Neill Blomkamps’ commitment to the plight of the global 99% seems radical for a filmmaker given a block-buster budget and a chance to work with superstar Matt Damon. The South African filmmaker’s District 9 (2009), his lower-budget break-out hit, used keen allegories, metaphors, and evocative sci-fi visuals to deliver a parable about barely post-apartheid social justice. Elysium, as many reviewers have noted, vastly increases his budget and gives him too many toys. As a result, what could have been an effective story about the haves and the have-nots, and a struggle for real democracy, gets buried under movie conventions that obscure the film’s more progressive heart.
In Blomkamp’s tale—which he wrote and directed—it’s 2154 in a desiccated, devastated Los Angeles. Our hero, Max (a very appealing Damon), is now a man, though Blomkamp flashes back to his childhood as an orphan raised by nuns alongside a girl named Frey (Alice Braga, as an adult) who remains his love-interest throughout his life. Max has a checkered past—he’s a reformed thief, trying to scratch out a living among the rest of his poor peers on Earth. They live in the shadow of Elysium, a utopian, wealthy and privileged world, devoid of illness, that shimmers in the sky like beacon, always visible but impossible to reach.
Gangs of resisters try to penetrate its airspace in souped-up space shuttles full of illegal immigrants. While the metaphor might be heavy-handed and obvious, it’s cheering to see immigration taken up as a theme in a sci-fi film with a political critique on its agenda. Groups of desperate brown people leave the crashed shuttles when they reach Elysium, fleeing for the pods that will cure their diseases or looking for a life superior to the ones they left behind on Earth. (Those pods look like present-day, cancer-promoting tanning booths, as it happens, a nice ironic touch.)
In the future LA, everyone speaks Spanish, as Blomkamp’s cast embodies the prediction that Latino/as will soon be the U.S. majority population. On Elysium, most—though not all—of the rich and powerful people are white. In a newly global space society populated mostly by Anglo-Europeans—signified by the fact that they speak French or British-accented English—President Patel is of South Asian extraction, but Delacourt, the villain (played stiffly by Jodi Foster, though her white, white hair and ice-blue eyes are wonderful), is a white woman determined to seize his power for herself.
The plot doesn’t matter much, but it’s fun to track Blomkamp’s analogies and allegories through his visuals and his casting choices. The film’s racial politics dictate that the social justice gangs on Earth are comprised of men across race, including Mexican actor Diego Juna, who plays Max’s friend, Julio, and the Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who plays Spider, the head of the resistance. Much of the dialogue is in Spanish with English sub-titles; the English is often spoken with an array of accents.
The film’s other villains are white men, most notably Sharlto Copley, who played the hero in District 9 and here is cast as Delacourt’s henchman, Kruger, a coldly vicious specimen who betrays her in his own bid for power. Max, the “good” white man, is destined to become a martyr, supremely sacrificing himself to rewrite Elysium’s computer programming to ensure that his fellow dispossessed earthlings will become full citizens.
I can applaud a film that ends with democracy and health care for all, especially one in which the politics of racial difference are addressed so explicitly. But as I watched Elysium, I couldn’t help but notice its terrible gender representations. The lovely, compassionate Frey has grown up to be a doctor, whose path crosses once again with Max when he turns to her for medical attention. Frey is a (single) mother with a child dying of leukemia; Frey’s only hope to save Mathilda (Emma Tremblay) is to get her to Elysium, where she can be treated by their magic, death-defying machines. Through a set of plot contrivances, Frey and her daughter wind up with Max and Kruger in a shuttle rocketing toward the utopian planet.
But Frey’s presence is only useful to secure a typically virtuous, threatened womanhood in a film otherwise about male heroism. Frey is beautiful and silent; on the shuttle, Kruger threatens her with rape, running his knife across her face (metaphorically if not literally) while Max/Damon watches in impotent horror (he’s tied up at the time). Once they arrive on Elysium, Frey is burdened with her sick daughter’s body, racing through Elysium’s Get Smart-esque series of doors and passageways and richly green neighborhoods looking for a machine that will cure her. The kid has more interesting dialogue than she does. Of course, by the end, Max and the other men save both mother and child. All Braga can do is sigh with grateful maternal relief and look gorgeous.
Foster’s Delacourt has little to do. She’s just a whiter-than-white ice queen with a pan-Anglo/European accent that sounds ridiculous. Her dirty dealings and illegal maneuverings—and her anti-immigrant racism—require her to die. Her throat is cut, staining her gorgeous gray suit, and she bleeds out right in front of Frey, who can neither save her nor establish common gender-cause.
As an allegory, Elysium is fun, even smart, and visually compelling. Blomkamp has a sense of humor; those intimidating sliding doors that close on the villains while the heroes run through them all boast signs that say, “Caution: Heavy Doors.” Blomkamp conceives of 2154 LA as a mash-up of Johannesburg shanty-towns, Pennsylvania’s old steel towns, and a kind of Appalachian outpost, while Elysium is the ultimate in gated suburban communities. Blomkamp creates a future Earth with gritty realism. That his hero is a mortal man who’s filthy and bloody and sweaty even before he’s assigned to save the world makes Max empathetic and appealing.
But too many “car” chases (here, retrofitted space vehicles) and too much hand-to-armor combat between Max and Kruger detract from Blomkamp’s central theme. And the film’s gender politics imply that even 150 years from now, women will still be prey to sexual violence and require good white men to save them. Can’t we imagine something more progressive than that?
The Feminist Spectator