Elysium (2013), created and directed by Neill Blomkamp, is an eagerly anticipated sequel to the fantastic film that is District 9. While Elysium is a cinematic accomplishment for Blomkamp, and his first big budget debut, and it most certainly presents us with intriguing themes and topics, the film does fall short of expectations.
Elysium is about class and health care, or rather lack thereof, and as such, it is a film released at an opportune moment, in the midst of public deliberations on Medicare and introduction of Obama-care south of the border.
The film is set in a post-automation society, the kind that transhumanists look forward to, and futurists warn about. Similarly to the remake of Total Recall, our hero, starring Matt Damon, is a mechanical labourer, toiling in production of the very machines that will replace him.
Unlike the recent stab at Total Recall however, Blomkamp explores the society in a more class-aware manner. In the universe that is Elysium, there is the underclass, and then there is the upper class. Living on what remains of an overextended Earth, depleted of its resources, is the burgeoning population toiling in physical labour and wrestling with resource scarcity.
Up there, in the sky however, lies Elysium, the stuff of science fiction novels. Like RingWold, it hovers with its gardens, shimmering pools, and its clean atmosphere. In Elysium, the beautiful, the rich and the immortal live the lives of demi-gods.
Elysium is essentially that tanker for the super-rich, except far nicer, better secured and technologically superior.
It also has the dream technology available: healing capsules that diagnose and fix anyone with any health issue or deficiencies. This machine optimizes human health and ensures it remains at its peak.
The machine is life, which is why Elysium is the promised land for millions, of which only thousands attempt to reach
Matt Damon’s character is an orphan who grows up to be a labourer at a Los Angeles facility, Armadyne, that produces the very machines that oppress him. His employment is tenuous, and despite the intense work, his supervisor is consistently applying pressure, threatening him with the loss of his job. Because of his criminal record, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), has little choice but to comply.
Inevitably, the work turns to hazard and due to his supervisor’s negligence, he is exposed a deadly dose of radiation. With time ticking, he has but one option – to attempt what many have attempted – get to Elysium.
The plot line evolves with Armadyne’s CEO formulating a code crack that can be used on Elysium’s systems, and allow the user to change its parameters.
In this particular case, Elysian Secretary of Defense, played by Jodie Foster channeling her best Hillary Clinton impersonation, desires the power to shoot the refugee shuttles directly from Elysium, and thus assume control and independence of the colony. This maneuver would allow Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to entirely circumvent the regulations, instead of having to subvert them by hiring defense agents on Earth grounds, who attack and eliminate any approaching shuttles full of undesirables.
Max facing rather short end to his already miserable existence, turns to the local mob, equipping himself with some extra muscle and an exoskeleton. The idea is that he can exchange his physical abilities and desparation for a job well done, and then he too can get on the shuttle to nowhere.
The job is kidnapping / bank account information, but before he can blink, the entire operation turns ugly, as Delacourt’s hounds attempt to defend Armadyne’s CEO, and the code crack gets inadvertently downloaded by Max.
Kruger, played by the wonderful Sharlto Copley, is the crude stick wielded by Delacourt from afar. He is a mercenary whose job is to hunt down Max at all costs, and retrieve the code.
Max, on the run from the well equipped Kruger, hides in the least expected place: a long-lost childhood friend, Frey, whose daughter suffers from leukemia. Before you can spell 1,2,3 everyone is on the way to Elysium, and all hell will break loose.
There are more than a few intersting moments in the film, and more than a few remarkable roles. As caricatured as they may be, Jodie Foster as Delacourt is wonderful, Armadyne’s CEO Carlyle played by WIlliam Fichtner is amazing and unforgettable, and Copley’s Kruger is wonderfully insane.
In fact, while Matt Damon’s Max is as likeable as expected, it is Kruger that happens to be the most interesting character in Elysium. Kruger is a sociopath, who does not shudder at the thought of killing thousands, from afar or in person. He is a mercenary with a special talent for dying. Not to worry though, as Delacourt has resurrected the s.o.b. so many times, that not everything is alright up in that head. He looks at a mirror and he screams like a baby. A demented, killer baby.
This goes along with the narrative, as Max, along with Frey and her sick daughter become Kruger’s cargo. Lacking the obligatory romantic interlude, Kruger and his assistant even propose the idea of instant family with Freya, laughing maniacally.
Kruger is a minor character, yet possibly the most important and interesting character in the film, and one I wish Blomkamp took the time to develop further. The crack for the Elysium code, for example, becomes the prize that both Kruger and Delacourt desire. It would have been a true pleasure seeing Kruger become the mad, sociopathic king that he was intended to be – to see all this power and wealth embodied in the penultimate expression of Elysium’s society – broken, immortal, cruel Kruger.
There is enough action and twists for Elysium to keep the audience going, but the film definitely fails to deliver.
For one, the setting, depicting the misery that is the future of Earth, is unsettling, but not unsettling enough.
Max, for example, lives in a tiny detached house that would probably be the envy of Vancouver and Hong Kong residents alike. Meager by Hollywood standards, and I assume for the ease of filming (you have to fit all that big budget crew), or Blomkamp’s, it doesn’t come near the endearing quality of squandor experienced in District 9.
We’ve seen the future – the cage-like residences in Beijing, the coffin-like hotels in Tokyo, and micro-condos – and Blomkamp’s future is just not miserable enought to be fully immersive and believable. I mean, there are people living at this very moment beneath the gratings of Las Vegas sewers! Why settle for less?
The other flaw, and this one I find to be the most significant, is the fact that end of Elysium (super spoiler alert!) is irrational.
Max sacrifices himself, to assume control over Elysium and make everyone into a citizen of the very exclusive colony, which ends on a happy note of everyone receiving the health care.
While I fully support this, there is a major issue staring us in the face. He did not redistribute income from god-kings of Elysium, or restarted the economy, or waved his magic wand to curb overpopulation or extreme scarcity facing the world. Instead he allowed an equivalent of busloads of people to receive the health care they desperately needed, and by doing so, potentially extended their own, and others’ suffering.
This leap in logic is arguably mostly my nitpicking, and the film should be acknowledged for tackling what is the formative issue of this generation. However, I expected more from Blomkamp. The first time I watched District 9, I took the time to watch his short films, and I was amazed at the ingenuity and political awareness of Blomkamp. He has the chops to make relevant films, and he is apt at tackling the unspoken, wrapped in “other” and that of the robotic future of automated labour. Yet, Elysium, sadly, fell short of this goal.