Early in Elysium, Jodie Foster‘s character explains her brutality against non-Elysians as the desire of a parent to protect her children. This provides both the only insight we have into the inner workings of Foster’s Secretary Delacourt, and an apt parallel to the experience of shepherding a story into life on the big screen.
Director Neill Blomkamp‘s 2009 masterpiece, District 9, embodied the best of science fiction-as-social commentary, with a self-assured voice that imbued even his alien characters with humanity. Though Elysium explores many of the same themes (classism, racism, segregation) the story feels as sterile as the futuristic gated community from whence it gets its name. One wonders if this failing stems from a parental failure on Blomkamp’s part to protect his story from the corrupting hands of Hollywood.
In the year 2154, the world looks an awful lot like the one Wall-E was stuck on, but instead of being abandoned, it is overrun by huddled masses, most of whom speak Spanish. Orbiting Earth is Elysium, a paradise for the .01%, where most people speak French (apparently the language of unassailable cultural superiority). Matt Damon‘s character, Max, the onliest white man in Los Angeles, must race against time to break into Elysium and access the life-saving medical technology reserved for the ultra rich. He tries to save his childhood sweetheart and her tooth-achingly sweet daughter, and combat Delacourt and her eye-rollingly psychotic minion. If the clash had been restricted to Max and Delacourt and their respective ideologies, the film could have said so much more. Instead we never really learn what makes Delacourt tick, though tick she does, like a robot with perfect hair and an accent that is intended to be futuristic but comes out muddled. Such a stereotypical villain is an insult to the sensibilities both of Foster and Blomkamp.
On the bright side, Elysium is strong on visual effects, and one wishes more CGI-drenched summer blockbusters could feel this organic. But the inclusion of Max’s robotic exoskeleton, while plausibly turning him into a powerful fighter, robs us of the experience of watching a desperate, dying hero. As a metaphor for U.S-Mexico relations (or Israeli-Palestinian relations) it’s heavy-handed, but as a serious speculation on the future of income inequality, it’s sobering. Elysium‘s heart is in the right place, or rather, there is a nice place where its heart should be.