What Happens to the Human Body in 'Elysium'

Elysium is another allegory, a sharper, more finely honed story than District 9, with less leaden symbolism, still stamped with Neill Blomkamp's less admirable quirks.


Rated: R
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Talisa Soto, Diego Luna, Michael Shanks, Sonia Braga
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2013
Trailer: http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/elysium/trailer
US date: 2013-08-09 (General release)
UK date: 2013-08-21 (General release)

The first time audiences got a glimpse of what director Neill Blomkamp could do was in 2009’s modestly budgeted District 9. Its moral was hardly subtle, but its storytelling was effective, focused on the parallel between a population of alien refugees in South African townships and the abuses of apartheid. The film featured imaginatively crafted beasties and shooting aplenty, as well as an impressive performance by Sharlto Copley as a human accidentally and traumatically transformed into an alien.

Blomkamp's second film, Elysium, is another allegory, made for buckets more money and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The result is a sharper, more finely honed story with less leaden symbolism, still stamped with the filmmaker's less admirable quirks. It is again a tale of what happens to the human body when you modify it genetically and physically, and sometimes blast it apart with explosives or a shoulder-fired rail gun.

The year is 2154 and everybody still living on earth is having a miserable time. The Los Angeles where paroled car thief Max (Damon) ekes out a living as a robot-making factory worker looks like a congested favela. Instead of the dark alleyways and cloud-piercing skyscrapers of many dystopic noirs, this city is familiar to anybody who’s spent time in chaotic megacities like Lagos, Cairo or Mexico City, where Blomkamp shot much of his film. The onetime infrastructure is decimated, with overwhelmed social services, no civic government to speak of, randomly authoritarian robot-police, and a relentlessly hand-to-mouth existence. It’s ripe for revolt.

This possibility is of great concern for the elites who abandoned earth decades earlier for the orbiting space station Elysium. Or, at least it concerns those charged with maintaining the separation between realms. The cartoonish Elysium floats over earth, all pristine suburban McMansions, green swathes of lush parkland, medical pods that can instantly cure any illness, and citizens bearing tattoos to mark their exclusive status and wearing white and pastel outfits that wouldn’t last two minutes on the trash-choked and smog-dusted earth. When the greedy boss John Carlyle (William Fichtner), he winces at the harsh noises and smells, instructing workers to remove an injured fellow from his sight ("Get rid of him") rather than spend money or energy on medical treatment.

The script closes in quickly on the inevitable clash of classes. Desperate earth residents pile into rattletrap shuttles and make a mad dash into outer orbit towards Elysium, plainly alluding to today's immigration politics, Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean or Latin Americans dying in deserts. In Elysium, though, the refugees are killed purposefully by military forces whose edict is to protect the "homeland" that is not a land at all.

Just so, the station operates as a sovereign nation, with its own political officials. Their secretary of defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster, with a stilted accent of unclear provenance), has an answer for stopping the refugees. She keeps Kruger (Copley), a merc of uncertain sanity, located on earth. When the shuttles take off on their run, he lines them up in the sights of a surface-to-space missile launcher and blows them to pieces. It seems an imperfect line of defense at best, and one of several creaky plot mechanisms that undermine a generally engaging story.

When her aggressive tactics trouble a vaguely ethical president, Delacort resists his reprimand by keeping Kruger on the payroll for some surreptitious coup d’état work. At the same time, the once reform-minded Max is working with Spider (Wagner Moura), a sleazy outer-orbit coyote, to get up to Elysium for medical care. Not only did Max receive a lethal dose of radiation in a factory accident, but his childhood love Frey (Alice Braga) has a daughter with leukemia whom he wants to save. All that’s standing between them and new leases on life are thousands of miles of space and Kruger and his team of thugs.

Blomkamp’s sympathy for the earthbound rabble is palpable. He barely spends enough time on Elysium to note the plot-convenient medical pods and snooty garden parties (Foster shows off her French while sipping champagne and checking her every busy wrist-monitor), before getting back to the resilient street fighters and overworked doctors below. Max is genuinely likeable, if obviously fated, self-sacrificing and clever, as well as an action hero. But this bit of light is extinguished fairly quick by circumstances, when Max must be fitted with a “third-generation exo-suit” skeletal framework that’s sutured into his flesh and drilled into his bones, allowing him to plug straight into a database and remain upright longer than he might have.

Once Max makes it to Elysium, it's fight time, and here the film provides plenty of opportunity for he and Kruger to go at it. Little more than an itinerant psychopath, Kruger seems the sort of soldier who would kill civilians in a war zone for target practice. Stalking around under a cape and later inside his own souped-up exo-suit, he wields a samurai sword and a handheld force-field device with deadly ability; but for a lack of face paint, he could be Darth Maul with a reedy Afrikaans accent.

The movie's reliance on such worn-out pulp villainy consistently undercuts its narrative and more importantly, its politics. Instead of spending just a little more time developing Max and Frey’s relationship or building some kind of background for the people on Elysium, Blomkamp keeps retreating to the Tetsuo-like spectacle of humans breaking each other down, by mutilation or outright head-exploding, only to be reconstituted so they can go at it again. Elysium is tough-minded science fiction rooted in sociopolitical realities that set it apart from almost every other CGI-ed blockbuster. But its retreat into action-flick conventions keeps it from being truly revolutionary.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.