By Steven Harrison Gibbs.
I should begin by stating that I do not regularly indulge in assessing the average narrative film with politics near the forefront of my mind. When it comes to film criticism, I prefer to place emphasis on other aspects that, at least for me, play a much greater role in determining the quality of a given film. However, every so often one will come along like writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort Elysium, in which the filmmaker’s political posturing is so unabashedly flagrant and so overwhelmingly boisterous that it becomes virtually impossible to ignore, and so I will reluctantly indulge to an extent. In doing so, this review will contain spoilers for most major plot points, including the ending (an approach I would otherwise avoid). With that said, it is in unfortunate contrast to his previous work, District 9 (2009), that Blomkamp’s Elysium is a film in which all subtlety is discarded, as the heavy-handed lecturing has been given such prominence that the story presented is a haphazard mess, riddled with glaring faults that the extensive suspension of disbelief regularly demanded of science fiction simply cannot abide.
Elysium is set in Los Angeles in the year 2154, where much of Earth has become a barren wasteland. The wealthiest of Earth’s citizens have fled the planet for Elysium – a giant space station constructed by the Armadyne Corporation. There they enjoy all the luxuries that their fortunes can afford, while the rest of mankind is left on Earth, impoverished and struggling. It is never explained in significant detail why Earth is in ruins except for “disease, pollution, and overpopulation,” (and crime, if you go by the official synopsis). The overpopulation of Earth, at least, becomes one of the films greatest ironies, as the nature of Los Angeles’ Spanish-speaking inhabitants would make open borders and amnesty among the most logical culprits. There appear to be few white men left (because the vast majority of them are rich and thus fled to Elysium, one supposes), with one exception being Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), who serves as the protagonist and—of course—the inevitable white savior that Hollywood cannot do without. Normally, the casting of anyone other than a non-white actor in such a role would attract the unrelenting ire of progressives, but this will ultimately be forgiven if for no other reason than that Damon is one of their own.
Blomkamp wants his viewers to sympathize with Max, to make them believe that he is a victim in a horribly unjust world, but this becomes increasingly difficult to do throughout the beginning of the film, as most of his misfortune is of his own doing. For a start, Max is a convicted felon on parole who while on his way to work is stopped by a pair of police droids (which have replaced humans in this and many other roles altogether) that question the contents of his backpack. His response is a sarcastic, “Hair products, mostly,” which results in a shattered wrist and having the contents of his backpack dumped on the ground. The brutality is meant to inspire disdain, yet one cannot help but wonder: what was Max expecting? These are not human beings, but automatons that are humorless by their very nature. I am reminded of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)—a better film than many would give credit—in which the protagonist, John Connor, attempts to reason with an allied Terminator that has been reprogrammed to kill him. “You don’t have to do this! You don’t want to do this!” he shouts, to which the Terminator replies, “Desire is irrelevant. I am a machine.” The droids in Elysium are no different; they are not capable of empathy and cannot be driven to laughter, facts of which Max was undoubtedly aware.
When Max finally shows up late to work, his supervisor attempts to turn him away due to his injury, yet Max insists that he is still capable of working. Ironically enough, he works for the Armadyne Corporation (the only employer that exists in 2154, it would appear), aiding in the production of the very droids that broke his wrist; droids that have rendered almost every other vocation obsolete. During his shift, a jammed door brings production to a halt and Max is ordered by his supervisor to go on the other side and fix it, or he will “find someone who will.” So, Max obeys and ends up being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, leaving him with a mere five days to live. By this point the viewer is supposed to be firmly behind Max, furious at the supervisor for putting him in danger and disgusted with the Armadyne CEO, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), who shows no concern for his employee. The fact that Max insisted on working after being told to go home, and that he still chose to go inside the radiation room, apparently does not matter as Blomkamp seems to believe, like so many that share his warped ideology, that no individual is responsible for his/her own actions. In his world, no one should have to accept personal responsibility for anything, because any ill that befalls them is of someone else’s doing, and never their own.
Given nothing but a bottle of pills to dampen the pain until he dies, Max turns to his one and only hope for survival: to reach Elysium, where every home contains a ‘med-pod’ that is capable of curing any and all illness. None of these magical devices are on Earth, with no reason given as to why. This is one of the most problematic aspects of the narrative, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the people left on Earth have access to sophisticated technology; the smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura)—who Max turns to in his desperation to reach Elysium—is surrounded by computers and monitors, and advanced weaponry is easily acquired. Why cannot even one med-pod simply be built? There is nothing to suggest that Earth is lacking in the resources to do so. Why does Spider, who specializes in smuggling people to Elysium, not steal one and return it to Earth? Sure, the device must confirm the identity of a user before it will operate, but it is demonstrated that producing phony credentials is not an issue.
Furthermore, is it really to be believed that the people on Elysium would horde this technology for themselves or, at the very least, not seek to profit from its use on Earth? That these and many other questions surrounding the med-pods are never answered gives way to an utter abandonment of logic when it is revealed in the final minutes of the film that Elysium houses several transport ships containing dozens of the devices, ships that can make the journey to Earth in a matter of minutes. What purpose do these apparent emergency vessels serve on Elysium itself? Every citizen has a med-pod within their own home, and the space station is certainly not lacking for defenses to handle any hostility, from without and within. As with this and many other aspects of Elysium, the more one ponders its intricacies, the more the entire film crumbles beneath the weight of its own absurdity.
