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Film Review: Elysium

Elysium (2013; Directed by Neill Blomkamp)

In its classic generic form, science fiction is less about an imagined future than it is about how we live now. A blatantly obvious observation, granted, but then science fiction can often be blatantly obvious in its observations about contemporary social, economic, and political conditions, and cannot conceive of a method by which to reconcile fundamental tensions beyond violent action confrontations between proxy agents for the opposing concerns. This is perhaps the most deep-seeded problem with South African director Neill Blomkamp’s otherwise richly-imagined and exciting-staged Elysium. The film provides a grand, stark metaphor for economic inequality in compellingly-designed detail and then resolves the myriad conflicting anxieties by having two muscular men in exosuits punch each other while a quasi-magical technological reboot of the hierarchical order erases discriminatory distinctions.

The film gets to this point via an often fascinating and certainly impressive set-up. Set on and above Earth in 2154 (also the precise year that the very differently-concieved Avatar was set in, which may be clandestine political commentary in and of itself), Elysium depicts a social order that amplifies our contemporary wide gulf of wealth into a dichotomy that is nearly as extreme as that separating H.G. Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine. Blomkamp begins his narrative in a sprawling, decayed Los Angeles that resembles the developing-world shantytowns which were the setting of his striking directorial debut, District 9. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) resides in a rundown shack in the hills and works in a factory, which is more than most of the destitute underclass around him has managed. He once dreamed of something more, though, and we see flashback memories of Max gazing longingly at the sky with childhood sweetheart Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga) at distant, inaccessible Elysium.

The rotating wheel space station Elysium is a mega-exclusive orbiting gated community whose preppie citizens wine-and-cheese their days away in luxuriously-appointed mansions equipped with high-tech Med-Bays that heal life-threatening injuries and cure deadly diseases in less time than it takes for a kettle to boil. The whole toney space-suburb is DNA-coded to authorized “citizens” of Elysium only, so even if desperate migrant earthlings manage to penetrate the station’s defences, they’ll be hunted down and deported, and medical and other services will not respond to them in the meantime. Alternating the Elysians’ privilege with the deprivation of the swelling masses on the planet they’ve abandoned, Blomkamp crafts a vision of starkly demarcated class division without compromise.

There’s an enlightened-liberal democracy of sorts at work in this snobbish stellar settlement, but the Elysian way of life is maintained through the undermining of its lofty, hypocritical principles. The dirty work of preserving the forcible class segregation falls to Secretary of Defense Delacourt (a prim Jodie Foster, speaking with a proscribed and likely redubbed Mid-Atlantic French accent). The President (Faran Tahir) disapproves of her Cheneyesque zero-tolerance approach to keeping the riff-raff off their collective lawn; all of those fatal missile strikes and mass arrests do have a way of putting his constituents off of their artisanal salumi boards, after all. He also doesn’t much like Delacourt employing the volatile sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) in violent black ops missions and orders him dismissed. Stung at the President’s goody-two-shoes act, Delacourt plots with capitalist factory owner Carlyle (an exquisitely smug William Fitchner) to overthrow her rival by rewriting the code of the computer core that controls all public affairs and seizing power over Elysium herself.

While this is all happening above, Max struggles on down below. He’s harassed by robot police on his way to work, who break his wrist and send him to his parole officer, a kiosk-bot with a literally plastered-on smile, like something out of a fast-food drive-through. His supervisor threatens his job if he doesn’t perform some unsafe duties, and as a result he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that leaves him with five days to live. Willing to do anything for a ticket to Elysium to heal himself in a Med-Bay, Max goes to his former employer, the underworld kingpin and migrant smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura), to see what can be done.

Spider insists that Max pay his way by leading a kidnapping crew to snatch valuable information from the mind of a prominent Elysian. Max insists that Carlyle, who runs the factory that gave him his death sentence, be the mark. Neither is aware that among the information in their target’s skull is a code that can overthrow Elysium’s government. Max is outfitted with a powered exosuit tapped into his nervous system to increase his capabilities and allow for the vital data upload from Carlyle. Despite this, he and his crew meet the stiff resistance of Carlyle’s robot guards as well as Kruger and his team of military toughs, called in by Delacourt to safeguard her coup attempt. This conflict sets in motion a series of pursuits, escapes, fights, double-crosses, and daring plans that take Max, Spider, Kruger, Frey and her leukemia-afflicted daughter to Elysium and permanently alter the rigid hierarchical divisions of their world.

