Bright Lights Film Journal

Habitat for Inhumanity: On Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium

“Yes, there are things that disappoint about Elysium. But there is also much to relish about Blomkamp’s still-developing wit and vision, especially his parodic assumptions about future dominant languages and ethnicities.”

In Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi thinker/thriller, the shacks of District 9 (the township slum where the aliens were forced to live in his breakthrough 2009 movie of that name) have expanded way beyond Johannesburg to LA and everywhere else. The much put-upon Prawns, the aliens from District 9, are no longer needed to make Blomkamp’s allegorical points. The Ultimate Apartheid — rich humans set apart from poor ones — now openly reigns. Just as Malthus warned us, human overpopulation has done us in, all, that is, except the 1 percenters who have left behind the noise, pollution and graffiti to live large on a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style wheel orbiting Earth. From the vantage point of this ring, which Jodie Foster, as its draconian Secretary of Defense, icily calls “the Habitat,” Earth still looks surprisingly like its dear old blue marble self, despite all the bad air and bad haircuts (see Matt Damon as Max, a smalltime criminal determined to go straight ). When Max is terminally irradiated at the factory where he works, he becomes mad Max, determined now to live beyond the five days he has left before his still-handsome face falls off.

Early reviews disclosed Blomkamp’s themes: the growing threat of class warfare; the dearth of healthcare for the poor; the injustice of the 99% serving the 1%. It is a little sad to see Blomkamp abandon the quintessentially South African setting of District 9 to shoot instead in Mexico and Canada with Hollywood big names such as Foster and Damon. But it can also be argued that Blomkamp moves his focus out of Africa without entirely abandoning his nationalist allegory. A key figure connecting the two films is the South African actor Sharlto Copley. In Elysium he plays a sadistic government agent who is the very antithesis of the somewhat goofy, innocent bureaucrat-turned-alien he played in District 9. Copley’s performance in Elysium is strikingly effective (on a par with Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, 2007), and he actually outdoes Matt Damon and Jodie Foster for sheer screen presence.

There are things to bemoan about Elysium. The framing story depicting Max and his future love interest as romping children (shot partly with hand-held cameras) is particularly trite. Max, a larcenous street urchin, is told in Spanish, evidently destined to become the first language of LA, that he is “very special” and slated for greatness. We don’t need this sentimentality. Another problem is that the post-apocalyptic scenery of noise, chaos and rubble on Earth looks overly familiar. A barrio shot on location in Mexico would logically look much like a South African township, but one could almost swear there’s footage in Elysium that’s been simply recycled from District 9. The greenly serene computer-generated-looking mansions and lakes of Elysium look likewise lifted from an episode of Battlestar Galactica , and we get background female vocalizing on the soundtrack that sounds unmistakably Galactican in origin. There are more obviously creative futuristic touches in the similarly themed sci-fi Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion (2013), which appeared and then sank quickly into itself (i.e. oblivion). That plot about a paradisiacal orbiting space station was too convoluted; Blomkamp’s may be overly simple. And what, by the way, keeps the air, water and people from flying off of the open-to-space station Elysium? Surely, even spinning, it isn’t big enough to generate its own gravity. (And don’t tell a Trekkie that “it’s all done with force fields.”) Yes, there are things that disappoint about Elysium. But there is also much to relish about Blomkamp’s still-developing wit and vision, especially his parodic assumptions about future dominant languages and ethnicities.

Once we get past the bothersome childhood frame, we are in 2154 LA where well-articulated (meaning their joints) Robocops hassle honest ex-cons. Max locates his childhood sweetheart, Frey (Alice Braga), in the chaotic hospital where she works as a nurse but must also fight to receive medical attention for her own child Matilda (Emma Tremblay). Matilda, played with tremulous sweetness by Tremblay, suffers from terminal leukemia. Her desperate mother seeks a way to transport her to Elysium where medical bays (looking just like CAT scans) miraculously cure every ailment a citizen can concoct. Patched up by Frey, Max reports to his parole officer, a ridiculously simple robot with a painted-on face who, when stymied, asks “Would you like to talk to a human?” The robot’s ineffectuality is wittily accented by his parolees’ having added their own graffiti right on his painted face. We surmise that anti-recidivism is not a priority in this dystopia.

