From the Earth to ‘Elysium’

Review of Elysium, Directed by Neill Blomkamp

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, […] for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-5)

What if the Earth weren’t worth inheriting? Elysium (2013) is director Neill Blomkamp’s second feature outing after the critically lauded District 9 (2009). Like District 9’s thinly veiled exploration of apartheid, Elysium explores a caste system of sorts: The 21st century wreaked even more havoc on the Earth’s environment with pollution and overpopulation. The wealthy decided to escape to the blessed satellite of Elysium, away from the muck and the mire, leaving formerly shiny Los Angeles to become much more like Tijuana than Beverly Hills. In addition to wealth and happiness, the Elysians have “med bays,” devices that look like tanning booths but actually remove any sickness or mend broken bones in seconds. This marvelous device is a dream to many on Earth who have little health care and cannot even mend their children’s scrapes and bruises without attempting to fly to Elysium—illegally—and  running the risk of being shot down on approach. They need a hero to rectify these injustices.

We meet our hero, Max, as a young orphan who is taken in by a group of nuns on Earth. He dreams of going to Elysium with his schoolboy crush, Frey. We fast forward to Max in the present (Matt Damon): an ex-con turned factory-worker assembling the very droid policemen who harass him and other Earth-dwellers regularly. He has an accident in the factory and, after being exposed to high levels of radiation, he is given five days to live. Desperate for a cure, Max seeks out Spider, the man responsible for the illegal attempts to enter Elysium. Max offers to do anything in return for a trip to the land of the guaranteed miracle cures. His offer gets him pulled into a coup organized by the Secretary of Elysium (Jodie Foster, with an uneven French accent) and a battle with her secret psychopathic agent on Earth (a miscast but hammy Sharlto Copley).

I was looking forward to seeing Elysium all summer both because I saw District 9 four times in theaters and also because the premise was fascinating. Unfortunately, upon execution, the movie tried to do too much. It started out with an obvious allusion to the immigration laws in the United States. Most of the residents of Los Angeles speak Spanish and look Hispanic and almost all of the inhabitants of Elysium are blond-haired and blue-eyed. Health care disparity was an obvious theme as well, but these themes were largely dropped in favor of a lot of smash-‘em-up scenes of Matt Damon in a robo-suit. The action sequences were visually stunning but did not add much in the way of story exploration. District 9 was so enjoyable because it was simple: we followed one man through a weird situation. Elysium tried to have too many points of view. We were privy to Max’s motivation, the Secretary’s cunning desires, the Agent’s sociopathy; there were too many loose ends to tie up and result obscured the essential nugget of the story.

It did, however, implicitly ask the question of how we see paradise. Elysium was the picture of the false promises of the prosperity gospel: health, wealth, and happiness; even a good dose of sunshine. Everyone on Earth wanted to get there.

While the only explicitly religious element in the movie was Max’s nun caretaker, I still hoped the Christians would be toiling on Earth amidst the poor and the meek. Elysium squandered a good idea, but it asked some important questions.