I saw Neill Blomkamp’s new film, Elysium, last Sunday. His previous film, District 9, was excellent, and so there were high hopes when I heard about Elysium, but by the time the film came around I’d dampened those hopes somewhat. If you followed my Twitter you would have seen a few tweets summing up my feelings on the night. This is the expanded version of those thoughts. I may ramble a little.
Before I saw it, I had already read I Renounce My Elysian Citizenship, which criticises the film on the simplified picture it gives of the wealth/poverty divide, racial issues, and immigration. Read it; J Lamb says this bit better than I could. This film portrays a poverty-stricken earth where the people only hope to find a way to cross the border into Elysium and take advantage of its superior healthcare – there’s no sense that they might think to try to improve life down on earth instead. The partly offensive failed attempt to parallel US-Latin American immigration is emphasised all the more by the way the setting of future LA is populated by hispanic people, with Spanish widely spoken, while Elysium is almost entirely white and the only languages you hear there are English and French.
That future-LA (filmed in a Mexican dump) and the imagined Elysium are the only places you’ll see in the film, apart from brief images during the ending. While the film wants to talk about this as a global issue, of the whole of Earth being left poor, polluted, and wanting the privileges of Elysium, we never see that: we only see LA, and are given no sense that things are happening elsewhere in the world.
It struck me as odd that the Elysian Secretary of Defense would be called in to personally oversee the destruction of three small ships attempting to breach Elysian airspace; one would think from the established premise that such attempts were made regularly from all over the world. But no: for the film’s purposes you might as well imagine that the organisation in LA run by Spider are the only people on the whole planet capable of organising such illegal refugee trips to the station. The film can focus on one small part of the world and ignore the rest because it has already painted all of Earth as a homogenous mass of poor all begging to go to Elysium.
The film clearly wanted to talk about serious issues, but it failed so badly by oversimplifying. In a story that is all about getting across the border at all costs, there was no room for the multilayered complexity that discussing things like poverty, immigration, and healthcare requires. And then the ending, the conclusion to the whole story, was so incredibly stupid as to undermine any remaining points it had to make about the real world.
(Spoiler alert for the next paragraph.)
In those final scenes we’re shown that the entire problem was a case of someone in Elysium just flipping a switch and deciding to give healthcare to Earth. We learn that they had ships filled with their miracle medical equipment just sitting around, that could have been deployed at any time to fix all the world’s problems. They had the resources and the capability to provide the healthcare everyone wanted, they had just never chosen to do so. This may not have seemed so stupid if it had been a part of the film’s argument, something referred to at any point prior as an ethical question for Elysium’s leaders, but instead it was simply a deus ex machina that made the whole problem seem unnecessary.
(No more spoilers below this.)
The last, and least, of the points I made on Twitter was about the film as a science fiction. I say least, because I’m not someone who requires realism in their fiction, or that all sci-fi be hard sci-fi. But I couldn’t help noting that the world created in Elysium didn’t feel whole on a technological level, either. Set around 140 years in the future, it features a mix of far-off sci-fi tech, outright fantasy in the form of the miracle medical machines, and oddly backward technology that seems more like something that could exist in 50 years rather than 150.
Oddities include advanced robotic police and security guards being built in factories that are uncomputerised and run on manpower, simply because the filmmakers wanted to parallel exploitation of overseas labour and lack of value for the lives of poor workers.
Perhaps the reason why my suspension of disbelief didn’t quite hold together in Elysium is simply because the message on immigration, healthcare, and poverty was so fully integrated into the worldbuilding that the failure of the film to effectively address those issues meant a failure in the world they had built, too.
In the end, Elysium is a decent action sci-fi movie. But it wanted to be bigger than that, it tried to be bigger than that, and it failed.