Director Neill Blomkamp gained international acclaim with the underground hit District 9 (reviewed here), which combined convincing special effects and strong acting with a nuanced social commentary about interracial relations in Blomkamp’s native South Africa. Elysium continues many of the same themes, but also suggests that Blomkamp might be adopting the worst habits of Hollywood.
As a standalone science fiction movie, Elysium is decent. It’s a fast sci-fi thriller about a man (Matt Damon) who seeks a better life. Earth has fallen into dire straights while the wealthy seek refuge in an orbiting space station called Elysium. There are some pretty bold plot twists and the movie manages to be an entertaining thrill-ride.
The movie promised to be more than just another sci-fi action action flick, but unfortunately stumbles in its social commentary. Elysium hits you over the head with its immigration theme. This movie is about immigration and Neill Blomkamp wants you to know. Blomkamp even went so far as to cast Hispanics for most of the characters stuck on Earth (with the glaring exception of Matt Damon). The residents of Elysium are all white and have American accents. As an analogy for U.S. immigration politics, this is about as subtle as a Rush Limbaugh.
Effective social commentary is more than simply an analogy between a subcreation and the real world. Ideally, the story should help viewers understand the issue better or from a new perspective. Again, the lack of subtlety undermines the commentary. The managers of Elysium are portrayed as moustache-twirling villains. Jodie Foster is an unsympathetic dictator and Sharlto Copley is a sadistic bounty hunter who likes killing immigrants. The residents of Elysium are all wealthy and out-of-touch. The immigrants we see simply want access to better medical care for them or their adorable children. The movie insists that keeping illegal immigrants out is morally inexcusable.
Yet, for all of its analogies to real-world immigration politics, the movie’s depiction of immigration says nothing insightful about real-world immigration politics. The movie never explores the real drivers behind immigration politics, namely competition between low-wage domestic workers and immigrant workers. If anything, the wealthy in America and corporations are more likely to favor immigration as a source of cheap labor. There are also important questions about the capacity of government institutions and resources to handle a large influx of immigrants.
Elysium chooses simplistic answers rather than exploring the complexities. The movie’s finale borders on ridiculous. ***SPOILER WARNING*** The Earth residents manage to make all humans citizens of Elysium, thereby granting them access to Elysium’s healthcare system. However, in practice this would quickly overburden the station’s health system, leading to a deterioration in quality or a complete collapse. Oops! ***END SPOILER***
The contrast to District 9 is illuminating. In that movie, characters were not black or white, either in their moral or racial complexion. The government’s policy towards the alien refugees was portrayed as wrong, even callous, but not evil. Sharlto Copley’s character in District 9, Wikus, the government inspector, started off as a hapless bureaucrat, not a sadistic monster. More importantly, District 9 shows Wikus gradually learning about the aliens and gaining respect for them. The movie invited viewers to take the journey alongside Wikus and showed us why the government policies were wrong. By contrast, I felt that too often Elysium simply tried to force its arguments on viewers.
If I’ve been too harsh on Elysium it’s only because Blomkamp raised the bar so high. Again, as an action/adventure movie, Elysium holds up well enough. I focused on the social commentary aspects of the film because it permeates so much of Elysium. My review is not intended to argue a particular side of the immigration debate, but rather to show just how unsatisfactory Elysium is as social commentary. Unfortunately, one gets the sense that Blomkamp adopted more traditional Hollywood approaches to social commentary (e.g., increasing the action, hiring famous actors, and dumbing down the message).