Once every generation, a filmmaker looks at the world, ponders trends both technological and social, and extrapolates a dystopian future onto the big screen. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is a classic example. This year we’re given Elysium, from South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp. This film presents a powerful and rare combination of human emotion and stunning visuals, with a plausible, if alarming, vision of the future.
Blomkamp’s film takes us to the year 2154, when the rich and powerful live on the clean, green space station of Elysium, while the impoverished working classes subsist on the filthy, barren planet Earth. The rich get fresh air; margaritas served poolside by droids; and top-notch healthcare. The non-rich get squalor, routinely bullied by police droids and safety regulation-free workplaces. In this world, hard-working parolee, Max (Matt Damon) is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory where he works. Told he has only five days to live, Max’s life-long quest to get to Elysium takes on a new urgency -- there, he knows the radiation damage can easily be repaired.
The idea of humanity being segregated into two classes is far from new. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) showed the wealthy experiencing lives of leisure atop skyscrapers, while the denizens of the lower floors toiled away hopelessly. Elysium shares more than just a conceptual likeness with Metropolis, though. Both films are insightful works of genius. They are intimately human stories combined with state of the art visual effects; bringing to life a focused, abundantly-textured prophecy.
Jodie Foster appears in this film as Delacourt, Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, who features prominently in the traitorous circumstances which ultimately bring Max to the idyllic space station. It was odd seeing Ms. Foster playing a villain, which she did with a professional, steely composure. While I’m glad Ms. Foster leant her talents and name to this project, the role was small and shallow for and actress of her caliber. Perhaps Ms. Foster saw this as an arguably important project, and wanted to lend it her name recognition and gravitas? I don’t know, but she did a great job as always in her role.
Elysium is peppered with terms like “Homeland Security” – Delacourt’s responsibility - as well as “undocumented” and “illegals” in referring to spacecraft carrying refuges from Earth. Hearing these terms was effectively disturbing. I can’t say whether it was Blomkamp’s intention to create a metaphor of America’s immigration issues in his film. I can say, however, that these expressions gave Elysium a sharper allegorical edge.
There is a romantic subplot in Elysium, involving Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse Max grew up with in an orphanage. When the two were children, he promised her that they would one day go to Elysium. Frey’s daughter has leukemia, and sadly, this complicates both her life and her relationship with Max.
Children appear often in Elysium, much in the way they featured prominently in Metropolis. It’s easy to fall into sentimentality with children, but Blomkamp kept his perspective, and what might have been a flaw became strength. Perhaps children figure significantly in both pictures because they become the future -- do we really want to imagine our own kids’ great-grandchildren living in this 22nd century?
There is a final subtext to Elysium that I believe is worth mentioning. One of the opening scenes shows the Earth after the oceans have risen: most of Africa is submerged, along with Europe and both sea boards of North America. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any trees left on our depleted world. But there is still love for our planet, as shown by a Nun who gives young Max a locket containing a photo of the Earth from space. Elysium, the Nun tells Max, may look very beautiful from here, but the picture in the locket is what we look like to them. Elysium notwithstanding, there is no “Planet B.” We must never forget where we come from.
Elysium is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It is a thoughtful and moving social commentary wrapped in science fiction, with seamless special effects and thrilling action set-pieces. Blomkamp’s script does not ignore the humanistic for the money shot, and this, as much as anything else, elevates his picture’s value. In total, Elysium is not only worth seeing, but with today’s cultural climate, it may genuinely need to be seen.