Moving on, Spider has Max outfitted with an exoskeleton that grants him superhuman strength as well as a transmitter linked to his brain, which will allow him to retrieve valuable data stored in the mind of the Armadyne CEO, whom they intend to kidnap. Initially, there is no grand progressive plot to free the oppressed working class from the shackles of the rich elite; Max merely wants to reach Elysium in order to save his own life, and Spider desires to reap the financial benefits of the data to be gathered from John Carlyle’s head. So, they assemble a small crew and attempt to do just that, but meet opposition when Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodi Foster), enlists Kruger (Sharlto Copley)—a mercenary sleeper agent in her employ who is stationed on Earth – to stop them. A skirmish between the two forces and a few droids results in the death of Carlyle, but not before Max is able to download everything stored in his brain. What he receives is much more than anticipated, as the viewer is already aware via a developing subplot: Delacourt and Carlyle had been orchestrating a coup on Elysium that would involve rebooting the automated system that governs the station, making Delacourt acting President. In exchange, Carlyle’s Armadyne Corporation would have its defense contracts on Elysium renewed for the next two centuries.
When Spider gets a glimpse at the data Max has acquired, he realizes it has the potential to rewrite Elysium’s system and make everyone on Earth a citizen, but despite this miraculous prospect, Max is still only concerned with saving himself. He even refuses to assist his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), who wants him to smuggle her daughter to Elysium with him in order to cure her terminal illness. When Kruger, who has been hunting Max since their prior encounter, kidnaps Frey and her daughter, Max makes a deal to give Delacourt the reboot program now stored in his mind in exchange for access to Elysium.
It is when the setting shifts to Elysium for the final third of the film that everything irreparably unravels. Kruger decides out of nowhere that he might like being President of Elysium, and so he murders Delacourt and sets off in pursuit of Max, who has just had a sudden change of heart himself when he learns that Frey’s daughter cannot use a med-pod since she is not a citizen. Now Max wants to do the righteous thing and use the data he has been safeguarding to grant citizenship to everyone on Earth, but there is just one sardonic catch: he has to sacrifice his own life to do this. After one last battle with Kruger, Spider (who followed Max to Elysium using a tracking device) makes the necessary changes to the program and it is done: citizenship and blanket amnesty for all of the ‘immigrants’ on Earth. No exceptions are made for murderers, rapists and other violent criminals. Perhaps the police droids can help with that, but when an Elysium official tries to have them seize Spider—who certainly has a criminal history—they do nothing.
With everyone on Earth now a citizen, ships filled with med-pods are dispatched to the planet below in order to treat the sick and wounded, who have gone far too long without access to the extraordinary healthcare enjoyed only by the wealthiest. It is an attempt to draw a parallel to the current healthcare dilemma, but it is one that suffers from a gross simplification of the issue, as is the case with other topics that are ham-fistedly addressed in the film. The world today is much more complicated than the one in Elysium, which is far too feeble-minded a film to provide the meaningful critique it so desperately wants to. The aftermath of what Max and Spider have done is barely explored as the film then comes to an abrupt end. One can speculate, though, that since Earth became overpopulated even when its denizens were without proper healthcare, it will not be long before Elysium suffers the same fate (but at least everyone will be in good health when it happens). Furthermore, we do not know what will happen to the current residents of Elysium—people that receive almost no attention throughout the film outside of Delacourt and Carlyle. Apparently, it is to be assumed that they are all just as detestable, as being wealthy means that one is inherently evil. Perhaps they will be stripped of their fortunes, and all will be redistributed to the poor? Then, if that is not justice enough, maybe public executions will follow?
It may come across that I found nothing to like about Elysium, which is not quite the case. It is, for the most part, a visually arresting film. Blomkamp is not coy in admitting that he is influenced to some degree by video games, even if only subconsciously. As a gamer myself, the destructive weaponry employed by his characters stands out the most. In my perusal of various internet forums, there are also comparisons drawn to aspects of BioWare’s space opera, Mass Effect, but that is a franchise I am (regrettably) not intimately familiar with. Anyway, spectacle is in ample supply throughout, and most action scenes are handled with brilliant flare and finesse, with the only glaring exception being the final confrontation between Max and Kruger. When it comes to one-on-one encounters especially, there appears to be no one in Hollywood capable of editing the action coherently. The scene is diluted by an overabundance of extreme close-ups from varying angles that are rapid-cut without any sense of rhythm or continuity, which is much more confusing than it is anything else.
Still, Blomkamp is not without his obvious talents, and the rest of the action is thrilling, albeit a bit too reliant on the use of slow motion (admittedly, watching a droid get ripped to shreds by explosive bullets was a thing of beauty; one of the few effective uses of the technique). Before directing District 9, Blomkamp was set to helm an adaptation of the multi-billion dollar video game franchise, Halo, which would have been produced by Peter Jackson. The project fell through, but not before he made a seven-minute short that served as test footage. It is regrettable, as despite my criticisms of Elysium, I believe Blomkamp could have delivered a magnificent product—perhaps the first truly exceptional film adaptation of a video game. Though he has described the collapse of the Halo project as a fortunate occurrence, he has also expressed some interest in returning to the role should the opportunity arise once again. I still have faith that he could be the perfect individual for the job, so long as his political ramblings are kept in check.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.