Getting overtly progressive big-budget films made in Hollywood isn’t always an easy thing to do, and successfully marketing them is even more difficult. Neill Blomkamp deserves a fair amount of credit then, not only for Elysium‘s existence, but for crafting a film capable of being marketed to a wide audience. Just last year, even though it was a far greater film, Cloud Atlas failed spectacularly at the U.S. box office, so Elysium‘s debut at #1 is nothing to sneeze at. However, while the film hits many of the right notes, especially in the first half, it fails to be the Science Fiction masterpiece it could have been.
Elysium‘s basic premise is that in the next century Earth’s wealthiest citizens flee the planet due to overpopulation and disease. They build themselves a “habitat,” as it’s repeatedly called by the principal villain, played in chilling fashion by Jodie Foster, called Elysium. It’s a massive space station which orbits Earth, complete with its own artificial atmosphere and lush gardens encircling perfectly manicured estates, far out of reach of the unsightly poverty stricken people below.
The film succeeds in depicting an extreme class division that accurately describes the brutal unfairness inherent in capitalist society. It’s a system in which the wealthy profit off the labor of the masses, hoard an ever increasing percentage of the total wealth, and then barricade themselves in mansions, protected by gates and a growing police state. Elysium simply takes the horrible reality already manifesting itself across the globe to its next logical step. When fleeing to the suburbs is no longer a viable option, space becomes the final refuge of the elite seeking to put distance between themselves and the people they exploit for profit. Elysium, the “habitat” for the elite, is the ultimate gated community.
In the film, which takes place in 2154, the whole of Los Angeles has become a massive slum, but it should be noted that there are already many places on Earth much worse than anything shown in Elysium. Point being, while Blomkamp certainly gets the point across, he could have taken the poverty depicted in the film much further and still been within the bounds of plausibility.
Elysium‘s perfectly integrated special effects shine brightest in the opening sequences. It’s clear that Blomkamp hasn’t lost his flair for building future worlds with an amazing sense of physical authenticity since his feature debut, District 9 (2009). The movements of the robotic cops are completely natural and life-like, making their vicious brutality all the more visceral, which allows the film to bring into focus the true role of the police under capitalism with unflinching clarity. They are agents of oppression who enforce the divide between the rich and the poor, and the film gets this exactly right.
Max, the film’s main character, played by Matt Damon, is beaten by the android police, his arm broken, simply because he told a harmless joke while being questioned about the contents of his backpack while on his way to work. The poor and working classes have to know their place, and a police baton to the skull is a crude but effective method used by the elite to maintain the established order. The lesson: don’t step out of line and don’t question your place, or else.
This lesson is applied even more harshly when a group of Earthlings aboard pirate shuttles attempt to make their way to Elysium’s high-tech healthcare pods, which can cure everything from broken bones to cancer in a matter of seconds. Elysium is protected by Delacourt (Foster), who serves as the sanctuary’s secretary of defense. She orders the shuttles shot down without hesitation. Life preserving technology is reserved only for those who can afford the luxury, and those who can’t are dealt with swiftly.
Max is badly injured while working his job in a factory, ironically building the robotic police force which oppresses his class, and he’s given a grim prognosis. With only days to live, he and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) seek out a local smuggler in the hope of buying a ticket to Elysium, where his life could be saved with the help of a medical pod.
Though while the opening sequences of the film lay the foundation for the possibility of a truly radical conclusion, Elysium ultimately falls short of this potential. Rather than taking the plot in a direction in which Max fights for the liberation of all people of Earth, Blomkamp’s story is one of self preservation. Max wants to get to Elysium only to save himself. This isn’t to say that Max isn’t generally a pretty good guy, or that he isn’t respected by his peers, but it is a reflection of the way people are taught to think under capitalism.
Max makes a deal with the smuggler and agrees to hijack information from an Elysium citizen’s brain in exchange for passage to Elysium. The job goes badly wrong, but the information is successfully downloaded into Max’s brain. And the rest of the film is a highly entertaining chase between Max and a ruthless former government agent named Kruger who has been dispatched by Delacourt to stop the fugitive at all costs.
During the action, Max protects his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse who has a young daughter dying of cancer. As children Max promised to take her to Elysium, but now she wants to get there so she can cure her daughter.
Elysium is definitely a progressive film. It’s obvious from its depiction of extreme class division that Blomkamp is attempting to make a point, not only about where society is heading, but about our world as it is now. Science Fiction has always been a genre that allows for the expression of political ideas through metaphor and allegory, and Elysium, like District 9 before it, is no exception. But Elysium fails to bring home the message that is really needed right now.
It focuses on an individual who aspires to the lifestyle of the elite. His whole life he’s wanted membership in their exclusive club, and he’s lived a life of crime looking for his way to the mountain top. Max was never a Robin Hood figure who fights on behalf of the poor and oppressed, he’s merely been searching for his ticket out of poverty. His life-threatening accident on the job only adds urgency to the quest he was already undertaking.
And in order for Max to accomplish his goal he unites with a band of smugglers and mercenaries, rather than rallying the masses to rise up and overthrow their oppressors once and for all. Elysium could have gone in such a direction, not only getting to the root of the problem, but showing a truly righteous course of action to overcome it.
It’s also disappointing that the film depicts such stereotypical gender roles. Max is the strong warrior who protects his woman, while Frey is cast exclusively in the role of nurturing mother. And Delacourt, the apparently childless power hungry totalitarian, serves as the negative contrast to Frey’s nurturing motherhood. Delacourt represents the wrong kind of woman, while Frey is upheld as the good kind who gets protected by the male hero.
In much more radical fashion, James Cameron’s Avatar envisioned a technologically inferior people not only resisting an invading capitalist-imperialist force, but soundly defeating them, and it sent a clear message about the type of revolutionary struggle that needs to be waged, including a breakdown of traditional gender roles. Neytiri is every bit the warrior Jake Sully is.
Had Blomkamp chosen to embrace that same revolutionary spirit, Elysium could have potentially surpassed Avatar in terms of political importance. It’s set here on Earth and features actual human beings struggling to survive under the very same system that rules over us right now. It’s a very entertaining film, but imagine how powerful and inspiring Elysium could have been to millions around the world had it actually shown the development of an authentic revolutionary movement here on Earth, especially one that successfully topples an unjust system based on exploitation that results in extreme class division.