Meanwhile, up in Elysium, Delacourt (the courtly Jodie Foster) quickly chats in exquisite French to her beautiful friends and colleagues, who answer as if they, too, have just stepped off the Champs Elysées. So French, it seems, will prevail in humanity’s future as the preferred language of both couture and cold cash. Foster wears white Armani suits and plots to use any means necessary to stave off the threat of undocumented ships that arrive bearing huddled masses yearning to breathe (period) and make guerrilla use of the miraculous medical equipment. The situation reminds one of a lyric from the ’60s folksong “All My Trials”: “If living were a thing that money could buy, then the rich would live and the poor would die.” And the poor are indeed dying.

To do her evil bidding, such as shooting down ships of sick refugees, Delacourt has hired a sex offender named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) who, as mentioned, couldn’t be meaner if he tried (and he does). Under Delacourt’s orders, Kruger kills 46 illegals outright. “Send them to deportation,” she intones about the survivors. “Get them off this Habitat!” At this point, good stoners should be humming the prescient Rolling Stones’ ditty “Hey, You! Get Off of My Cloud!” Delacourt is irritated by the namby-pamby rule of her boss/President, an Indian named Patel (Faran Tahir). Evidently in the future, Indians will still be smart and quite numerous, thus capable of electing one of their own, even on Elysium.

The unlikely link between Delacourt and the fate of the lowly Max will prove to be Max’s incredibly cold — he must also know French — boss, John Carlyle, an übercapitalist arms dealer who occasionally visits Earth to check on his wage slaves. He is at his factory on the day Max gets irradiated, and his concern is for the sick bay’s bed linens, not the victim. Delacourt employs Carlyle to write a computer program to briefly shut down Elysium as part of a coup to make her President. Carlyle, played with proper patrician disdain by William Fichtner, is shot down before he can deliver the program. We later learn that downloading the program from a human host will inevitably kill the messenger. “That’s fine,” remarks Delacourt, in Foster’s best-delivered line. She excels in casual cruelty.

Max, counting down the days until his death from radiation, has meanwhile visited Spider (Wagner Moura), the proverbial kingpin/tech maven of the local gang. But unlike the Nigerians from District 9, this gang turns out to have semi-decent political goals. They outfit Max with an exoskeleton appropriate for Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots-style fights. He can also accept computer programs into his brain, setting up a fight with Carlyle over his precious mental software. Spider’s gang wants to use the reboot program to make all Earth people citizens of Elysium so that they too can use the citizen-coded medical machines.

Frey begs Max to take Matilda with him for medical treatment in Elysium. He refuses, at first, despite a somewhat syrupy animal parable about self-sacrificing friendship. Max changes his mind when the vicious Kruger, sporting what look like USB ports on his cheeks, grabs Frey and Matilda. One of Copley’s best acting moments is when he croons a sinister, unsought lullaby (in what must be Afrikaans), to the trembling child. Even the character’s name — Kruger — is a famous South African one, much loved or much hated, depending on how one feels about South Africa’s colonial and mining history. Copley’s character Kruger also lusts after a horrified Frey. His insane, chattered fantasies about their future connubial bliss are truly creepy. When Kruger’s face is blown off in a fight, we are much relieved to see him go — temporarily. Remember those swell healing machines.

The near decapitation of the detestable Kruger is but one of many violent special effects in the film. There are small flying discs that zoom at their targets, wait, implant, and then blow human flesh to smithereens. Other flying discs do surveillance, reminding one of the Obamadrone controversy, just as the Elysians’ refusal to share their marvels reminds us of Republicans’ resistance to Obamacare.

The word “Elysium” originally referred, of course, to the portion of the Greek Underworld, Hades, where the virtuous dead went to live. But many people probably most associate the word with Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy,” featured in the choral section of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. There “Joy” is said to be a “daughter of Elysium.” Here is the famous chorus and a cobbled-together translation:

 

An die FreudeFreude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.

Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

To JoyJoy, thou lovely divine spark,
Daughter of Elysium,
Drunk with fire, we step into Thy heavenly holy kingdom.

Thy enchantments bind together,
What human habit kept apart;
All men become brothers,
Where thy gentle wings abide.

 

 

Both of Neill Blomkamp’s full-length movies so far, flaws and all, have concentrated on moving us toward the goal embodied in the famous line “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” And that in itself should be a joy sufficient for the better half of this planet’s filmgoers.