Elysium, the newest film from Neill Blomkamp, the creator of District 9 once again forces us into a world where the unspoken social undercurrents of our modern world are thrust into light. The post-apartheid era of District 9 gives way to a stark, segregationist landscape reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. On Earth, we experience Los Angeles in the year 2154, a wretched hive of scum and villainy if there ever was one. Citizens of Earth live under the distant glimmer of Elysium, an Edenic off-world haven. Those wealthy enough to flee the plague-ridden Earth have made Elysium their utopian home, while the less fortunate have been left to toil by the sweat of their brows.
Director Neill Blomkamp wears allegory on his sleeve. He’s traded the gated checkpoints of District 9‘s segregationist prison for the sprawling wastelands of urban decay. It would seem that basic social services have broken down. Robot bullies have replaced human police officers. Trash goes uncollected, graffiti spreads like cobwebs, and metal rusts defiantly at every opportunity. Blomkamp presents the not-so-subtle portrait of a society corrupted by vast discrepancies of wealth, most pointedly, healthcare. On Elysium, the sick need only to rest within “Health Pods” to be cured of any ailment ranging from broken bones to cancer. It takes a while to get to it, but this is the underlying tirade at work in Blomkamp’s film — the state of healthcare accessibility in the modern world (although he takes several stabs at immigration, imperialism and nationalism as well).
Out of the pandemoniac hellhole that remains of Earth, we meet our hero, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an orphan raised from the slums of a Spanish-speaking Los Angeles. Max has had trouble with the law in the past but now holds down a steady blue-collar job. However, an accident in a not-quite-OSHA-approved work environment places him in a predicament that can only be resolved by a trip to Elysium. To put it simply, if Max isn’t cured within 5 days, he will die.
This is where the film melts into a series of scenes in which a lot of things happen but the world of thought that drew us into the film in the first place ceases to exist. For all its rich setting, Elysium fails to deliver with its story — presenting a haphazard web of plot elements that aren’t sustained throughout. Max’s journey to Elysium becomes stretched and strained, piling on action sequences to take us from point A to point B. There are fight scenes, explosions, political plotting, and even blatant crimes against humanity. These events all give rise to unique ideas that are never given the chance to come to fruition. In a rush to create an expertly crafted universe that draws striking comparisons to our own, Elysium over promises and under delivers. (Did I mention that there’s also a thing that allows people’s minds to be hacked and downloaded? Yeah that’s a thing too.)
The most glaring absence from Elysium that was found in District 9 is the central arc of a protagonist to identify with. In District 9, we witnessed Wikus fall from the graces of privileged society as he is forced to live among those whom he once derided and degraded. The nearly Promethean tale of hubris and redemption is striking against the setting of blatant racial (or particularly, “speciesist”) prejudice in allegorized South Africa. In Elysium, Blomkamp attempts the reverse, asking us to cheer on the ascent of one of the proletariat to the level of the elite and the value of selflessness he gains.
But there’s something about Max’s Christ-like journey that doesn’t strike as strong of a chord. From a writing standpoint it’s possible that we’ve met him too late in life — after having already turned over his new leaf and working an honest job for the first time in his life. At this point, Max is a nice (boring) guy and will understandably do nice (boring) things when possible, and not so nice (compelling) things when necessary. The adage of “be the change you want to see in the world” is ignored in favor of upholding the passive “is.” Unlike Wikus, Max does not “become” for he already “is” and has nothing to teach us. Instead, Max can only show us, and by this point, we’ve seen enough.