I find myself somewhat ambivalent about Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. On the one hand, the movie displays all the creativity and resourcefulness you’d expect from the writer-director of District 9 (2009): fantastic digital effects that don’t look like digital effects, a gritty sense of splendour that Hollywood blockbusters eight times its budget can’t achieve, and far-out sociopolitical concepts that mirror our own. On the other, we also recognise some of the same pitfalls, such as an overreliance on shaky cam and a failure to formulate a consistent thesis with all its metaphors.
For instance, the term “Elysium” in Greek mythology refers to the eternal paradise to which the righteous and the heroic gain access in the afterlife. In Blomkamp’s film, it’s an artificial satellite where the world’s wealthiest have retreated, leaving the ninety-nine percent to man the factories and suffer global warming. Neither righteous nor heroic, the Elysians spend their days eating foie gras by the pool, allowing Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to launch space torpedoes at any undocumented immigrant. Also, they’ve got magic healing machines that they hoard to themselves because universal health care makes for another hot topic among American liberals.
Anyway, the plot of Elysium centers on Max, an earthbound Latino ex con played without irony by Matt Damon, as he tries to turn his life around and gets fatally injured because his foreman (Mike Mitchell) was trained at Apple. With only five days to live, he teams up with local smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura) to go off into space and hijack a healing machine. Their plan: drill a clunky exoskeleton onto our hero, kidnap a visiting leader of industry (William Fichtner), and download his memories so as to fake Elysian citizenship. Sure, why not?
I like the understated, matter-of-fact way Blomkamp presents these sci-fi elements. We get a few clever bits of symbolism, like the literally mechanical government clerks, but, for the most part, Elysium plays it straight, keeping the action grounded, albeit blurry, and the stakes relatable, owing in large part to Max’s myopic ambitions. Damon proves a perfect casting choice for a protagonist who must gain our sympathy despite never quite thinking the story through, alluding to a superficial mindset without coming off like a shallow construct.
Consider his reaction to the tale of the meerkat and the hippopotamus, as recounted by his ex’s leukemic daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay): “Stop right there. It doesn’t end well for the meerkat.” When the little girl explains that the hungry meerkat ends up reaching the apples by climbing atop the hippo, he asks, “I don’t get it. Why would the hippo let him do that?” The idea that our fatalist hero, Max, doesn’t understand altruism or cooperation at even its most basic level conveys more about the culture Blomkamp aims to satirise than the whole of Elysium.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. The same way Matilda’s fable skips over the fact that meerkats hang out in clans and can climb trees (also, they don’t speak hippo, so there), Elysium asks us to overlook a number of glaring inconsistencies in the mechanics of its universe. Why, for example, are the healing machines encoded to only treat Elysian citizens when anyone who even comes near the satellite nation gets blown out of the sky? By the same token, it seems to me the people of Earth could end their oppression by simply refusing to provide for Elysium, which doesn’t have the resources to subsist on its own.
These aren’t minor nitpicks. They’re symptoms of a narrative more concerned with hitting hot talking points than constructing a cohesive social argument. How else could one justify the depiction of Spider as a heroic figure when migrant smugglers are known in real life to exploit, abuse, and murder their clientele, or the casting of Chinese and Indian actors as Elysian officials exclusively when Asian countries are the most common victims of corporate colonisation? Blomkamp’s heart is in the right place, but I wish he’d invested as much thought in his politics as he did in his camera tricks. As it is, Elysium makes for an effective thrill ride but a lousy allegory.