerous to recount here. Often the dream precedes reality, but that isn’t the case with Elysium. The tech in Elysium may seem far flung and magical — a panacea med-bed certainly is — but quite a bit of what’s on display in the movie, which hit theaters on Aug. 9, is either already here or just a few years away.

The exoskeleton, most notably, is more primitive than what’s already available.

Don’t mess with man-machine hybrids. TriStar Pictures capture

Exoskeleton

In order to combat the hordes of robots and government agents out to kill him, Matt Damon has an exoskeleton bolted to his irradiated body. He bleeds around the screws that hold the artificial extremities to his frame.

Powered exoskeletons? They already exist and we don’t even need to drill them into our skeletons.

In Japan two companies — Honda and Cyberdyne — are already leasing exoskeletons out to hospitals and homes. There are people undergoing physical therapy in exoskeletons right now.

But the elderly and infirm aren’t the only people to benefit from exoskeletons. Far from it. Lockheed Martin is developing an exoskeleton called HULC — or Human Universal Load Carrier which can let its wearer lift upwards of 200 pounds for lengthy periods. Lockheed Martin began testing the HULC with real soldiers in 2011. But the exoskeleton is still a research project, and HULC’s battery life while moving is limited.

Raytheon in in the game too, with it’s impressive-looking XOS2. The robo-suits are everywhere. Even the French military is working on a machine suit of its own.

TrackingPoint rifle. Robert Beckhusen photo

Magic bullets

One of the more unbelievable bits of science fiction nonsense is homing bullets. Damon wields an AK-47 that’s been upgraded to paint targets and fire without slowing down to aim. The villains’ weapons also all home in on their targets, from bullets to bombs to ninja stars.

But that’s just crazy right?

No. No it isn’t. Sandia National Laboratories, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, is developing laser-guided homing bullets effective from over a mile. The Army came close to fielding the XM-25, an advanced 25-millimeter grenade launcher. The grenades just needs to get near the target before exploding into shrapnel. But Congress, citing safety concerns and shoddy reliability, killed the program in June.

There’s even a company in Texas that sells a sniper rifle — to the public mind you — that does the hard work of aiming and adjusting for you and takes the shot when it feels it the time is right. The rifle has its own iPad app.

The Pentagon’s ATLAS robot. DARPA photo

Rail guns, Ospreys and robots

After an industrial accident early in the movie, Damon’s character Max is pulled to safety and given medical aid by a surly med-bot. A med-bot that looks a lot like BEAR, a support robot designed by Vecna Robotics for all manner of battlefield applications.

The mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) uses the ‘bot to hunt Damon across the city. How many do you want? There’s a company in Britain that would love to sell you some. The Pentagon’s advanced research agency, DARPA, is also working on humanoid robots which bear a close resemblance to the film’s deadly enforcer ‘bots.

Late in the movie, Damon grabs a Chemrail gun and uses it to slice apart his enemies. That’s a handheld model of a weapon the Navy is developing for use aboard their vessels.

Even the aircraft in Elysium resemble current tech. The planes zooming around trying to catch Damon look a lot like V-22 Ospreys with rockets instead of rotors. The V-22 is a vertical-lift aircraft commissioned by the Marines now ferrying around Bo, the First Dog.

But Elysium is really a story about fear and control. The technology is used to subjugate and separate, and writer-director Blomkamp knows that fear is more powerful when it perverts what already surrounds us. Science fiction is also effective as a cautionary tale about technology and what it could be used for — not necessarily what’s intended.

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