Friday, 30 August 2013
Directed by Neill Blomkamp; Starring Matt Damon, Alice Braga, Sharlto Copley
Elysium is the answer to the question “What if yuppies colonised Halo?” This is how the residents of the eponymous space station are portrayed, a caricature of the American elite, swanning about their marble mansions and swimming pools, clad in polo shirts and sports coats, like they’ve gone for a weekend on Long Island. They are juxtaposed with the citizens of Earth who, at least in future Los Angeles circa 2154, live in overpopulated, arid slums, working and dying in their droves with no access to the healthcare and lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthy.
At first glance, Elysium seems to be the latest in a string of post-apocalyptic/science-fiction blockbusters starring A-list actors. Tom Cruise had Oblivion, Will Smith and his son had After Earth, Brad Pitt had World War Z. This time, Matt Damon is the hero. Perhaps Elysium comes at a difficult time to stand out from the crowd, but this is the sophomore feature of South African director Neill Blomkamp, who wowed audiences four years ago with District 9.
The Halo similarity can be no coincidence, as Blomkamp is no stranger to the franchise, having been in line to direct the Peter Jackson produced live-action adaptation after his work on a series of short films to promote Halo 3. When that project collapsed, he was able to use the resources to make District 9, an extension of his earlier short Alive in Joburg (2006), which interspersed footage of extraterrestrials and interviews with South Africans, commenting on Zimbabwean refugees.
A number of elements of the film are arguably derivative of District 9. The films are consistent not only in direction, but in design, and indeed, Blomkamp worked with many of the same production team that made District 9, including the editor, cinematographer, and production designer. The spaceships are aesthetically similar, Matt Damon’s exoskeleton recalls Wikus van de Merwe’s mech suit, and the design of various police and security robots is strangely reminiscent of the alien “prawns” from District 9.
The theme is once again of apartheid like social divide, extrapolated to a slightly-larger-than-global scale, to reflect the same occurrences in the present day. On one level, this is how citizens of wealthy countries go about their daily lives, often with utter indifference to the suffering of those in poorer parts of the world. This is dystopian fiction in its purest and earliest form. But then perhaps Elysium is not saying anything new.
More intimately, this is the relationship between the classes within less economically developed cities, where the wealthy live in gated communities, guarded by private security firms against the poverty and volatility of the city slums. This is the case in Mexico City, where the Los Angeles scenes were filmed, and in Blomkamp’s native Johannesburg. Indeed, even the wealthy citizens of present day Los Angeles are to be found in the gated communities of Beverly Hills, far from the low income urban sprawl.
Though the divide is one of wealth, the two classes are represented racially and culturally. The Elysium residents are mostly, but not exclusively Caucasian. Their president, Patel, is played by the Pakistani-American Faran Tahir. Yet when they are not speaking English, their language is French, further characterising the Elysium citizens by drawing on the perceived high culture of France, which once influenced the elite of the antebellum South.
Earth again, is bilingual, but the dominant cultural identity is Hispanic, with Anglo-Americans present, but firmly in the minority. A future imagined as a result of unrestricted immigration from Latin America. Max Da Costa, played by the capable Matt Damon, appears to have history with both backgrounds. Society has failed Da Costa. He has grown up an orphan, and spent time in prison, and now works in a factory building the police robots that abuse him in the streets. The plot begins when one of these beatings takes him to hospital, where he meets a friend from childhood, Frey (Alice Braga).
Wealth and social divide aside, the crux of the matter as far as the plot is concerned seems to revolve around access to the nigh on magical properties of the Elysium medical bays, which appear to be located in the homes of every citizen. Whilst this clearly represents an uneven spread of medical resources, it seems that living and working in the slums of Earth would become infinitely more tolerable if the most extreme of ailments, from Leukaemia to radiation sickness, and presumably, the health problems associated with a lifetime of breathing Earth’s polluted air, could be cured immediately, and automatically, at the drop of a hat. The device even offers total, instantaneous facial reconstruction, yet these features are largely wasted on the already healthy Elysium population, who treat these resources as glorified tanning beds.
On Earth, Da Costa is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory, and is bluntly told that he has only five days to live. Meanwhile, Frey’s terminally ill daughter is discharged from the hospital. “This isn’t Elysium” says the doctor. For all that is wrong with his life, Da Costa desperately wants to live, and the only way to do that is to reach Elysium and gain access to one of their medical bays. But as a man with nothing to lose, he makes a deal with Spider, a smuggler of refugees, guaranteeing himself safe passage in exchange for participating in a potential suicide mission to steal a computer program with the power to reboot the systems of Elysium.
Elysium takes its name from the ancient Greek afterlife, or at least the part of it traditionally reserved for the righteous and heroic. The citizens of Elysium are anything but. Most of the residents are happy to live their lives without sparing a thought for the Earth-bound masses, but some take it a step further. With no borders on Earth, illegal immigration becomes the desperate struggle for access to Elysium. Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is cold and calculated, and doesn't bat an eyelid when she orders the destruction of two illegal refugee ships, and immediate deportation of the occupants of a third. Whilst she acts outside of protocol, this goes to show what lengths some citizens are capable of going to in the defence of their borders. Soon, she plans to stage a coup against the more moderate President Patel. This is the source of the computer program:
For all Delacourt’s coldness, she pales in comparison to the true antagonist; the vicious, psychotic mercenary Kruger, who starts out working as an agent for Elysium. Kruger is played by Blomkamp’s collaborator, South African Sharlto Copley, who played the leading man in District 9. Kruger is the polar opposite of bumbling bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe. Due to his extremity, Kruger is dismissed from employment at the start of the film, but is quickly tasked with hunting Da Costa down on Delacourt’s behalf.
The film does not shy away from the graphic depiction of violence and brutality. The futuristic weapons are more likely to explode their victims than anything else, and this happens more than once. Along with the dirty, dusty streets of Los Angeles, this gritty realism contrasts with the futuristic veneer of Elysium, and sets the film apart from other sleek, sci-fi thrillers. While the film makes a statement, both Blomkamp and Damon have urged film-goers to take the entertainment value of the film above the deeper message. As such, Elysium exists as a slightly superior summer blockbuster.