SPOILER WARNING: Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013)
Despite containing effective special effects and an interesting premise, Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013) falters in several key areas, which prevents it from becoming anything more than a sub-par science fiction action film with something of a social conscience. Though the film seeks to offer a critique of society it cannot restrain itself and as a result the entire film becomes far too preachy and obvious for it to have any true weight. The message that the film is seeking to send, about wealth inequality and circumstances and factors surrounding it, is not cleverly delivered, as the film cannot resist portraying everything as extremes. The end result of this that nothing can be taken seriously as everything, from the characters to the environments that they find themselves in, come off as cartoonish. And though there is nothing wrong with a science fiction film having a cartoon element or even dominating theme, it does not serve Elysium well as it is a film that seeks to send a message and also takes itself too seriously to allow a cartoon element to work. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) is an example of a science fiction film with many cartoonish elements that also manages to effectively convey its message, but one key difference between the two films is their understanding of their respective issues. Elysium suffers from a lack of subtlety, which results in its message becoming more of an annoyance than a point upon which the film meditates.
Unlike District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009), which used a tale of aliens and humans to comment on apartheid, Elysium’s conflict centers on humans. Again, a science fiction film with a message can do this, but the effect of the characters upon which District 9 focuses upon is that it is not immediately clear to the audience what they are seeing. Apartheid is not an easy topic to handle, but because it is seen through the lens of alien and human relations, the audience can be provoked to think about the issue in new ways. One of the greatest tricks pulled by District 9 is that it does not tell its audience which side it thinks they should be on. The film begins with documentary-style clips of people referring the “them,” meaning the aliens. What is realized later is that these statements could be placed over any real-world situation involving a discriminated-against people group and they would likely fit right in. As the film progresses the audience starts to grasp that they are witnessing parallels to apartheid and other racist situations that have existed and continue to exist throughout the world.
But Elysium does not hesitate to state exactly how things are and what the audience is looking at. Immediately establishing by way of title cards and sweeping shots of Elysium and the slums of Earth that the wealth gap is a real and serious problem, the good guys and bad guys are immediately laid out. This clarity does not serve the film in a positive way through, as it prevents the characters from being dynamic or even interesting. None of the characters in the film ever have any moral turns or real dilemmas, as they essentially only follow their original respective intentions and goals. Max (Matt Damon) does eventually sacrifice himself for the sake of others, but this is less of a turn and more of a logical reaction to the circumstances and opportunities that he is faced with in the third act of the film. Even though he initially tells Frey (Alice Braga) that he cannot help her and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), this statement is less of him being stubborn and more of him recognizing the impossibility of the situation. In the same way, all of the villains of the film, from Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to Kruger (Sharlto Copley) all maintain their villainous intentions throughout the entire film. Character development is nearly nonexistent, and like the social situations established at the beginning of the film, nothing ever really changes.
By keeping everything static, the film misses any chance it may have to truly explore the ins and outs of the situation that it is commenting on. In the end of the film the social circumstances are profoundly changed for the better, and so any chance that the film has of using its static nature to commentate on the static status of the larger issue is lost. Instead, the film is nothing more than a generic actions film with characters that are as much caricatures as they are generic. The social situation is the same in terms of its simplicity. Everything is placed in extreme categories as to highlight their differences. But this lack of nuance causes the situation to be overly simplistic and as a result it cannot be taken seriously. The poor workers are Earth are barely considered to even exist by the rich men who run their lives, and this makes the rich seem like nothing more than cartoon characters and barely human themselves. This is especially true for the owner of the plant where Max works, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), as he is essentially nothing more than a plot point without any depth or complexity. But even though he is a minor character that is not long for the film, his character issues are representative of the larger problem concerning all of the film’s representations. The rich are nothing more than cold and calculating businessmen and bureaucrats, but in the same way the poor are never portrayed as anything more than desperate and largely helpless. Without any sort of complexity, nuance, or subtlety, both the characters and the situations that surround them are nothing more than shallow window dressing that only serves the special effects that fill the film.
Without any attempt at subtlety or even misdirection, the film does nothing more than over-simplify a complex issue. By committing disservice to the issue of social inequality, Elysium condemns itself to be a subpar science fiction tale is it is bogged down by the very issue that it is intending to work through. This is the greatest crime that the film commits, as it fails to handle the problem of social and financial inequality in any way, and it instead ends up using the issue to provide its audience with thrilling visuals and situations. Elysium sacrifices its chance at truly providing social commentary when it decides to over simplify its core issue. With this decision, the film begins down the path of disservice to its issue, and it does not ever decide to turn back. Even the film’s ending is a symptom of this problem, as the conclusion of everything rapidly changing for the better betrays the real-world circumstance of the same issue. Elysium does not contain the know-how to effectively handle the social issue that it has chosen to dwell upon, and as a result the film fails in its mission and condemns itself.