This onscreen setting is richly imagined, and its details contain a multitude of social, economic, and political critiques that sometimes strike deeper than the movie’s grander messages. Immigration, health care, labour, policing, bureaucracy, technology, surveillance, government and military authority; Elysium fires off cynical but penetrating shots at what it perceives to be the official mishandling of all of these push-button issues and more besides. In a throwaway moment, Blomkamp can embed an explosive reference, like Delacourt’s name-brand comm-watch or Kruger’s weapons drop container emblazoned with “Civil Cooperation Bureau”, the particularly Orwellian name for an apartheid-era South African death squad. It’s very keen about the ethnic nature of class divisions as well. Max himself has a Spanish surname and nearly everyone he knows in L.A. speaks the language, a commentary on Latin-American immigration changing the linguistic and cultural nature of the United States. The L.A. scenes were mostly filmed in a poor quarter of Mexico City, while Elysium was shot in the posher environs of Vancouver; even in production terms, the divergent socioeconomic conditions on the same continent are demonstrated.

Even if her bizarre accent hampers her performance, Foster is a fine choice for the fastidious subaltern of oppressive privilege. Matt Damon is a bit too self-knowing in his portrayal of a determined member of the lumpenproletariat; Blomkamp was circling around various low-income-background rappers for the Max role (most prominently Eminem, who wanted filming to be done in Detroit) and one is left wondering if that might have been a more convincing option. Copley’s Kruger makes for a ludicrous villain, with his beard and tattoos, metallic implants, broad working-class Jobourg accent and samurai sword, but he’s a welcome agent of chaos and unpredictability in this ordered world of protected wealth and assured poverty.

Even if my critical perspective reduces its importance, it’s also worth noting that the genre elements of technology and action are compelling rendered and executed. Bodies are blown up artfully, spaceships crash-land on impeccably-manicured palatial gardens, plasma weapons release shimmering beams, and pectorally-stacked men in power suits slug it out for the future of humanity; involuntary guffaws of geek delight escaped my throat at more than a few moments. There’s a telling contrast between the polished surfaces of Elysium and the grimier devices employed on the fallen planet, but in both cases technology is deeply integrated into society (even in its lower-income stretches) in a manner that feels intensely familiar.

Elysium‘s macro social, economic, and political points feel less nuanced and provocative than its micro ones, mind you. If the jumbled details and terms of the dystopian disparity are fascinatingly drawn, then the neat computer reboot that promises a new and messy equality is entirely too pat. Elysium’s fatal flaw is not its oppressive exclusion of the poor from the fruits of progress, but an over-reliance on technology to direct that progress, leaving its future easily manipulated by the most clever and daring of the disenfranchised legions. Perhaps this is part and parcel of Blomkamp’s ultimate political point, that the wealth gap is such an imposing maw at this point that only an implausible reset could remedy its discriminatory conditions (though the wider-ranging social and cultural effects are a whole other matter). It’s practically a vision of spontaneous proletarian revolution, enthroned in the midst of an expensive summer blockbuster.

As in District 9, however, Blomkamp’s primary ideological focus is on the system and on its mechanical manifestations. Critics approached Elysium as a step away from the shadow of apartheid and grim realities of contemporary South African society that absorbed his breakthrough film, reading it as a recalibration of his established themes, appearance, and technical elements towards the more general Western progressive concern about the consequences of unprecedented levels of economic inequality. But the film contains seeds of the suggestion that the ethnic segregation of District 9 is cut from the same cloth as the economic segregation Elysium portrays, just as the haves’ oppression and exploitation of the have-nots shares a common ancestor of malicious hegemony with a white supremacist minority elite consigning an ethnically-diverse majority to the status of non-citizens. Even if it resolves its roiling tensions with mindless violence and instamatic wish-fulfillment, Elysium pack a greater wallop because its creator need not merely imagine the sort of hierarchy his film depicts. He’s lived through it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

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