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Elysium the movie: a review


A review by Nalini Haynes

Elysium begins with Max (Matt Damon) and Frey (Alice Braga) as children, speaking Spanish and being cared for by an old nun who teaches them about life. They’re living and playing in Los Angeles, now an enormous third-world-style city.

Fast forward to the present. Max is heading to work but gets pulled over by robocops who decide he’s a threat. Max mouths off, the robocops break his arm. Where are the Laws of Robotics? Max is a second class citizen; they’re clearly not concerned.

Max goes to the police station to sort out the misunderstanding that has increased his parole period. The mechanical interface is as frustrating as any you’ve experienced on the phone.

Max gives up and goes to the hospital to have his broken arm tended then he’s late for work.

Max’s boss threatens to sack Max for being late but ‘just’ docks him half a day’s pay instead. On the assembly line a door gets jammed; Max’s boss tells him to get inside or he’ll get someone else to do it (code for ‘I WILL FIRE YOUR ASS’).

Max climbs inside only to be treated to a lethal dose of radiation. He has five days to live. He’s treated like a disposable commodity AND IS STILL EXPECTED TO WORK UNTIL HE DIES. Here, take these meds with every meal. They don’t quite arrange for pickup of the corpse after he dies although I almost expected something that cold.

Elysium is a space station visible from Earth where all the wealthy live in beautiful surrounds with clean air and lots of space. One of the elite ventures to Earth’s surface for work and totally bitches about suffering down here. The poor look up and see hope, a better future, if only they can escape to Elysium – without being shot out of the sky.

Elysium has awesome medical technology that can fix Max and lots of other people.

Max agrees to help some shady dudes get up there so he can have a second chance at life.

Queue exoskeleton (mechanical framework around the outside of Max’s body), BFGs (Big F___ Guns), robots, shootouts, explosions. Oh, wait, some of the biggest explosions already happened. Lots of guns, lots of shooting, spacecraft…

Social Issues

Elysium explores several social issues: the divide between the rich and the poor; motivations of refugees seeking sanctuary; attitudes of the more fortunate; America’s fear of being overrun by Hispanic peoples; and the comparative ease with which some of these issues could be addressed.

The movie opens with the children on Earth speaking subtitled Spanish living in slums and people living in luxury on the space station speaking subtitled French. Both switch to English once the world is set, once we’re positioned as outsiders, separate from both classes.

Elysium is as subtle as a brick. Don’t get me wrong: it’s easy to ignore the message if you just want the surface story. In the 1990s I watched Babylon 5 with people who did NOT notice Nazi Germany’s Night Watch and Orwell’s concerns about misuse of language until I got all excited. Some people prefer subtlety – yes subtlety is good – but I’m excited to be engaging with science fiction focused on real issues instead of pure escapism.

Representations of Gender and the Bechdel Test

Totally passes the Bechdel Test. This is a test of how well a movie represents gender: is it just about the menz or are women treated like real people. Elysium has mother/daughter conversations without anyone else present that aren’t about a man. Hubby pointed out a few others. (I wasn’t focusing on the Bechdel Test, I was too caught up in the story and internally squeeing about Elysium.)

The relationship between Max and Frey is not your typical Hollywood romance either – Kudos to Elysium!

Science Fiction

Science fiction as a genre tends to have conversations within the genre; author X says something in his novel, then author Y picks up the conversation and says something in his novel… Neill Blomkamp, writer and director of Elysium and District 9, obviously understands SF culture. Elysium continues the conversation started in the mid-twentieth century by authors like Asimov, Philip K Dick and Heinlein.

Many of the masters’ old stories are built in a universe were the Earth is the garbage bin of the human race. Only the disabled and unwanted left behind in the refuse left by industry while the rest of humanity has moved to a better and brighter future in the stars. In the real world, the Earth has been systemically damaged for decades, justified by a belief that humanity will either leave the Earth or that destructive industry will soon be relocated to Mars.

Elysium engages with that idea; time has passed, we’re not living on the Moon let alone terraforming Mars but we have the International Space Station. Blomkamp is engaging with the SF of old and saying ‘Times have changed, we don’t believe that stuff anymore, THESE are the issues we’re taking into the future so THIS is how it could be.’

Robots. What science fiction movie would be complete without robots? J These robots are programmed by those in power so they’re more Dark Angel enforcers in humanoid shape than Asimov’s ‘cuddly’ creations. The contrast between the possible harm Max could do to A ROBOT compared to the actual harm these robots do to people is shocking.

And robots marked ‘Homeland’. ‘Nuff said.

There are visual references to science fiction movies that have gone before without being comedic. I, Robot, Star Wars (double-sided blue light-saber acting like a shield, referencing how many of the SW movies?), Bladerunner… I need to watch Elysium again just to compile this list.

In conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed Elysium. It’s excellent SF engaging with real issues, well written, good visuals, lots of BFGs and robots for the fans. I’m giving it 4 ½ out of 5 stars.

The IMAX experience was great: the big screen was immersive. This movie is in 2D because it’s focusing on the story and telling it well rather than ‘look at how clever we are – don’t look at the plot.’ I confess I want to see ALL THE MOVIES advertised before the movie, even Pacific Rim (again) because ‘SPLODEY MOVIE with Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam but Elysium is intelligent with fanservice and it engages with its genre. You don’t get much better than this.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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