September 10, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
Neill Blomkamp loves parables. The director’s first film, District 9 (2009), was a clear commentary on South African apartheid, with its depiction of aliens segregated into a run-down area of Johannesburg. For his second movie, Elysium, Blomkamp takes aim at contemporary inequalities in the United States.
The setting is the twenty-second century. Earth’s wealthy classes have abandoned their overpopulated home planet for a luxurious space station, Elysium (named after the ancient Greek conception of heaven). The story follows Max Da Costa (a shaven-headed Matt Damon), a down-on-his-luck earthling plunged into a fight for his life against the aristocratic overlords.
Elysium features stunning special effects and production design, especially in the contrast between the genteel, immaculate space station and the dystopian shantytowns of Los Angeles. The film belongs to the “dirty sci-fi” tradition—à la Blade Runner—and avoids the perils of lazy CGI that doomed the Star Wars prequels, among other movies. Blomkamp conjures some inspired visions of the future, including Max’s frustrating meeting with a robotic parole officer.
As Elysium moves into its second half, however, it grows too action heavy. The fight sequences are difficult to follow, falling victim to the inexplicable trend of close, quick shots in which far too many of today’s thrillers indulge. Blomkamp’s action is downright boring compared with his views of everyday life in a dystopian future. The script must also be faulted for some plot holes, melodrama, and an ending that fails to resolve as much as it pretends.
Yet being a Blomkamp picture, Elysium is not simply an action movie; it’s one with a message. The privileged minority on the space station and the impoverished masses on the surface bring to mind the one percent/ninety-nine percent dichotomy trumpeted by Occupy Wall Street. Also, the desire of Los Angelinos to make a perilous dash for a better life on Elysium evokes illegal immigration to the United States. And Blomkamp touches on the timely topics of aerial drones, network security, and human–computer interfaces.
To me, though, the clearest political message in Elysium concerns inequalities in access to healthcare. The film contrasts the overcrowded, anarchic, and undersupplied hospitals of Earth with the situation on the station, where automated “Med-Bays” reorganize a patient’s atoms to cure any illness. Major plot elements involve Max and a young girl trying to get to a Med-Bay to treat their radiation poisoning and leukemia, respectively. The film also portrays the girl’s mother (Alice Braga, Max’s love interest) as a dedicated nurse doing her best in an underfunded urban hospital.
Given the acrimonious debates over healthcare that engulfed the United States in Obama’s first term and continue to this day (witness the forty times the House has voted to repeal Obamacare as well as controversies over state-run exchanges and the delay of the employer mandate), it’s easy to view Elysium as a movie about healthcare reform. Blomkamp tugs at our heartstrings by showing people dying preventable deaths due to a lack of access to medical technology. America, he seems to be saying, is on its way to becoming a system of medical apartheid unless something is changed soon. How can the richest nation in the history of the world allow 48 million residents to go without health insurance?
Unlikely as it may sound, then, Elysium comes off as a sci-fi epic about healthcare reform. Is Blomkamp’s message a heavy-handed political diatribe, or is it a thought-provoking way to add intellectual depth to a late-summer action thriller? That’s for the viewer to decide.