Imagine the world in the year 2154: the lines of nationality, race, gender, and religion have been obliterated by a fierce demarcation placed by the powerful between those who have and those who have-not. The wealthy (“Citizens”) have retreated to an orbiting space-station utopia called Elysium (a reference to the paradisiacal realm in Hades set aside by the Greek Gods for the worthy one percent of the humanity). In space, life is good (especially if you like McMansions with swimming pools and robot butlers), with every household equipped with a healing chamber providing cures for any ailment, including old-age (for more info, check out www.welcometoelysium.com). The rest of humanity (“Illegals”) struggles to survive on the over-crowded, worn-out, polluted anthill that is the Earth.
This is the premise of the film “Elysium”, starring Matt Damon, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Jodie Foster, and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who stepped with authority into the film world with his groundbreaking 2009 SYFY parable, “District 9”. To be honest, I had a somewhat emotional response to “Elysium” so, to help collect my thoughts in a rational way, I consulted the reviews of others who saw this film. To no great surprise on my part, I discovered that the sentiment “openly socialist” appeared in several (my favorite is one found on Twitter: “Greatest film ever made about free health care.”) To be honest, I thought the "Do unto others..." theme throughout made the film “openly Christian.”
Other reviews mentioned "slick cinematic violence" and bemoaned the filmmaker’s sell out to testosterone-driven Hollywood summer spectacle. These views, possibly betraying fatigue from summer movie excesses, seem to casually overlook what I think is an important aspect of the filmmaker’s intent. I’ve watched (sometimes painfully) several Hollywood CGI-driven tent-poles this summer where indeed the violence is pure spectacle, filling gaps in a tale that really has little to say in the first place – there for the sake of being there.
The violence in “Elysium” is definitely not that for the mayhem is not driving the story, it is embedded deep in it. For example, it helps ask this very common-sensical question: Does anyone really think that you can deny "them" a cure for their child's cancer and not expect a violent pushback? As John Harrison remarked in “Star Trek: Into Darkness”: "Is there anything you wouldn't do for your family?" Does this film go over the top on the spectacle and fighting? Of course-but that is the way great storytelling has always operated, going back to Homer's “Iliad” (the Goddess Athena spearing her brother Ares on a battlefield before Troy is over the top-but it was put there by the poet for a damn good reason).
Another point raised by some is the fact that the film is set primarily in Los Angeles, where the hero, Max (Damon), labors for the Armadyne Corporation, the entity that both built Elysium and manufactures the bullying robots that keep the “them” in line (the powerful also use off-the-books Black-Ops operatives when mere bullying is not enough). Throughout the film the backdrop remains Los Angeles, with the world of Elysium hovering visible in the sky, even in daylight.
One review wondered: Is this happening in Russia, China, or is this exclusively an American thing? The answer clearly is “No” on the “American thing” but the director wants filmgoers to come to that conclusion as the story unfolds. As suggested earlier, Blomkamp has no trouble imagining all other contentious issues in human society (including nationality) vanishing in the face of just one of the few, with plenty versus the many, in want. The societal conditions under which LA suffers are without doubt a “global thing.” Simply, we are in LA because the hero of this story lives in LA.
About the hero: there is a lot of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” in the story of Max and his attempt to reconnect two long-divided elements of humanity (the best loved tales in history tend to be about the Hero striving). Blomkamp uses flashbacks to establish his hero as, perhaps, a child of destiny but initially Max wants only to find a healing chamber to cure his soon-to-be deadly radiation poisoning (no OSHA regulations at the robot factory, apparently). Still, when circumstances force upon him the ability to challenge the status quo, he embraces it-but for what is clearly a very personal reason. Witnessing yet again the contempt of the powerful for the peons, this time directed at a beloved childhood friend, Max explodes in a rage that, for the first time in his life, is not blind or destructive but now has a path to follow to a constructive end.
When it is asked “why do people go to war?”, the answer can be as simple as this: they are fighting to protect the ones they love. For Max, his final sacrifice is about doing right by his friend but, as the larger consequences of that sacrifice become clear, yet another Christian element emerges: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Is this film perfect in every aspect? Perhaps not, but if perfection is one's expectation of anything made in this world, you will live with considerable disappointment. In my opinion, “Elysium” is a thoughtfully crafted work of art that, above all, offers a powerful tale for our times.