[7 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In Greek mythology, Elysium is the place at the ends of the earth to which certain favored heroes were conveyed by the gods after death. You can call it Heaven or Nirvana, Valhalla or Utopia, but the meaning is very clear. This is a place for the hallowed and the privileged, the preferred and the elite. In South African auteur Neill Blomkamp’s anticipated follow-up to his surprise Oscar nominee District 9, Elysium is the name of a space station rotating far above a depleted and decimated Earth. The 1% have taken their technology and McMansion up into orbit, leaving the rest of the planet to fend for itself, and while workers slave to provide this paradise with all the resources its needs, they themselves are left to eek out a meager existence in what can best be described as one massive third world slum.
We are thrust into this world with no backstory, no simple explanation about how things came to this. There is a title card explaining how our future Earth becomes overpopulated and polluted, but there is no indication of why Elysium was built other than as a pet project for everyone wealthy enough to make it so. Think of it as a restricted community with star gates.
Early on, we meet the orphaned Max DeCosta (eventually played by Matt Damon). He’s a sad little boy with dreams of living far off above the clouds. His best friend is Frey (as an adult, Alice Braga) who has ambitions of her own. Fast forward twenty years, and he’s an ex-con struggling to escape his past while working a dead end job in a robot factory. She’s a nurse, but also dealing with a daughter dying of leukemia. For them Elysium is escape. For Frey’s child, it’s also salvation.
You see, up there, among the tailored clothing and beautiful people, there are machines that can instantly cure you, rendering someone virtually immortal. Cancer, crow’s feet, a crick in your back, a missing face… with one push of a button (and mandatory status as a “citizen”) and science 140 years from now makes it all better. For those living down below, this is the last straw. Not only does the population of Elysium rob the needy of their only means of survival, but they horde hope as well.
Such a situation has created a black market immigration operation run by Max’s old crime boss Spider (Wagner Moura), though most of their attempts at landing on the station are thwarted by the cold, calculating bureaucrat in charge of Elysium’s defense, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Working with the inventor of the habitat’s protocol, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), she wants to control everything about the place, including who’s in power.
Thus Blomkamp has set things up for another sublime slice of sci-fi social commentary, complete with recognizable realities circa 2013. He’s positioned his hissable Haves high above the lowly Have Nots and turns Max’s need to get to Elysium into every Neo-Con’s pro-socialism nightmare. Instead of boot straps, our almost dead hero (he barely survives a radiation accident where he works, a plant owned by Carlyle) pulls himself up by an unique exoskeleton fused to his nervous system. In exchange for this powerful device, Max agrees to help Spider infiltrate Elysium once and for all, grabbing his boss’s pass codes directly from the storage cloud in his brain. Delacourt, already plotting with Carlyle, sends her most lethal agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley) out to make sure nothing happens to him.
While it sounds like the standard elements of a Summer season tentpole, Elysium is much more than this. It’s more dangerous, more thoughtful, more provocative in what it spells out and what it leaves unclear. There are no sequences of mass exposition, no attempt to explain away everything that happens and every item Damon and company come in contact with. Take the exo-suit. We get why a human would need it. It provides both an offensive and defensive advantage against the mechanized security forces both on Earth and in the sky. But where did it come from? Why does Spider have one? Who were our are still using them before 2154? Thankfully, there’s no dialogue about a Great War or the legions of soldiers who bravely fought against some kind of robot uprising.
No, like most of Elysium, it’s a mystery, a piece of genuine intrigue that requires something few summer movies mandate: thought. Indeed, the film is filled with elements that tax one’s brain, requiring a kind of mental manipulation of expectations and established ideas. Unlike District 9, which spelled out its race relations allegory in broad if still believable strokes, the premise here is the only part of this movie that screams an agenda. The rest is a tricky combination of allusion, the obvious, and the strange. The whole brain implant aspect, straight out of a William Gibson cyberpunk epic, is a mere throwaway. Food, water, transportation, and the various languages spoken all argue for a world not much different than ours. Then Blomkamp twists things ever so slightly, and suddenly, we see our own situation in a totally different light.
Foster’s desire to cannibalize her caretakers, Fichtner’s disgust with being down on Earth with the working scum, Max’s easy connections to both the good and bad of his social setting, the weird, almost Verheoven like parole officer are all reflections of now, not what lies ahead. We live in a time when the elites scream “Freedom” as they fleece the Middle Class out of anything remotely close to the American Dream, and Elysium reflects that in both blatant and far more subtle ways.
Take the looks on the citizens’ faces when a ship crash lands along their beautifully manicured lawns and gardens. Squirm as Foster feigns respect for those she is plotting against. It’s like watching the Nightly News magnified against a surreal though strangely recognizable setting. Science fiction from decades before lacked a certain level of multicultural recognition. Elysium takes it to extremes, making the Earth seem so color blind that the space station becomes the very definition of white flight (though it too has a discernible diversity).
Unfortunately, District 9 becomes a bit of an albatross for Blomkamp here, fans flocking to theaters to see something similar in tone and originality is being offered here. The latter exists in visually stunning spades. One look at Elysium itself and you’ll be hoping that someone gives Blomkamp the cash to take over for David Fincher on his long gestating adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. The former, however will be wildly absent. District 9 more or less spoon-fed its ideas to audiences, the parallels clearly defined and the resolution ambiguous.
Here, the ending is set and concrete. Everything else is up for speculation, which, according to author Harlan Ellison, is the preferred approach to this kind of fiction. It may not be nominated for an Oscar, but Elysium stands as a triumph for those who think sci-fi is nothing more than dumbed down dogfights in space. It’s the cinematic version of the place where favored heroes lie.