Unquestionably the most subversive big-budget film in years, Elysium takes its rightful place among the small number of major productions that dare to hold a mirror up to the rising tide of inequality, injustice and authoritarianism facing us all.
Although cast as a science fiction film, Elysium cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is: An unblinking gaze into the dark heart of corrupted power -- not a prescient view of some far-off dystopian future but a close-up under-the-microscope view of the dystopian present.
The title, Elysium, refers to the Greek place in the afterlife reserved for gods, heroes and those especially favored by the gods. In the film, it refers to an orbiting space station, a sparkling clean and well-ordered "second earth" populated by the elites who no longer have to live in the squalor of an over-populated and environmentally-degraded Earth. While the poor suffer from widespread hunger and disease below, the elites above enjoy the technological perfection of a homogenous society, a manufactured environment, and a medical system bordering on the miraculous.
In this new myth, Elysium is not so much the afterlife of people as it is the afterlife of planet Earth.
As a parable of what ails contemporary civilization, Elysium does an almost unparalleled job of touching upon all the major themes of our time (which cannot be discussed without spoiling the plot, so go see the film first if you haven't already) --
1. Identity vs Humanity: Who is a person? Who decides who has rights and who does not? Running throughout the film is the question of what constitutes a legal identity -- and the arbitrary way those questions are answered. The thrust of this theme centers around the dehumanization of the mass of humanity: they are poor, so they don't count; they live in another place, so they don't count; they don't have any power, so they don't count. It is in the exploration of this theme that the film exhibits the widest of extremes between compassion and violence.
This is a profoundly compassionate film. Its visual artistry evokes real empathy for those relegated to the dustbin of history simply because they are not born into a life of privilege. It especially evokes images of the coming generation and the personal sacrifices we have to make for the good of our children. Pitting the cruelty of granting rights to those who enjoy a "legal identity" against the suffering of those deemed "illegals," Elysium speaks to our need to humanize civilization again.
And this is a profoundly violent film. Violence here is depicted as the ultimate form of dehumanization. People are routinely treated visually as little more than "talking meat": There are simply more people blown apart in the most graphic way possible than any other movie in my memory. There is even, most notably, an instance of a face blown off -- perhaps the most subliminal symbol of dehumanization possible. One could argue that making Elysium an "action movie" like this allows it to get the major funding required, not to mention an audience, but it seems to go well beyond that justification. This is exemplified by (1) the exo-skeletons worn to amplify strength beyond anything imaginable for a human being and (2) the robotic security forces whose anonymity is preserved behind masks and body armor. Like V For Vendetta, which was also criticized for an uncomfortable degree of emotional violence, Elysium depicts a world in which violence comes from the top, down -- as the very language of authority seeking to control a populace from which it grows ever more distant.
2. Class vs Equality: The inequality of the right to resources that ought be held for the common good is depicted as the principal motive of the protagonists. There is little subtlety here: The elites look to be nearly all Anglos and those left to suffer the consequences of the elites' corporations are nearly all people of color. It seems to fit with the film's perspective that most of the protagonists are Latino (the Anglo hero played by Matt Damon was raised in an orphanage where the first language was Spanish). This seems to reflect directly on the issue of "legal identity" and the relationship between two neighboring nations. What is interesting in this regard is that poverty, hardship and inequality have made the protagonists quicker, smarter, and more adaptable than those who have grown complacent in Elysium. The subtext of this theme clearly points to how two cultures could be mutually beneficial.
3. Security vs Justice: There is a point in the movie where the robotic security forces are actually called "Homeland Security". Their strong-arm tactics are aimed at (1) maintaining control of the earth-bound populace and (2) keeping them from reaching Elysium. All this is more-or-less the dictate of Elysium's head of security, played by Jodie Foster, who contracts with known psychopaths to enforce her will. That she is violating her own legal mandates in doing so is of little consequence to her: Using the fear of "invasion" and the "loss of your way of life" as justification, she bullies into submission all who take a principled stand. Again, little subtlety here.
4. Technology vs Environment: Technology has chewed up the planet and spit it back out in vast urban ghettos on Earth, while up in Elysium it has produced a self-sustaining ecology that is both beautiful and in harmony with humanity. Little needs de-coding in this theme: It seems we simply need to make a decision about which vision we would like to see realized.
5. Poverty vs Health: One of the strongest themes of the film, this conflict is played out less in words than in images. Health care is literally out-of-reach for the poor still Earth-bound, the privilege of those who enjoy the "identity" of citizenship in Elysium. This intersects with a secondary theme, that of unemployment and the treatment of workers "lucky" enough to have a job. Damon's character, in point of fact, is needlessly exposed to a lethal dose of radiation on the job and summarily dismissed with no offer of medical assistance anywhere. That the final scenes of the film depict medical units arriving on Earth from Elysium to administer universal health care to all demonstrates the significance of this theme to the film.
Status Quo vs Re-Boot: Driving the plot is a piece of software that will "re-boot" the functioning of Elysium, allowing Foster's character to do away with the political impediments to implementing complete order in the name of security. The program falls into the hands (actually, the head) of Damon's character, whereupon it is discovered that such a "re-boot" could also allow for a re-designation of "legal identity" by making all humans legal citizens of Elysium. This, perhaps, is the over-arching theme of the film: Do we allow the status quo to continue indefinitely or we find a way to re-write the social contract binding people everywhere?
Elysium is a difficult film, as it should be, given the visceral nature of its themes. But it is a more honest representation of the state of present-day civilization than has been offered to such a wide audience in years: Here's why people do not agree with the way things are going.
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William Douglas Horden is co-author of The Toltec I Ching: 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World. This new version of the ancient Taoist oracle adopts Native American symbology in order to articulate the ethics of the emerging world culture.
Click here for sample chapters, reviews and a link for ordering the book.