This past weekend I saw Elysium with a crew of geeky sic-fi loving friends. I had been anticipating this film’s release for months, watching different versions of trailers as they were released. I have a lot of respect for Neill Blomkamp’s work.
Blomkamp, if you’re not familiar with his name, was the director of DIstrict 9, a film he produced for $20million and became a $210million dollar success. In a Hollywood era of sequels and reboots, his films are a refreshing break offering original scripts and characters.
Elysium takes us to planet Earth in the year 2154 that is full of economic and environmental devastation. The setting is augmented by Blomkamp’s choice to shoot at one of the largest garbage dumps in the world outside of Mexico City, using a modern day reality to show that this situation is not that “futuristic” but ever present. Similar to Children of Men, Elysium suggests that there’s a short amount of time left that first world residents can enjoy the stability and health that are our daily luxuries before we reach a current day developing world state of pollution and poverty.
Elysium is a settlement where wealthy people have escaped off the planet–an ultimate gated community where medical technology allowed people to live cancer and disease free in resort like homes. The film shows the trials and tribulations of people on Earth who against all the odds try for the opportunity to “sneak” onto Elysium in rogue space pods as “illegals.” The debates between the president in the film and Jodi Foster’s stone cold Homeland Security head character mimic debates in Congress around current comprehensive immigration reform and the increase militarization of the US/Mexico border. Once again, Blomkamp establishes that this “future” is very present.
Once the “illegals” arrive on Elysium most immediately flee towards the medical units that allow people to be scanned and healed of disease. It’s clear that the desires of those crossing government imposed borders are for the most human of reasons: physical well being. Blomkamp offers a strong gesture in solidarity with undocumented people coming to the US, showing that the ridiculousness of denying people basic human rights.
One of the biggest critiques I’d heard about the film from my activist world of friends that is reflected in this Salon article was the choice to cast a white lead in order to “sell” the film amongst a primarily Latino support cast. If you read interviews with Blomkamp such as this one, you learn that he was actually quite wary of making this decision, enough so that he almost walked away from the studios and all they money they offered him. I look forward to a day where we can have a broader spectrum of representation of people of all races, particularly in lead roles of films that have mass appeal and interest. But in the meantime I have to admit, I’m not gonna hate on Blomkamp for using Matt Damon to sell his film.
Ultimately, it comes down to two questions for me. One is: do you expect directors to adhere to how we wish the film industry was, or to the realities of the current industry? In other words, is it legit or forgivable in your book for Blomkamp to compromise on the main character so he can have access to $115million to make a film that will be seen by millions that offers a searing critique of our health care and immigration systems at a strategic time when both are under heavy debate? And secondly, what is your theory of social change and the role of film and art? Do you believe in a two pronged approach where people like Blomkamp subvert the system from the inside and indie filmmakers subvert from the outside and then at some point they (hopefully) finally meet? Or do you believe that change can only come out side of the Hollywood system?
If you answer yes (or I don’t give a damn) to the first two questions, then I recommend this film. If you love the sci-fi genre, I recommend this film. The special effects are seamless and Sharlto Copley does a frighteningly excellent job as the crazy and creepy rogue vigilante villain.
Hopefully its success will inspire the major studio funding of more original scripts and more space for questioning our institutions like Elysium does.