Reaching for Elysium: Why the movie could have been great but wasn’t

earth from elysiumIn the “Hero’s Journey” myth, Elysium (or the Elysium Fields in Greek mythology) is the paradise that true heroes go to when they die (think of Frodo in Lord of the Rings and the hero in The Gladiator). To the ancient Greeks, Elysium was a place at the ends of the earth where heroes, favored by the gods for their altruism, went. It is a state or place of perfect happiness; the equivalent of Heaven.

Elysium is also the name given to the Earth-orbiting space station of Neill Blomkamp’s (District 9) new science fiction political allegory of the same name. Elysium is where the privileged live in luxury and perfect health (thanks to health-pods) — after they abandoned Earth to the squalor they no doubt helped create. This is not made clear enough for me and is one of the film’s major weaknesses, in my opinion (more on that below).

The year is 2154 in a Los Angeles that strangely resembles the slum shanties of Johannesburg, South Africa (where Blomkamp filmed District 9).  We soon learn that Earth struggles in the mire of humanity’s waste in a state of general social strife. Abandoned by the wealthy elite (who have moved to Elysium), the rest of an overpopulated humanity lives in the squalor of abject poverty without food, healthcare, or the motivation to live. I, for one, would have liked to know a little of how humanity devolved so dramatically on a planetary scale.

 

A Different Hero’s Journey

From the time he was a young orphan, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon; Maxwell Perry Cotton) dreamed of going to Elysium, its impressive phantom form visible in the daytime sky. He promised his childhood love Frey (sympathetically played by Alice Braga and Valentina Giros) that he would take her there, to paradise. His mentor, a kind mother-figure nun of the orphanage, gives him the hero’s talisman (a locket with a picture of Earth inside), and prophesizes, “Es su destino hacer algo maravilla cuando tu es hombre” (“It is your destiny to do something great when you are a man”). She reminds him that when he gets to Elysium, he will see the most beautiful thing: planet Earth. “You see how beautiful it is,” she says to him as he gazes out at the ghost of Elysium in the sky. Then, as she hands him the locket with Earth inside, she adds, “look how beautiful we are from there. Never forget where you come from.”  Seen from this perspective, the planet Earth is a beautiful thing to behold.

Max is a reformed criminal who, like Blomkamp’s “workaday” anti-hero in District 9 (Sharlto Copley), is not very hero-like until the last five minutes of the film, when he has his personal epiphany and decides to act altruistically rather than self-servingly. This is a pattern that Blomkamp has used before; the reluctant-hero (Wikus Van De Merwe) of District 9 was an unimpressive man with many obvious blemishes. A rather unlikeable man until he makes his heroic decision in the end. This is where Blomkamp’s heroes differ from most action movie heroes, who generally start their journey from higher positions on the evolutionary scale. Blomkamp’s heroes must journey farther to gain their hero-status; they are perhaps more realistic portrayals of ordinary men who finally shine under extra-ordinary circumstances. Men who we start out disliking—hating, even—but find ourselves cheering for, perhaps even crying for. Max’s behavior defines that true hero: rising from his need to save himself to his quest to save humanity—at the cost of his own life. But, as with the ordinary man, it is only when he connects a personal quest to save the daughter of his first love to his global quest to save Earth that Max transforms into the altruistic mythic hero he is destined to become. Everything came together at the film’s end, in a montage of scenes that depict the locket of the planet Earth in his dying hand (Earth is Home; save the planet), the demise of a police state, the savior of his love’s daughter, and med-pods landing on Earth to dispense aid to the dying masses.

