Movie Review: Elysium (2013)
Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Borke should sue.
Near the end of “Elysium,” Neill Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow-up to “District 9,” as our hero Max (Matt Damon) battles, struggles and crawls toward unifying our long disunited peoples living on both Earth (third world) and Elysium (first world), the music wells up operatically, with a Mid-East tinge, reminding me , almost exactly, of the music from Michael Mann’s “The Insider.” Specifically it reminded me of Gerrard and Borke’s “The Sacrifice,” which I’ve burned to many a CD over the years. Then it hit me: Of course. The sacrifice. Max won’t make it. And so he didn’t. In order to recreate the universe, Max had to leave it. And in order to leave the movie, the movie had to recreate the music of Gerrard and Borke.
I wasn’t among those long-awaiting this follow-up, by the way. Not much of a fan of Blomkamp’s earlier effort, which, remember, was nominated for best picture that year. In “District 9,” Blomkamp adhered too much to the metaphor. Aliens land and become just another despised minority on Earth? Please. A lot of the movie was original but its racial metaphor was too stark and stupid. It lacked imagination within the metaphor. It trapped us there.
With “Elysium,” Blomkamp shifts his metaphor from race to class. In the late 21st century, Earth becomes too populated and polluted, and so all the rich folks, like out of some Ayn Rand novel, leave the planet for the orbiting satellite of Elysium, where computers cure their diseases and keep them young, and swimming pools and palm trees dot every manicured backyard. It looks like Beverly Hills or Hollywood. Earth? Well, all of Earth looks like East L.A.
Born in East L.A.
We get a bit of backstory first. Apparently Max grew up in an orphanage with a girl, Frey, who grows up to be Alice Braga, a nurse, while Max grows up to be a thief. We meet him, though, as he’s trying to live the straight and narrow.
As his day begins, Hispanic gangsters give him shit for his dayjob, kids beg him for money, and robot cops don’t like his attitude, break his arm, and accuse him of violating parole. When he goes to the hospital, he hooks up with Frey even if they don’t hook up. (He’s interested, her life is complicated.) When he visits his parole officer, it’s a computer-simulation, who says, “Elevation in heart rate detected. Would you like a pill? Would you like to speak to a human?” I like that part. That made me laugh.
What I didn’t like? It’s 2154. That’s 141 years in the future. And what are the barrio boys like? Well, like today. They kinda dress the same, kinda talk the same, have the same kind of tattoos. Apparently gangster tattoos are still a thing in 141 years. Apparently so is line-work at a plant. Max works at Armadyne, lorded over by Elysium citizen John Carlyle (William Fichner—does he ever get to play a good guy?), helping to build the robots that police the Earth, but he could basically be in an auto plant in Detroit. At some point I backdated. So if this is 141 years in the future, what’s 141 years in the past? A hundred, forty, minus one, equals ... 1872. Seven years after the end of the Civil War. Right. A few changes since that period. A few rights recognized. Some things invented: the automobile, the airplane, the rocket ship, the computer, the Internet.
Something else bugged me about Blomkamp’s future. In the barrio of Los Angeles, which is where Max lives, people speak English and Spanish. And on Elysium, dotted by the pampered and supercilious, people speak English and French. I think Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is even supposed to be French. So what do the French have to do with the ultra-wealthy? Isn’t their current society more egalitarian than ours? Well, sure. But you know how it sounds. That French stuff. Like they’re above us. In essence, Blomkamp is relying on a cultural construct to reveal an economic one. It’s like his creative consultant is Karl Rove.
So: One day at the plant, Max, because of a headstrong foreman, receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. He’s given five days to live. A simulated doctor tells him, “Please sign this to receive medication. It will keep you functioning normally until you are dead.” Another good bit.
But Max doesn’t want to die. Didn’t the sisters at the orphanage tell him he would do great things? That he was special? Didn’t he always want to visit Elysium? And couldn’t they cure him on Elysium? Like that?
Getting to Elysium is tough, though. Spaceships entering that area are shot down. Only citizens—i.e., the rich, branded as such—are allowed in.
But Max has his underground contacts, particularly Spider (Brazil’s Wagner Moura), who hatches a scheme to exo-skeleton Max up, grab a citizen, and upload his memories into Max’s head. That’ll get him to Elysium or something. They choose John Carlyle. Hey, guess what! Secretary Delacourt has been in contact with Carlyle to reboot the entire Elysium system so that her bete noire, President Patel (Faran Tahir, the villain of “Iron Man”), will lose office. It’s a kind of hacktvisit coup d’état. And guess when Carlyle uploads the reboot program into his head for transport from Earth to Elysium? Right. At the exact moment Max and the other men strike. And so that information, the most important information in the world, goes into Max’s head.
Not that he realizes it. It’s scrambled, encrypted, but he’s chased through L.A. by one of Delacourt’s non-citizen henchmen, the fierce, awful South African Kruger (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”); and in the process he entangles Frey and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who, whoops, is in the last stages of leukemia, and eventually they all wind up heading to and crashlanding on Elysium.
There are other good moments if you can get past the monumental coincidence of the attack on Carlyle. I like how Delacourt, who orchestrated the whole thing, still blames the crashlanding on President Patel, because he didn’t take Elysium’s defenses seriously enough. But what’s Jodie doing here? She extra arch, her acting over the top. Is that her being French or her being 22nd century? Or her being her?
In the ensuing chaos on Elysium, Kruger kills Delacourt, and he and his men begin a kind of revolution, oddly, or at least they begin to fuck things up, because why not, while Max, who was always just looking out for himself, overpowers guards to look after Frey and Matilda. He makes sure that Matilda gets cured. He does this by killing Kruger’s two men and then battling Kruger himself on one of those futuristic walkways between buildings, with no guard rails, and a thousand-foot drop on either side. (See: “The Empire Strikes Back” and almost every science-fiction movie since.) This is when the “Sacrifice”-like music wells up, and Spider, who has made the trip to Elysium himself, rewrites the code, changing “illegal” to “legal,” a moment that caused outright laughter from the techie crowd at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. And as Elysium is rebooted as a more egalitarian society, where robot doctors and beds are sent to Earth to cure the sick, and Matilda herself is cured, Max, finally a hero, recalls his childhood one more time, running with Frey in slow-motion at the orphanage, and then he’s gone.
Then what happens?
I’m curious what Blomkamp thought happened. I mean, to me, the movie ended at its most interesting part. I even wrote that in my notes: So what happens? And the answer is that the movie ends. The hero is dead, his heroic deed accomplished, and all people of Earth are now citizens of Elysium. Which means ... what? They all can’t live on Elysium. So what does it mean? How will we fuck it up again? I mean, won’t we? Inevitably?
The art direction of “Elysium” is good, the story is well-paced, and it takes chances with its hero—making him less than heroic until the end. At times, it’s clever. But it doesn’t enlighten. It sheds no light on their time or ours. Like “District 9,” it lacks imagination within its metaphor.