Elysium is a wake-up call. Anyone who doesn't get that film hasn't lived in Los Angeles (or set foot in Las Vegas). Hooray, finally a big-budget Hollywood movie that manages to be smart and touch on some real issues. The storytelling was bueno, if you ask me, it hit all its marks. I even cried. Yes, I did. In part because Matt Damon is so awesome and believable and really, you know, a hunk that you can't help but root for his Chimera-esque self. (You had me at half-robot exoskeleton!) How often these days does a movie make you think? Was it a deeply thought-provoking political film? No, but it paints enough of a dystopian nightmare future that if it does not give you pause to think you're either a) loaded so you couldn't care less or b) completely oblivious. (And by oblivious I mean stupid, kinda funny. Like this guy. ) I don't get people who don't get Elysium. It's so topical, so now, so much a warning of a possible future. Even though, according to filmmaker Blomkamp, it's not the future, it's "now, today." Judging from the weekend box office, a lot of filmgoers do get it.
How did Elysium make me think?
To start with, I'm a chick who loves sci-fi. My father, a scientist, introduced me to Star Trek at four-years-old. I've written a couple essays on my love of space (NPR). I was invited to a special tour of #NASA as a social media rep and their lunar program.
Elysium, in a way, is another version of Galt's Gulch. The film says that all it takes to become a resident was the money for a ticket -- and that's how all the supermodels (and super aholes) got up there. The "makers" vs. the "takers." I have a soft spot in my heart for Rand. (An oxymoron, I realize). Why? Because my father considers himself an Objectivist. The only thing is, my father (an aerospace engineer) is like a character on The Big Bang Theory and a super nice guy, and not at all what you think of and what most Objectivists are like today: clean cut helmet heads who make big bucks and vote Republican. In other words: boring and lacking compassion and nary an artistic or creative bone. Okay, I jest but that's my general impression. I don't count Libertarians and Objectivists as the same, even though Libertarians can be their own kind of crazy, I usually like them. So when I say that I came from that, it's more in the science sense, my father was a scientist and not in the asshole sense. The fact of the matter is: the "riche" on Elysium (Armadyne' CEO has it etched on his cheek) are all assholes. Whether all the rich in all the world are all assholes is a matter of opinion/debate... but let's just say when you live in West L.A., you kinda start to think so.
I imagine, if you grew up in South Africa, as Blomkamp did, you could kinda draw that conclusion as well.
Living in an urban environment, sometimes you have to look the other way. I've been guilty of it myself. I remember when I lived in Manhattan how hard it was for me, the girl from the Midwest, to step over the bodies of homeless guys. This was before they made Times Square a tourist destination, when it was still Times Square. (Later, in West L.A., I made a point to buy Starbucks for the homeless vets out front.) In Manhattan, I worked for two moneyed execs at the time. They, ironically, were not assholes but pretty generous with their employees (I once received a small Gucci bag as a Christmas gift). One was like Gordon Gekko, slicked back hair and a Bentley driver and the other was from South Africa. He wore Saville Row suits and had his morning newspaper ironed by his butler so he wouldn't get ink on his hands. (Yes, this was back in the day of those ancient relics -- newspapers.) The executive secretary, my boss (picture Joan on Mad Men but make her blonde and southern), had funny expressions for everything. She once said about an ugly, short, fat, balding lawyer "when he stands on his money he looks real good." It was all very Mad Men circa 1990s. We had maids. In our corporate office kitchen. Juanita and Jualina, they wore white maid uniforms. One of the executives devoted his lunch hour to helping Juanita study to get her GED. The Chairman and CEO were icons, in my young mind, of Upper East Side status and wealth. What everyone aspires to -- but feels close but permanently out of reach aka "Elysium." Years later, in the comfort of my West L.A. apartment, a palm frond flapping in the breeze and my cherubic baby daughter resting in my arms, my husband happened to come across something online. He looked up from his laptop and told me to sit down, which I already was. The pillars of the community and icons in my mind of monetary achievement, a la Randian idealism? All came crashing down. They were -- indicted. In jail. That was the Gekko one. The other one? Was a fugitive. Currently holing up in London -- on the lam. So much for idealism. Reality tends to come up and bite idealism in the ass every now and then.
