Elysium: The Little Allegory That (Almost) Could

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 10 2013 8:19 AM

Elysium: The Little Allegory That (Almost) Could

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I think I can, I think I can ...

Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Over at the front page, my colleague Dana Stevens has reviewed Neill Blomkamp's Elysium as a "waste of a perfectly good dystopia." She's spoiled the ending, too, which makes me feel comfortable writing my spoiler-laden yawn about the movie. (I saw at at a critics'/public screening, hoping to collaborate on a Spoiler Special that fell through. Another time.) I'll say it again: Spoiler warning!

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It's one of the great metaphor-laden tropes of science fiction: Society collapses, and the rich people escaped to higher ground. H.G. Welles took the idea to its furthest extent, and did it early, but the 20th century's experiments with socialism and eco-panic had writers running back to the well. The wealthy live in high-rises while the poor eat Solyent Green. Magnus: Robot Fighter fights crime in the slums, then hovers up to the aviaries of the rich. I'm pretty sure that Morlocks lived until the Jetsons' stilt-lifted houses, too.

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Blomkamp takes the analogy to absurd new heights. In a dusty, dusky future in which Los Angeles looks like a slum of Mexico City, most of humanity is struggling to get by. The wealthiest citizens buy tickets to Elysium, a satellite paradise orbiting the earth, which looks like a wealthy suburb of Mexico City, and where life consists of lazing at pools, drinking white wine, and having maladies cured by full-body healing pods. (Both locations were in Mexico City.)

Into this world is born an orphan named Max De Costa, who grows up to be Matt Damon, and carries a torch for a fellow orphan named Frey. He grows up to be a carjacker; she grows up to be a nurse. Over what seem to be two fateful days, Damon has his arm broken by a robot cop, goes to work at his job (where he makes robot cops -- oh, sweet irony!), and is forced into an unsafe workplace condition that blasts him with radiation. "You will die in five days," says a helpful robot. On Elysium, he'd be cured. On Earth, he gets a bottle of pills that'll mostly kill the pain. For grokkable reasons, he decides to find a black-market route to Elysium.

Things get stupid, fast -- but let's accentuate the positive. The idea of grimey spaceships flying illegally into the orbiting city is fun. At one point Elysium Homeland Security Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) expects a conspirator to arrive in "19 minutes," which sounds ridiculous, but it's not asking too much of a spaceship to do that, as our current rockets can break the atmosphere in 150 seconds. The problem: How much of a problem can the city have, really, with spaceships that carry 20-odd illegal immigrants breaking in with some bogus ID codes? They can see them! They're in space! Delacourt is upbraided after she shoots two down (ridiculously, this is accomplished not with the city's defensive technology, but by a dangerous agent on the surface of the earth, shooting missiles), but when we see a bay full of swarthy immigrants being deported, we have no clue how they might get there.

Yes, sure, it's all an allegory. Elysium is the first world, with its wealth and live-saving meds; all of Earth is now the third world, with its poisonous air and lack of generic drugs. But the film does less with the concept than its makers seem to think. Earthlings look basically as healthy as Elysium-ers, if a little dirtier. Max's final victory allows all of earth to become "citizens" of Elysium*, with access to the miracle pods, but... was the problem that earthlings had the occasional bone injury or cancer, or was the problem that the planet was unsustainable and exploited?

Maybe I'm being too tough on the movie. I mentioned Soylent Green before; at the end of that movie, famously, all Charlton Heston does is inform some authority figures that the most popular generic food for the masses is made of people. When they stop eating it, they'll go back to starving. But I didn't think Elysium fully realized its dystopia. The aforementioned agent, played by Sharto Copley (Wikus from District 9) is evil in a generic way, and his late-game decision to kill his keepers and give Elysium "a real president" makes little sense even as an anology to the first world using puppet thugs in client states.

What do we end up with? A hero's journey that ends in martyrdom, some race-against-time scenes to save a child, Jodie Foster affecting a French accent, William Fichtner being William Fichtner**, and some worthy scenes of men in exoskeltons wailing on droids.

*This happens uproariously, with a single line of code in the mainframe being changed from "not citizens" to "citizens."

**For further studies in Fichtner, check out this year's flop indie weirdo-drama Wrong, in which Fichtner plays a manipulative psuedo-Eastern guru who drives humans closer to their pets through kidnapping and telepathy.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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