Beyond a simple metaphor for the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ Elysium, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, is more specifically about access to health care. In a dystopian future, the rich hover above the earth in a pentagram, their lives extended by med-bays that can remove cancer or even perform reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity lives below on a polluted earth, working for slave wages in hopes of saving enough to buy a ticket on a junk space ship that will attempt to breach Elysium and use the medbays before they are caught and exported.
We already knew from Blomkamp’s previous feature District 9, he has a rich and detailed imagination when it comes to futuristic technologies and also political commentary. For example, Jodie Foster plays Elysium’s Defense Minister (with a distractingly weird accent) who, like any good villain from the military-industrial complex, seeks to wrench power from the wishy-washy politicians. And then there are the mercenaries (Sharlto Copley, also with a weird accent) whom, once she has released, cannot be controlled.
The scummy world and the grungy technology in this film were all superbly done. There are several gruesome shots of flesh exploding in slow motion that should give Scanners a run for its money, if you like that sort of thing. Where Blomkamp could stand to improve is in the ability to tug at heart strings. Sunlit shots of happy children and choir music does not automatically lead to feeling, and this is the second movie — after The Matrix: Revolutions — where I thought about the hero’s climactic sacrifice “just die already and get it over with.”
For all of Matt Damon’s charm, Blomkamp’s script never allows his Max character to become more than a blunt instrument of the film’s metaphors. We applaud his selfish will to survive, but his unselfish final act rings false and is really orchestrated by the Spider character (Wagner Moura).
The world is imagined in great detail, yes, but the ending is not economically sound. If proper medical care for all was within the means of the Elysians, why would they deny it? These medbays look like they could be running all day, serving hundreds. Surely the Elysians would recoup whatever the costs are in increased worker productivity. And what of Frey (Alice Braga) who, along with her co-workers at the hospital, will surely be put out of business by this disruptive technology?
The alternative speculative conclusion is that the few ships full of doctor robots and medbays will be overwhelmed by seething masses and that now both Elysium and Earth are worse off. I do not think this is the conclusion we are meant to draw. I think a few more script drafts, perhaps passed through the hands of a sci-fi novelist who has thought a bit more about the future of health care and another writer who is able to gussy up the more tired aspects of the self-sacrificing Campbellian hero, and this would have been a much better film.
Already the box office for this film is being reported as “so-so”. Thus, Mr. Blomkamp, there is some middle-class justice in one part of the economy at least.