Elysium is that bite, cinematically realized in startlingly crisp IMAX images of a future where we have lost our humanity. It's not just that the wealthy are elite and have access to healthcare that others do not, it's that the entire system is unfair. Wealth means access and on Earth in the movie, there is no wealth and no access. There is an unjust system. Elysium shows the dangers of technology and bureaucracy. Damon's character, Max, is screwed. His parole extended because of robots who dole out sentences without the sense of the individual. There is very little value to the individual human life. In that sense, it's pro-Randian. At least if you look at a book of hers (my favorite, the little known) We The Living. In that novel, Rand shows us the unjust system of communist Russia when an individual who the female protagonist was madly in love with was killed. "You can't pave roads with diamonds," is a line I recall form the book. Matt Damon's character is that diamond. He's special, "the chosen one" like Neo in The Matrix. He's going to change the world. He's not just gravel to be ground up into a paved road, discarded. Elysium succeeds in conveying thematic issues and exploring current social-political dynamics. National healthcare? Needed. At the very least, reforms. (In West L.A., I was shocked that when I left graduate school at UCLA, I had a hard time finding a pediatrician. All the "good" pediatricians were "cash only.") In L.A., people live behind gates, drive Phantom Rolls to Staples to buy staples. (If you're driving a Rolls, what the heck you need staples for?) Today we are in a second gilded age that's make the 1980s-1990s look quaint. The other thing about L.A.? They put smokestacks on the beaches, something I'll never get used to. It's easy to be anti-environmentalist from your miles of acreage, it's a lot harder when you see smog up close.
Blomkamp was inspired to make Elysium due to time spent in L.A. and after a troubling time in Mexico City. He has said in interviews that it's not the future, that it's Los Angeles "now, today." These are troubling times. The gap between the Haves and Have-nots is huge. Real estate deals go for millions in cash while cities enforce rent control to help average people, including the gainfully employed and students, afford housing in the city. The disparity and gap is polarizing. Like Elysium, it's unfathomable. Hard to wrap your mind around. Sitting on Santa Monica Blvd, there's a crazy homeless vet on one side, a poor Mexican family pushing a second-hand stroller, and a Bugatti with an entourage. (In case you're not aware, Bugatti makes cars that cost a million dollars.) It's no coincidence Blomkamp used a Bugatti space shuttle in Elysium. This is "now, today" indeed. A huge disparity. When you see it, it's unsettling.
Blomkamp did an excellent job with Elysium in showing these issues in a possible horrific future world. What the movie lacked in depth, it made up for in emotionally gut-wrenching scenes. Matt Damon pretty much made this film. He plays the hero with a heart (and brains) to a T. Wagner Moura nearly stole every scene as Spider. He hit just the right note of criminal respectability and leader of the rebels, without devolving into caricature. The bad guy was annoyingly bad. Jodie Foster, one of my heroes and a personal favorite, was perfect (although her accent a tad distracting). Although Elysium feels like an action film, with set-piece fight scenes, it's more sci-fi noir. Almost more so than The Matrix, which stylistically is very techno-noir. Elysium is more noir because in this story, in true noir fashion -- the hero dies. The world is messed up. Our "good egg" is just trying to understand all the angles. In sci-fi fashion: he saves the world but at a price. Like other sci-fi noirs, such as Blade Runner, Blomkamp (and Ivey who counts Syd Mead as an influence) does an excellent job of creating a world: the robots alone are a marvel. The lack of depth didn't detract from the summer entertainment quotient but I would like to have understood Elysium in more detail. How did it work? How did people become citizens exactly? Where was the corruption? This film needed a double-cross (or two). Everything in the film teeters on caricature but ultimately succeeds: it paints a realistic possible future. One we should all seek to avoid at all costs by remembering our humanity. Like these guys. Maybe there's hope for us yet.