If you liked Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, you can certainly expect more of the same from Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. The director’s first two features quite obviously share much in common: both are allegorical parables that unmask and condemn our social ills; despite their not-so-hidden meaning, both are science-fiction thrillers that quote from old and new classics of that genre; both, despite their rather moribund worldviews, are reprieves from the new normal of the morally-tainted-superhero blockbuster—Earth, as depicted in both District 9 and Elysium, is a fallen planet, but its savior won’t be some demigod in a cape but an actual human instead, making the protagonist’s ethical complexities a little more plausible (as far as science fiction goes, anyway). The popular consensus in the week since Elysium‘s relase is that District 9 is the far superior film, and I agree with that consensus. The arguments underlying that consensus are that Elysium lays on its social critique much too thick, that the film hits you over the head with its sledgehammer of a self-righteous moral viewpoint. I’ll confirm that Elysium‘s parable is extremely forceful and blunt, but I disagree that this is cause to distinguish Elysium from District 9 (where the social criticism was similarly unsubtle). I didn’t love Elysium the way I loved District 9, but I was sufficiently entertained to overlook its flaws in the logic, acting, and thematic departments. (Interestingly, Blomkamp reserves his most prominent criticisms not for treatment of undocumented immigrants or income inequality, but inequality in the provision of healthcare, which renders his rather simple point even simpler, for reasons I’ll try to explain.) Elysium didn’t meet my admittedly high expectations, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie.
Elysium is, if nothing else, a literal movie. There’s no sugar-coating or glossing over any of its themes, nor any obfuscation of them; it’s an allegory, but not one that requires a stratospheric IQ to comprehend. The movie shares its title with an idyllic space station up in the sky, where, it’s made clear from the opening, Earth’s richest 1% have removed themselves after the over-population and widespread disease ran amok. On Elysium, references are made to the “illegals” (though, in fairness, “undocumented” is also uttered) who occasionally try to breach the station to secure access to its miraculous “med bay” imaging machines that can cure cancer and broken bones with one pass of the scanner, technology reserved only for the elite. Of course, the elite are mostly white—its ruling council has some minority members, revealed as mostly powerless—and for some, the ligua franca is French. Such literalism isn’t confined to Elysium; when Earth-dwelling Max (Matt Damon), poisoned on the job working for an Elysium-run military conglomerate, needs surgery to attach an exoskeleton that will restore some of his strength before venturing to Elysium, his tattoo-artist of a surgeon whips out the “bonesaw.” You get the idea.
But again, I don’t think this is a reason to dislike Elysium, especially if you liked District 9, where the allegory was just as obvious—there, apartheid. In the South Africa of District 9, the aliens confined to camps were referred to derisively as “prawns,” and the film’s plot was a thinly-veiled reenactment of events that took place in a similar camp known as District 6. All you needed to do was flip the number over the x-axis. District 9 was just as literal in its exposé; it separates itself from Elysium in retrospect when you consider the differences between Max and Wikus, District 9‘s central character: Wikus began as a bureaucrat for the ruling corporation before (spoiler) transforming into a prawn himself; Max works for The Man, but only because he has to, meaning he never has that walking-in-another-person’s-shoes experience. And unlike the issues of our day, apartheid is a settled issue (even if racism sure isn’t); I’d argue that people are less defensively reflexive when confronted with a heavy-handed criticism that targets the crimes and ills of an era distanced by time and geography (unless you’re South African) rather than one that confronts the way things are in the here and now.
Literalism doesn’t serve Elysium well when Blomkamp hones in on his ultimate objective, highlighting the failures of the healthcare and welfare states, for which he attributes fault to the isolated and exclusive rich. I indicated that I was surprised at this development—most trailers, and indeed most reviews of the film that I’ve read, foreshadow the income inequality and illegal immigration critiques and insinuate that his healthcare arguments are more of a sideshow. Blomkamp’s main point would translate as something like, “If there’s technology or medicine that could make you better that is available, then you should be able to have access to that technology or medicine.” I don’t want to wade into politics or assume too much of Blomkamp, but the movie would make medical cures available to everybody for free. This is not a position that garners universal agreement in America, but it’s perfectly fine for Blomkamp to assert this, and he definitely conveys his feelings effectively and clearly.
I do think he undermines his point, though, in part because of a wise narrative decision he made: Unlike a lot of science fiction dreck, Elysium provides nothing in the vein of technical descriptions. There’s no fancy sci-fi terms or lengthy expositions about how machines work—they’re just there, and they work fine, no explanations needed. I prefer sci-fi without over-reliance on these details (this is in part why the best version of Blade Runner is the one without the voice-over), so I applaud Blomkamp—but it backfires a little, because healthcare is a much more technically complicated issue than income inequality or illegal immigration. If Blomkamp wanted to avoid exposition, I’d have advised that his ultimate target be income inequality or xenophobia (or the military-industrial complex and drone culture, to which Elysium does pay lip service), themes and failings that more easily lend themselves to the sparse genre narrative he’s after.
Elysium succeeds for two primary reasons: its set pieces, and Damon. The film lovingly quotes from several of its heralded predecessors: Blade Runner (see some of the buildings that dot Earth’s landscape), Alien (Elysium’s white control center reminded me of the sick bay in Ridley Scott’s classic), 2001 (structurally, Elysium bore a strong resemblance to that film’s own space station), and the Bourne series (a rogue asset chasing after Matt Damon). Whatever you think about Blomkamp’s posturing, he does have a gifted imagination and made use of his budget to create the world he wanted. The intricate manner in which he created Elysium and left Earth disheveled lend credence and gravitas to the action sequences, because you feel as if something really is at stake, even if what’s at stake is something decidedly less intricate, no less ambitious and one-minded than saving society itself, and for the Right Reasons. It helps, too, that Damon is our vessel through all of this. Damon simultaneously manages to be both charismatic and adept at action, which is no mean feat; if you need a guy to root for in 2154, you’d probably pick him. (Damon’s work also stands in stark contrast to Jodie Foster, who is downright terrible in a role that she could have nailed, especially considering her work in Inside Man. Foster speaks in a weird accent that engenders more eye-rolling than intrigue. It also doesn’t help that the script calls for her character to make a choice towards the end that is completely out-of-character.) Maybe you wouldn’t want to live in a world run by Neill Blomkamp, but it’s decent fun to inhabit one that he created for a couple hours.