“This is not science fiction,” director Neal Blomkamp has said of his new film, Elysium. “This is today. This is now.”
That statement invites a fair bit of doubt. The “now” of Elysium revolves, to an alarming extent, around punching evil robots. There are also gigantic space cities, “re-atomizers,” and biomechanically enhanced villains who re-grow their partially-blown-off skulls after catching a slow-motion grenade right in the kisser. But one thing is clear: All of the punching and exploding is clearly meant to say something about our contemporary society. Because the premise of Elysium is: CLASS WARS IN SPACE!
Elysium is set in the year 2154, after Earth’s elite classes have abandoned the planet for the titular orbital city. On Elysium, everything is suburban mansions, high-tech conveniences and flowering cherry trees. Meanwhile, the working class and poor are stuck on Earth, which has devolved into a low-tech shanty town policed by robots. Our protagonist — and audience surrogate — is Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker and former car thief who has caught a lethal dose of radiation at work and can only be cured by the “re-atomizers” on Elysium.
And that’s where it all starts to get very, very silly. It’s not that I doubt the movie’s iron-clad commitment to inflicting physical harm on Matt Damon — he gets his arm broken in one of the movie’s first scenes and gets fried by radiation shortly afterward, and that’s just for starters — but he’s not the only one getting slapped around. Blomkamp has never met a political point that he couldn’t hammer into the audience’s head like a railroad spike, and oh, boy, does he have some points to make with this one.
The depiction of class struggle in Elysium is slightly less nuanced and realistic than a Jack Chick pamphlet about Satanism. The first time we meet the Elysians — personified mostly by Jodie Foster, doing an odd but delightful little impression of Billy Zane in Titanic; much like Zane, she seems to be the only actor who realizes what a goofy movie she’s in, and bites into lines like “a citizen is carrying very important brain data!” with all the necessary taste for cheese — they’re gleefully blowing up space lifeboats containing people of color, and promising to “deport” whatever surviving “illegals” remain. I mean: Do you get it? Because this movie isn’t sure you do. This movie isn’t sure you can. This movie thinks it needs to speak to you very, very slowly, so that you can keep up. That’s why its rich characters are also invariably announced by hoity-toity classical music and say things like, “Don’t breathe on me! Cover your mouth!” to any working-class person in their vicinity.
Universal health care, of course, is also on the table. It’s so on the table that, even after Max is diagnosed with radiation poisoning and given five days to live, the movie feels the need to introduce a small child with terminal cancer, just in case Max wasn’t sufficiently motivated by his own health woes to get The People access to those re-atomizers. (Although they might not like what they get — the re-atomizer seems to develop strange design flaws whenever the plot demands it. For example, it can cure radiation poisoning, or a blown-off face, but not stab wounds.) The child introduces herself to Max by holding up a bandage and telling him, “I don’t want you to be sick,” in a touch of subtlety that will leave the audience reeling.
The points that Elysium tries to make are important, of course. Class struggle, immigration, health care — all of these issues matter immensely. And I do believe that generally, I — and most readers of In These Times—am on Blomkamp’s side of the argument. But the fact that these issues are so crucial is exactly why we should try to make the best possible arguments for them. We need to be smart, subtle and keenly attuned to the facts on the ground. When I look over my notes for Elysium, many of them simply read: “punchpunchpunch gunsgunsguns.”
There’s also the fact that Blomkamp might not be the best person to make these particular arguments. He’s done social-justice allegory before; his wildly successful debut feature, District 9, was about apartheid, with an alien civilization taking the place of black South Africans. But, as Nicole Stamp noted at the time, the movie condemned apartheid while portraying black people as scary, cannibalistic witch doctors and criminals. Elysium is decidedly less white than most summer blockbusters — most inhabitants of Earth seem to speak Spanish, and the Earth scenes were filmed in Mexico City — but our first sight of Matt Damon has him wading through a crowd of children of color, a gleaming beacon of pastiness for the audience to latch onto. And of the four critical roles in the film (secondary villain, main villain, hero and love interest), three are assigned to white actors.
The matter of gender is not handled much better. The movie passes the Bechdel test—Alice Braga, as the love interest, is also the mother of the cancer-ridden little girl, which means she gets to do a bit of maternal comforting before we transition back to the punchpunchpunch gunsgunsguns portion of the story — but just barely. It says something when one of your female characters can’t meet another without dying almost immediately. It also says something when the love interest doesn’t get much more to do than scream, squirm and be sexually terrorized by the secondary villain, all in order to properly motivate the hero. And then, well… then there’s The Adventures of Space Clinton. Call me paranoid, but when “President Patel” is being tailed by Secretary (of Defense, not State) Jodie Foster, blond and skirt-suited, and a large portion of the plot revolves around the nefarious Secretary’s plans to steal the presidency, I get the feeling that Blomkamp isn’t feeling too easy about the ballot come 2016.
Of course, it isn’t fair to expect Elysium to change our national conversation about class. It’s a big, loud spectacle of a movie. It wants you to sit back, delete your brain data, and enjoy. It’s the sort of movie where a man rips the head off an evil robot, the sort of movie where, at one point, Matt Damon successfully follows a man in a super-sonic space jet with his car. Elysium is a summer blockbuster. And though I can’t fault it for its desire to be more, asking a summer blockbuster to deliver a nuanced analysis of the important social issues of the moment is a bit like asking an elephant to play the piano. It might try hard, and it might have the best intentions, but in the end, you’re going to get a whole lot of mess and noise.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.