Sometimes, the stars align, the powers that be answer your prayers, and you come across a film that deals with many of the thoughts that happen to randomly bounce around in your head. There’s no particular rhyme or reason for these thoughts to exist, other than the fact that I happen to think about many different kinds of things a lot of the time.
Oh, the fact that I am currently teaching some of these issues in some of my classes could also be identified as a cause. Nevertheless, I’ll attempt to draw some links between film and real life and the thoughts I’ve been considering, so let’s see what pops up.
‘Elysium’ the film covers the story of a society set way in the future, in the year of 2154 (incidentally, that is the same year ‘Avatar’ happen to be set in, in which the humans fled depleted Earth). Here, Elysium is a space station created for the super rich to flee Earth and settle in an environment where the air is cleaner, the music more classical and the glasses clink. Why? Well, that’s because Earth has by now become so sick and so disenfranchised (more on this later) that the huge population of people does not support a comfortable lifestyle for many.
Elysium, then, becomes a symbol of hope and dreams for many to reach. One of the reasons is the medical bay available to every citizen there allows them to treat whatever ailments they may have, which in theory (and practice) allows them to live a lot longer than most people. Thinking about it further, it could be that this could also lead to a kind of overpopulation as such, but it is not explored further in that regard, and it this is that the poor of the Earth want access to. Attempts to reach Elysium, however, have largely failed.
Enter Max da Costa (Matt Damon). A former car thief, he turned a new leaf and is working an honest job at a factory that creates security droids and armaments. An accident one day means that he has a very limited shelf life of five days. In his desperation, he turns to Spider (Wagner Moura), his former crime collaborator, in an attempt to get to Elysium and that magical medical bay. As an aside, Moura starred and stole the show in the ‘Elite Squad’ films, and I am absolutely pleased that he didn’t let himself down here, too; when he first popped up on screen, this went through my head.
Captain Nascim…err, I mean, Spider agrees to help out, but only if Da Costa does something in return: stealing data from the brains of an Elysium citizen (here, Elysium and Earth are represented as separate nations; again, more on this later). Max chooses John Carlyle (William Fichtner), CEO of Armadyne, the company he worked for and was later practically sentenced to death by. Again, I will digress in saying that I’m also happy to see Fichtner get a fairly decent role in a major film. He has been a favourite of mine since ‘Prison Break’, and long may this continue.
The attack on Carlyle was complicated by Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a rogue agent with a point to prove, sent by Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the Elysium Secretary of Defense. This complication was made more complex by the fact that Carlyle was carrying with him data that could potentially put Delacourt in supreme control.
There’s quite a lot of characters here, then, but interestingly, they are all given enough time and space to become more than mere caricatures. Whether they actually become that is probably a different story, but I feel in tune with what their objectives are, their wishes and desires, as well as how these can easily become obstacles for the others. In that sense, good characterisation is not entirely difficult to pull off, if you have a decent understanding of the basics. The clarification of objectives, met with the creation of compelling obstacles, will always result in an interesting conflict that, aided by other elements, will pull you through to the end. Here, the interplay between all the characters here makes for compelling viewing. You know what’s going to happen, for it does not stray all that far from many sci-fi films here, but seeing how it plays out is interesting all the same.
Their flaws are also clearly evident. Da Costa, who has clear affection and attraction for his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), initially puts himself first beyond others, even when Frey requests for his help in aiding her sick daughter. Though we see the pull there tugging at his heartstrings, we also see why he decided to prioritise himself first, and why that decision may well be the same decision we could have made for ourselves.
Beyond the characters, the class allegory is also very clear. You can apply quite a number of Marxist and Althusserian tropes here, for we see a very clear separation of the different groups of people. The citizens on Elysium are very clearly marked out as the upper class, enjoying garden parties and champagne along with classical music and the kind of healthcare we could only dream of. John Carlyle, an Elysium citizen working on Earth, makes it very clear through his actions and demeanours what he thinks of them: “Cover your mouth when you speak to me,” he says to a middle-ranking manager. Meanwhile, the citizens on Earth suffer through the daily grind of hard life, made more difficult by the repressive state apparatuses such as inhuman and intolerant robot police officers and parole officers, amongst others.
What is interesting here is how the settings appears to be very contemporary. We are told that the time is 2154, but take out the spaceships, and I could easily imagine this to be the Earth of today. More research on this matter reveals that the director, Neill Blomkamp, made this a very deliberate choice, to raise more attention towards issues related to immigration and class, amongst others. This film has it high-tech weaponry and modes of transport, of course, but it is not necessarily a slave to it, which is a further reminder of how science fiction films need not necessarily reflect what is in the future. It is a fact that many people (including me, sometimes) forget. I read an article not so long ago about how many science fiction films appear to be limited of their visions of the future, and while that may strike many as being the case here, this choice appears to be something that will hopefully raise more discussion on the issue sooner rather than later.
Nationalism and citizenship is also one of the factors worth considering here. Almost every single citizen here speaks or appears to be fluent in understanding and using Spanish. Even the names, Max Da Costa, given to someone who is not as Hispanic in appearance, suggests the acceleration of a post-modern world, where the separation between signifiers such as nations, race and perhaps even religions, and their respective signifieds are very clear. This, then, is a film that depicts a world that marginalises and enhances the differences between all the people here, and how all these can ultimately be resolved at the push of a button. Indeed, we do not necessarily hear of nations such as America or Mexico, but of citizens from Elysium and Earth.
I wish, though, that it is as easy as it sounds. Though the conflation of different nations now appear to come under the single banner of ‘Earth’, a more interesting exploration of what it means to be under that banner might have made things a bit more interesting. I am not sure whether it is the focus of the film to begin with, but this might have been an area I would look into had I been tasked with the creative tasks of the film, to explore other people from other parts of Earth too. Perhaps that can be done via multimedia spin-offs that appear to be the norm of such blockbuster films these days.
That, and putting missile turrets on Elysium. Security is surprisingly lax there…
I should also add that this film should also be defined as a kind of horror, as you will see plenty of scenes and shots that would make you flinch, at least. If you did not, then the sight of Matt Damon having his head cut up would confirm you as a very, very tough (wo)man indeed. I am glad, though, that nothing is cut out from this film, and that is a testament to the maturity reflected by the censorship board in this case.
There’s so much that we can read into this film, and the kinds of readings to be made would make for a very interesting discussion session, if you are in the right crowds. For my part, I watched this film twice, once with my sister, and once more with my friends. The second time around, I went along simply because I had wanted to meet up with my friends who I had not seen for a while, and the fact that I still enjoyed the film (and still flinched at some of the scenes) suggests its longevity in the future.
In short, if you like ‘District 9’, you’ll enjoy ‘District 10’.
If only you can download the info from Fikri’s head…