District 9 appeared on our screens in 2009, chocked full of ideas and originality. A reflection on apartheid in South Africa, it was “prophetic” in the way all the best sci-fi is, that is it offers an examination of society today by offering a distorted version of the present/future.
Elysium continues that tradition. However, where as District 9 highlighted he dangers in declaring any intelligent creature as ‘monstrous’, this latest from Neill Blomkamp is more interested in the inequality that separates the “haves” from the “have-nots”.
The film opens by explaining that the earth is largely uninhabitable, and so those who can afford to live on a massive space station called “Elysium”, where the air is cleaner, the healthcare is freer, and the work is easier.
Meanwhile the blue collar workers such as Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) live back on earth. He, like most of the planet’s inhabitants, works long hours on an assembly line, having turned his back on more suspect means of earning money a few years before.
An accident at the plant exposes Max to a fatal dose of radiation, giving him just days to live. His only hope is to make it to Elysium and use one of the medi-bays there. However, to do so, he will have to do a few favours for his former associate Spider.
Elysium is a film with two sides to it, one positive, one negative. On the one hand it’s a fairly standard action sci-fi movie which includes standard ingredients like evil governments/corporations, amoral bounty hunters, a bunch of rebels, and a hero caught between all these competing forces. On those terms there is nothing particularly exciting or interesting about Elysium. The action sequences we have seen before, and the characters revert to type in the main, meaning there are times during the film we are left waiting for something creative to happen.
However, the world it does create is certainly an interesting one. Unlike much of sci-fi, I largely believed a less extreme version of this world is possible. One where the richest of earth’s inhabitants live safely away from everyone else and whose fear of outside forces lead them blind to the suffering of the rest of the planet.
As such it’s a shame that the direction the film takes is merely a cat-and-mouse one. Matt Damon spends much of the film in full-on Bourne mode; running to and away from things, only in a much more haphazard and flailing manner.
Instead of chase scene after chase scene, I would have liked to see a larger exploration of the film’s moral questions. Is there no one on Elysium that feels guilty about their wealth, or gives lip service to trying to help earth’s inhabitants? There are hints of this in the movie, but it might have been interesting to see how a character can have good intentions but ultimately puts their own comfort ahead of genuinely helping those who have less than them.
In some ways the genius of District 9 was that it got you to see the humanity in even the most “ugly looking” of creatures. By using an extreme example like this, it shows there is no excuse for not seeing there is a basic level of respect and decency everyone is deserving of, regardless of how different to us they appear.
In some ways Elysium doesn’t work as well because it creates a complex world but seems to allow there to be a simple solution. I feel like this betrays what the film is trying to say, and makes the viewing experience more comfortable for the viewer than it might have been.
In spite of the film’s misdirection in terms of plot, if we merely consider its world , we are shown somewhere where the rich benefit from a system of inequality, a system which apparently ‘protects’ them from outside forces. If, as Blomkamp seems to be suggesting, we are residents of today’s Elysium, what is his message for us? We should share resources? We should open our doors? Perhaps the solutions aren’t as simple as he suggests, but the problems are just as real and pressing as those he chooses to portray.
So Elysium then at its best doesn’t dazzle or amaze us, but instead is more like a mirror, reflecting something of the society we have created today. It is to Blomkamp’s credit that he chooses to explore these themes in a genre which can often choose to take us far away from our own reality. How easy it is to forget that as we are shown tomorrow’s problems, it should force us to consider today’s.