Often, all that’s needed to make a movie engaging is a single good idea. Elysium has a few good ideas: The haves and have-nots should not be separated from one another. The good available to the few should be available to many. Genuine, broken humanity is more beautiful than manicured frivolity. Those good ideas are right on the surface of Elysium too. There’s no avoiding them.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of other unavoidable things on the surface of this movie too. Much like in Neill Blomkamp’s previous directorial effort, District 9, those good ideas get buried beneath an abundance of “awesome” gun fights and villainous personalities.
The gun fights are visceral, and at least one of the villains is truly menacing, but the movie feels like it’s at war with itself, torn between being thematically poignant and cinematically propulsive. The films needs to trust its ideas instead of falling back on action conventions. Then again, perhaps Blomkamp has a specific audience in mind, and he thinks the only way to get them in the theater is to bait them with concussive rounds.
Let’s consider each side of this movie in turn. First, the thematic material. (SPOILERS ahoy, though in a movie this typically structured, these hardly count as SPOILERS.)
Elysium makes the divide between the rich and the poor literally astronomical, placing the wealthy and powerful on a ring colony suspended in space and the poor on the over-populated, resource-depleted Earth. The key difference between the two worlds relates to health care. The wealthy have chambers that remedy all maladies at a molecular level. The poor make do with bandages and morphine. Our hero’s quest is for health care for himself and his friends.
That hero, Max, is a white guy, the only white guy, in fact, on planet Earth (other than his brainless boss). The rest of the earth-bound are Latino. Eventually, Max has to die to make the medical pods descend to earth from Elysium to heal the masses.
Elysium‘s racial divide belies Blomkamp’s South African heritage. The country has long been racially divided between rich white and poor blacks. (Elysium is set in Los Angeles, ergo the Latino poor.) For the world of Elysium to be made right, the wealth of the rich has to be redistributed amongst the poor, and the wealthy whites have to die.
That is far too simple a vision for how the world might be made new. The world does not have a limited amount of wealth. We can and do create more. Yes, the 2% (like me) should share. I can do with less, but I don’t have to disappear completely. I can humble myself and push others up. The “pushing” looks like all sorts of service – using my wealth to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked.
Now, let’s consider the film’s action sequences.
Blomkamp knows how to film an engaging gun fight. Both District 9 and Elysium boast an armory that would make video game manufacturers blush. Sharlto Copley’s “Kruger” manages to wield those weapons convincingly and to turn a heap of “heavy” cliches into real menace.
The bad guys and gals and their guns are a distraction though, and worse, they put faces on what is, in reality, a faceless problem. The world isn’t divided between the haves and have-nots because of nefarious individuals. It’s split because of systemic injustices. Yes, that broken system is supported by the work of individuals, but removing the individuals in power won’t necessarily solve the problems. A deeper kind of reform is required.
Perhaps Elysium‘s focus on villainous personalities is connected to the way its machines heal its people – both situate problems and solutions at the molecular level. Illness is eradicated by removing the offending atoms. Injustice is remedied by removing the offending persons, the atoms of society. It’s as if by shooting a bullet with enough precision, all problems might be solved.
Systemic illnesses, like poverty and greed, are located in the connections between individuals, in the sparks of society’s nervous system. Destroying the individuals just makes the sparks jump between others. Better, we have to transform the sparks within the neurons, to make persons receive greed and respond with generosity, to absorb the poverty and pass along an abundance of hope instead.
Of course, we can’t make that happen. We have to rely on a redemptive power greater than ourselves. Come, Lord Jesus, this day and forever.
Imagine a version of Elysium without a particular antagonist, where instead of facing off against Delacourt and Kruger as teh movie concludes, Max had to battle through an endless hoard of robots programmed to stop him at all costs, robots that he himself had a hand in building at the factory where we see him working early in the film. The people behind those robots wouldn’t just be shadowed. They’d be absent entirely. The gun play could be depicted as futile, because there’s an endless supply of these robot soldiers.
The citizens of Elysium could come from among the people on Earth, marked from birth, winners of a genetic lottery no one can control, not the children of children of children of the elite. When Max finally manages to plug into the mainframe to reprogram Elysium to register everyone as “citizens,” he’d actually be reprogramming the robot hoards to care for people instead of killing them, wiping away the citizen/non-citizen divide entirely. The systemic problem would be solved, and all people would be better off.
When we externalize and personify our antagonists, giving them faces and names, we do a disservice both to the people and to ourselves. We reduce them to a set of ideals, negating their inherent complexity as fellow human beings. We also distance ourselves from the ways we are like them and from the ways we contribute to the problems we blame them for causing. They become merely obstacles instead of potential help-mates in our endeavors to build a better world.