Pinned like a note in a hospital gown… #Elysium is a C-grade District 9 #reviews

Day 224
Elysium (Photo credit: Todd Awbrey)

Elysium is the lefty crybaby film of 2013.  In the not-too distant future, the wealthy have decided to relocate to Elysium, a satellite high above the Earth and leave behind everybody else to enjoy the stinking hot, overcrowded planet.  Elysium becomes an object of aspiration and envy for the people left back on Earth and children, like Max, grow up hoping to move there one day.

But Max grows up to become a criminal instead.  On parole for grand theft auto and a few other violent crimes, he works at a factory that sprays robots in radiation.  The terrible health and safety standards at the factory result in Max being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation.  As the only health service that can cure him is on Elysium, Max seeks out a local crime lord to facilitate transportation to Elysium.  In exchange for the ticket to Elysium, the crime lord wants Max to help him steal passwords and bank account details from the brain of a wealthy businessman.  By wacky coincidence, the information that Max steals reveals a conspiracy against the government of Elysium.  Max ends up on the run from assassins and on a quest to bring down Elysium.

To understand why this film is so bad, we should look at what made District 9 — by the same writer and director, Neill Blomkamp — so excellent.

District 9 was about the ghettoisation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers.  One day, a spaceship arrives in Earth’s atmosphere filled with aliens who have fled their home planet.  The aliens — which, due to their appearance, are called ‘Prawns’ — are placed in a camp on the outskirts of a city.  Because they are denied the ability to integrate into the regular economy and social life of the community, they end up with social problems and associations with local crime markets.  One of the Prawns, however, is determined to keep his culture and science alive.  He begins the process of trying to fix the spaceship so they can go to a different planet.  The film follows a human civil servant, Wikus, who experiences what it is like to be dehumanised, while at the same time revealing how difficult it is for a dispossessed group of people to retain their dignity.

Although the political message of District 9 is not subtle, it is effective because it is clever.

Elysium‘s target appears to be segregated gated communities.  The wealthy have cut themselves off from the rest of the world and they are living decadent lives, and they are protecting that distance through social and physical violence.  When a group of people from Earth decide to jump in a makeshift spaceshuttle to raid Elysium, the authorities on Elysium order the shuttles to be shot down.

Where District 9 almost forced us to sympathise with the Prawns by presenting them as a genuinely excellent group of people who had been degraded, Elysium instead presents us with main characters so awful that it’s difficult not to sympathise with the wealthy.

Max (played by Matt Damon) feels that the system is unfair because it treats him like a criminal.  But the dude is a criminal.  He’s on parole for grand theft auto and violent crimes.  He’s offered medication in order to keep his anger management under control.  When the police notice him in a queue with a suspicious-looking backpack (why is he the only person in the queue with a backpack), Max decides to be a jerk and lie about the contents of the bag.  In the altercation that follows, Max’s arm is broken.  The film seems to want us to feel sympathy for Max, but he is the author of his own misery.

And this seems to extend to the rest of Max’ society.  Why are there so many police-bots roaming the place?  Because crime is absolutely rampant.  Even the local children are pickpockets.  If I lived in a society where becoming a victim of crime was almost certainly guaranteed, I would build a freaking space palace as well.

But it’s when Max gets exposed to radiation that the film breaks down.  Max is working with this piece of machinery when the door starts to malfunction.  His supervisor tells him to jump inside the machine in order to resolve the problem with the added caveat: ‘Either you jump inside the machine, or I fire you and find somebody else who will jump inside the machine.’  Max — who values his job more than his life — jumps in the machine and gets irradiated.

We can understand the pressure that a person might face if they’re the working poor and desperately need to keep down a job.  This isn’t the fantasy aspect of the film.  If ever there were a perfect demonstration that libertarians are evil, it’s workplace laws.

On Elysium, every house has a medical pod which cures every disease for free.  Max knows that a few seconds in one of these medical pods would cure his radiation sickness.  Max’ boss knows that a few seconds in one of these medical pods would cure his radiation sickness.  The owner of the factory (who lives on Elysium) knows that a few seconds in one of these medical pods would cure his radiation sickness.  And, remember, these medical pods are apparently free to run.

But instead of giving him this magical medicine, they give him a bottle of pain medication and tell him that he’s going to be dead in five days.

It makes zero sense.  At the end of the film, we’re going to see that giving everybody free magic healthcare costs society a grand total of zero dollars.  So why on Earth isn’t Max being given access to the free magical healthcare pod?

The owner of the factory looks directly at Max when he decides not to give him the free medical healthcare magic (which would take zero effort, by the way), opting instead to give him consumable but ineffective healthcare in the form of pain management.  It’s a completely bonkers set up.

If healthcare were magical and free, everybody would happily undertake all kinds of risks.  The film even shows us that getting your face blown up with a grenade is no big deal when these magical pods can regrow faces (including beards).

‘Shit, I’m poor,’ thinks Max, ‘and I really need this job.  Fortunately, there is magical free healthcare and so I’m happy to jump inside the radiation machine.  I keep my job, my minimum wage, and my health.  Huzzah.’

Denied access to the magical healthcare pod, Max happily turns to crime in order to facilitate his trip to Elysium to get magical free healthcare.  From this point forward, we have no reason to sympathise with Max and the people of Earth.  Max agrees to shoot down, kidnap, and then steal the information content of a rich guy’s head.

The film seems to convey the message that it is somehow morally okay for Max to turn to crime in order to fund his trip to Elysium.  It is by coincidence that Max uncovers the conspiracy against the state, making the guy Max targets seem like more of a criminal than Max.  But the result is the same: the film asks us to choose between two groups of villains — the poor villains or the wealthy villains.  As such, it becomes difficult to care what really happens.

District 9 at least played in the ballpark of being a good analogy for a real world problem.  Elysium is lefty fantasy which relies on the audience sharing the intuitions of the filmmaker: wealthy people are hoarding all the good stuff and letting poor people rot.  If you’re not immediately sympathetic to this view, this film will be incoherent.

As a brute action film, it’s fairly dull and lifeless.  Some of the action scenes feel a bit too much like an XBox game than a film, and the movie repeatedly falls into the scifi trap of ‘omnipotent weapons’.  The acting is mostly non-existent.  Although I loved Sharlto Copley as Wikus in District 9, he seems wildly out of place as Earth’s most illegal assassin.  Everybody else was merely bland.

If you’re thinking of watching this film, go watch District 9 instead.  It’s a far superior film.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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