 

A Story About the Planet Earth

Ironically, it is to do with our beloved planet Earth that I felt in Elysium the most discord in plot/thematic story treatment and lack of resonance. Blomkamp begins with the planet and he ends his film with the planet. The symbolism is clear: in the stylish shots of Earth seen from Elysium (and vice versa); in the strategic scenes of Max and the image in his precious locket of not his childhood love Frey but of planet Earth; and his mentor’s advice to Max, delivered in one of the most powerful scenes of the movie. Yet, Blomkamp fails to follow through to give us that visceral connection. Why is the planet so important? How is Max connected to it or anyone else, for that matter. What is Spider’s story (Wagner Moura), a latter-day Che-Guevara, who fervently leads the proletarian rebellion of Earth? Who, why and how did the planet come to be so destroyed? There is not one ounce of suggestion, backstory or context. This is an important consideration; because without it, instead of feeling total resolution and redemption in the end, I felt a disconnect to those masses being helped and even some distrust in their fate and direction. Instead of feeling true victory, I felt ambivalence.

Called a “sci-fi socialist film” by P.J. Gladnick of Newsbusters.org, Elysium is clearly an attempt at examining and dramatizing the social segregation of humanity and economic fascism: a dystopia that promises commentary on social and economic issues in society today. However, I felt that its delivery was compromised by Blomkamp’s choice to focus more on action tech at the expense of good backstory, context and empathic character development. I’m not saying that it’s a bad story. It is a very good story; it’s just that it could have been a great story. The heart of the story—delivered through the main protagonist—lacks the global connection it could have had. This is not, as some reviewers suggest, due to any infirmity of the hero, his antagonists, or lack of symbolism (of which there is much), but the lack of context, backstory and richness of setting (I’m not talking about the visible setting, which was spectacular, elegant and stylish). It comes back to how each character relates to “home”, the planet, and to each other.

Matt Goldberg of Collider.com says that, “Elysium‘s message about economic inequality is couched in a finely-drawn sci-fi world, but the power of that message becomes diminished when we cease to care about the messenger.” Detroit News Tom Long added that, “Elysium is the sort of big, noisy sci-fi film that seems to want to say something but opts instead to concentrate on fight scenes involving gimmickry.” While I appreciated the depth and breadth of Blomkamp’s references to pop culture from an Armani-clad female Darth Vader to the Judeo-Christian references and symbolism, it just didn’t hold its promise.

What began as a promising exploration about an important social issue, devolved into a sequence of ever-escalating gratuitous gore and violence—clearly aimed for a different audience.

4 Comments

  1. Congratulations, Nina,a very good review.
    And you’re right, Neil Blomkamp is not a socialist, he’s a realist.
    By the way, we all know that the financial “aristocracy” is self-segregating everywhere on the face of the Earth.
    Presumably, they will lift themselves (the self-rapture of the chosen ones ? 🙂 ) to a safe distance from a polutted, flooded and human infested Valley of Sorrow and Tears !
    And I doubt very much that they will have human servants on the future Elysium space stations, the androids are far more reliable and loyal and they are not asking for salaries and paid vacations and health insurance…
    Les lendemains qui chantent ! Quel futur radieux pour toute l’humanité !

  2. „Blomkamp’s liking for politically provocative stories has its origins in Johannesburg, where he grew up in a middle-class family during the dismantling of apartheid and the skyrocketing violent crime rate that followed. He witnessed violence against blacks, and while a teenager a friend was killed in a carjacking.” (“The Telegraph”)

    “I think our problems are inherently unsolvable. We need to change our genetic make-up or create computers that will think us out of it. I don’t think humans are able to deal with what we have” – Neil Blomkamp (“The Telegraph”) :

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10244979/Neill-Blomkamp-interview-Elysium-isnt-science-fiction.-Its-now.html

    http://collider.com/neill-blomkamp-elysium-interview/

  3. I find that quote by Blomkamp enlightening; I also disagree with what he said. To believe is to create. We are essentially what we believe. And to admit to oneself that our problems are unsolvable is to admit defeat in humanity and our journey forward. There are far too many good people in the world for that. The quote also suggests to me why Elysium lacked something and now I know why: it lacked faith in humanity. And, as a result, it lacked the substance that would have provided the basis for it. That was what was missing from his story. The lack of genuine optimism. Elysium was an empty promise.

    Best Wishes,
    Nina

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