There is no denying it. Elysium is plainly a 110 minute anti-capitalist polemic; and as such many critics have painted it as a $115 million essay by an emotionally distant Marxist. But having seen it at long last, I must say such comments not only undermine the smartest sci-fi since District 9 – they criminally under-rate Neill Blomkamp (who wrote and directed both) as a film-maker.
From the very first moment we clap eyes on the sprawling, sky-scraping slums of the not-nearly-distant-enough future, something feels grimly familiar about Elysium. From the zero-tolerance brutality of the robotic law-enforcement, to the soulless bureaucratic automatons that now dictate which of the poor are deserving or not, this brave new world into which we plunge feels disturbingly like home.
Meanwhile, shots of the swarm of workers dusty 9am march to misery is not-so-subtly interspersed with the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful on Elysium – a space-station on which the 1% now take refuge from the ravaged earth. The ordinary citizens of earth have been abandoned to die of preventable disease or starvation – if the laissez faire health and safety policy applied to radiation doesn’t kill them first. Meanwhile the worst those on Elysium have to worry about is, being on the inside of a giant loop, everything is on a slight uphill incline.
All the while, we are bombarded with the failings of capitalism to distribute the benefits of technological innovation to the masses. The machines, medicine and means of production have all evolved to a position in which global poverty could be irradicated – however whilst control in society rests in the hands of the few, not the many, those advances are squandered. And that’s the point. Neill Blomkamp has pulled no punches in making it clear this sci-fi fable is a social-political comment on our own time – having stated “this is not science-fiction, this is today. This is now.” That’s what has made it so ‘controversial’, in the USA particularly.
Understandably, Elysium has put a few noses out of joint in Hollywood. Not only because it so blatantly lays bare the colossal wealth disparity in modern society, or even because it dares to show the hideous crumbling slum-society that those disparities will lead to if they go unchecked. Blomkamp’s film enfuriates the cinematic and general establishment on the most base level – that it challenges “the dream”. I don’t just mean the ‘American’ dream, and to suggest this film is simply an anti-American rant is to miss the point entirely (there is a reason the rich live on space-station – they are an international elite. To claim that the citizens of any country – especially America – all live in the lap of luxury is frankly absurd.) Blomkamp’s allegory here is more general – it critiques the core ideological myth that in any capitalist nation, the individual could (and should) pull themselves up by the boot-straps, and better their own lives, if only they had the gumption to do it.
It’s a construct that the Hollywood industry has seemingly been built on, and continues to thrive by reinforcing. It is perhaps no surprise then, that like Blomkamp’s previous release (produced by Peter Jackson, who I assume was too busy abusing New Zealand’s workforce to help with this project), this film is largely an independent production (though Sony Tristar distributed it). Hollywood studios are notoriously reluctant to display institutional contradictions – preferring to fund projects covering distant, ‘safe’ conflicts of the past, which have led to changes that (almost) everyone can get behind (a current favourite being the abolition of slavery) over political hot-potatoes of the here and now, or gods-forbid, what hell on earth they might lead to. Meanwhile, the Hollywood industry – despite being built on the spines of exploited crews, and the broken dreams of millions of actors -continues to churn out stereotypical “you can get it if you really want” fairytales, safe in the knowledge that reinforcement is usually the best kind of cash-cow.
The name Elysium is of note for this reason, derived as it is from a mythical place at the ends of the earth to which certain favoured heroes were conveyed by the gods after death. And throughout the film, protagonist Max (Matt Damon) really struggles to break free from this belief – to the extent when he is told “with this you can save EVERYONE” his reaction is, “When can I go to Elysium?” He holds in his head information that could make life-saving medical care available to billions of people – and yet rather than think collectively he is one of those billions, he thinks individually of joining the elite.
This ideological stranglehold is summed up most notably – and heart-breakingly – in an exchange between Max and Matilda (Emma Tremblay), the cancer-ravaged child of his best friend. She tells him a story in which a starving meerkat becomes friends with a hippopotamus, and in doing so obtains food. Max’s response is to bluntly ask “What’s in it for the hippo?” Undeterred, Matilda replies the hippo wanted a friend – but Max doesn’t really get it until the end of the film. The implied message is a brilliant, concentrated summation of the film’s core message – that obtaining the necessities of life is only half of what’s really needed for survival. To really live is to be social – to have others to care for, and to be cared about by; without that, survival is inhuman.
It might seemingly be a film of grand, towering narratives then – and in the wrong hands it might well have been an impersonal ivory-tower lecture – but like District 9, it’s in amongst the human relationships in Elysium that Blomkamp’s film really draws it’s power. In amongst the grey-brown slums, there are beautiful shimmering moments of pathos, midnight-black gallows humour and an unflinching portrayal of human beings good and bad, lending a plentiful palate of colour and contrast to the action. It is a film wonderfully imbued with humanity in the most real sense I have seen in a cinema for some time. Considering it’s a film set in a dystopian future with giant robots, that doesn’t say much for Hollywood.