For writer and director Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is round two of sci-fi feature as social allegory, following in the footsteps of 2009’s District 9. Whereas District 9 paralleled the history of apartheid in South Africa, Elysium deals with issues of illegal immigration and social class, centered on everyone’s favorite pre-apocalyptic wasteland, Los Angeles.
It’s a pure joy to see L.A. extrapolated to a vibrant, populous, spray-painted pile of rubble in the year 2154, where even gringos like Matt Damon hablan español. This proletariat L.A., where ex-con Damon earns minimum wage building robot cops for “the man,” lies in stark contrast to the wheeling space station Elysium, where all the wealthy white people have gone to live lives of privilege and comfort. On Elysium, if you break your leg or get your face blown off by a grenade, you have only to lie in a Med-Pod for a few seconds to be totally healed. Then you can take your wine and picnic basket to a well-manicured lawn for lunch.
Wanting better healthcare, the denigrated residents of L.A. attempt to cross the “border” into Elysium illegally, and get blown out of space for their efforts. One suspects Elysium would have less of a security problem if it weren’t parked in geosynchronous orbit directly above Los Angeles, taunting our heroes below. Why hang your elitist space station like forbidden fruit over the heads of the downtrodden?
Unfortunately, all the allegory in the world can’t prevent this film from settling its differences with fisticuffs. Sharlto Copley, as the bad guy Kruger, portrays one of the more nuanced and credible villains in recent memory, while Jodie Foster, exuding white-collar cruelty, delivers her lines on stilts. But ultimately, it’s our star Matt Damon who brings about equality for all, sacrificing himself, Christ-like, for the welfare of the Hispanic peoples. Why this requires an attractive white man is hard to say. How can this film refute white exceptionalism while depending on it for a denouement? In the world of Elysium, where do all the producers and movie stars live? And where would our friend Neill Blomkamp find himself?