“Elysium”: Flawed sci-fi film displays vision and conscience

Neill Blomkamp’ second movie is inconsistent and too violent, but it blossoms with artistic and emotional fury

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating: (4 Reels out of 5)

Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort feels quite a bit like his first film, District 9, only with a much bigger budget and A-list actors. It inhabits the same gritty sci-fi world and explores the themes of xenophobia, immigration, class struggle, and people exploding in a horrific fashion. What Elysium adds is an archetypal narrative to its story making it a worthy entry alongside this year’s Man of Steel (review) in the increasingly large canon of Christ-like figures. It’s not the masterpiece we expected, or hoped for, after Blomkamp’s exceptional debut, but it is an often spectacular meditation on modern dilemmas that often affirms the basic shared dignity of all people regardless of social categories.

Blomkamp does not paint with a subtle brush. The film’s opening minutes are spent explaining that the 1% have left Earth to live in a space station paradise called Elysium, free of pain, disease, or aging, while the rest of mankind is left on the polluted, overpopulated planet to lead short, miserable lives building the police robots that ultimately keep them in their place. All that’s missing is an operatic solo from Jean Valjean. If a person is lucky, he can get a ticket from a space coyote to be illegally transported to Elysium—not to live or work, but simply to reach the miracle Med-Pods that will cure any illness or disability instantly before being found and deported.

These scenes are harrowing because every person who lives south of San Francisco knows the truth is even worse. Most immigrants don’t come to the United States because they want to break laws; they come to work long, difficult hours in the fleeting promise of a better life for their families. There’s a beautiful moment early in the film where Max and his star-crossed lover Frey look longingly as children towards Elysium, which stands out in the sky like the moon. For those of the third world, the United States may as well be another celestial body, totally removed from their everyday reality and just as wondrous to their imagination. 

Soon Max’s dream to go to Elysium becomes a terrible necessity. He is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and has only days to live. In an act of blind desperation, he agrees to steal bank codes from a wealthy executive in return for a ticket up. Unbeknownst to him, the codes also contain a reboot signal for Elysium’s entire system as part of a coup by the sinister Secretary Delacourt, the head of security for Elysium who believes the President is too soft on the immigrants. This film could have easily turned into a thinly veiled depiction of Marxist class struggle ending in the rise of the proletariat. Instead, the villain is not the rich but those like Delacourt who have little concern for the sacredness of life. It’s a refreshing shift. However, the obvious disparity in class remains and its injustice is ever present. The starkest example is the difference in how the classes relate to one another. We all need the community and the grace of God, but it’s easier to experience without possessions.

Once Max reaches Elysium, his character suddenly shifts to reveal a new element of the plot that brings the film to a whole new level. Rather than simply saving himself, he has the opportunity to reboot the system and make everyone citizens of Elysium, but only through terrible personal cost. Jesus said there is “no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend,” and there is no greater poverty and material detachment than letting go of life, what St. Ignatius would call “holy indifference.” Throughout the film, the weaker, poorer people end up conquering the rich because they have relationships with one another. At first Max is only concerned with curing himself and has only mixed success. Once he decides to help Frey’s ill daughter, he becomes strong and defeats the enemy. Evil can only use strength and hate, not weakness, love, or self-sacrifice. 

Elysium’s biggest and most distracting flaw is its excessive violence and vulgar language. It’s not just that it has a lot of violence, but Blomkamp invents futuristic guns that obliterate people into tiny gobs of flesh that splatter everywhere (in what a friend referred to as “people juice”). It happens so often, in both his films, that it becomes cartoonish and offensive; it certainly undermines the theme of universal dignity of all people. Granted, when good people die their deaths are slow and tragic, but Christ commanded the love of enemies. Blomkamp has an endless imagination but unfortunately this problem of gratuitous violence has also become one of his hallmark features.

Most films are consistently good or bad throughout the story. Elysium, along with a few others like Black Robe, is a rare film that starts weak or mediocre and suddenly blossoms with artistic and emotional fury. Max’s sacrifice reboots the system, allowing everyone to become a citizen of Elysium, automatically sending medical assistance to Earth curing countless multitudes. Through the blood of Christ, all people can realize their destiny and become citizens of the Kingdom of God. Dorothy Day said that the unused coat in the closet belongs to the poor; so does the backup Med-Pod. Every country has a right to safe borders and sane policies, but the United States in particular needs to be generous in its use of resources and helping those who seek freedom in this great land. Regardless of artificial laws and borders, all citizens of Earth are loved by God. Jesus tells his disciples that they must do no less. While still on Earth, those who are fortunate to live in a safe and comfortable environment have a responsibility to share what they don’t need with the less fortunate.

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About Nick Olszyk 190 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.