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Movie Review: ‘Elysium': Rebooting Paradise’s System

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Elysium (2013) is being considered one of the big disappointments this summer both in box office domestic revenue and on the artistic front. Director Neill Blomkamp’s previous effort was the highly celebrated debut District 9 (2009). In Elysium we find a classic dystopia story: we are in the year 2154, when humanity has adopted an extreme social class division. The rich and wealthy have built a new colony in Elysium, a planet outside the Earth’s orbit. A world (inspired by the Stanford Torus) with all the comforts, totally crime-free: luminosity, calm and security. Everyone else, on the other hand, keeps struggling for survival on our planet Earth, which is wrapped in pervading poverty, disease, decay in morality and overpopulation.

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Our protagonist, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) belongs to this second group, and he’s gotten very sick after having been exposed to radiation while working in a robot factory; he has just five days before he will die. Max’s only hope is reaching to Elysium, where he can heal his internal damage by lying on a Medbed. 

While in Elysium, Delacourt, a ruthless defense secretary played by Jodie Foster, tries to protect the space station’s borders. Delacourt is so overzealous in her mission of preserving the well-being of Elysium’s inhabitants, she conspires to overthrow the political regime with the help of mercenary Kruger (a manic Sharlto Copley) and Armadyne’s CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner). Carlyle develops a program that can dismantle Elysium’s security code and turn her into the new President.

Computer hacker Spider (Wagner Moura) agrees to help Max infiltrate Elysium’s orbit in a clandestine shuttle only if he’s willing to steal John Carlyle’s secret code in order to reboot Elysium’s security systems. Max is fitted with an exoskeleton, hardwired into his brain, and he’ll initiate a journey to defend his survival, and for extension millions of humiliated earthlings.

According with an interview for The Wire , Blomkamp identifies as neither liberal nor conservative, which doesn’t stop people from ascribing all sorts of agendas to him and his films. Blomkamp believes that Earth will someday look a lot like his movie’s dystopian portrayal – a Malthusian catastrophe; how America’s hegemony is slowly eroding en route to a “third world deathbed.”

Despite the superficial obviousness of the script in places, we cannot disregard the multiple meanings that lie on the film’s hidden symbolism. It’s no coincidence Matt Damon’s character stands for the last Anglo-Saxon white man in Los Angeles and he seems equally alienated from his past criminal background with Latino gangs (his best friend is Julio, played emphatically by Diego Luna) and from his own aspirations of living in Elysium someday. The name ‘Max’ originates from English or German Maxwell or Maximilian, whose meaning is ‘the greatest.’

Although his romantic attraction to Frey is underdeveloped, there is a hint of a nebulous sexualization of their relationship that suggests Matt Damon’s character is merely symbolic towards the second half of the film – an outsider inherently conflicted between his natural impulses and his destiny as final martyr.

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The story that triggers Max’s self-sacrifice is Matilda’s tale about an altruistic hippo and a helpless meerkat. Matilda: “The meerkat was hungry. But he was so small. And the other big animals had all the food, cause they can reach the fruits. So he had to watch them eat all the nice foods and berries cause he’s so small. So he made friends with a hippopotamus, so he can stand on the hippopotamus to get all the fruits he wants. And they eat all the fruit together.” 

Max cannot avoid to ask Matilda: “What’s in for the hippo?”, but Matilda assures him the hippo is rewarded simply with the meerkat’s friendship. It’s the key metaphor of the film, Elysium representing the hippo figure and Meerkat the destitute Earth.

Ensambling Max’s spinal cord into the exoskeleton can be read as the Christ figure nailed to a futuristic cross. Blomkamp even composes lingering shots showing blood dripping from Damon’s hands, as an allusion to the stigmata. Max tells Frey before he dies “I know why the hippo did it”. It’s a clear reference to the concept of Christian sacrifice needed to save all the sinners on planet Earth.

Yet curiously Elysium‘s humanist message (enhanced immensely by Matt Damon’s performance) could be interpreted as nihilist if we follow Max’s character arc in a literal way. In the beginning of his journey Max’s only aspirations are selfish and survival-oriented, not attached to any ideal, so his drastic moral evolution can be explained as a side-effect provoked by the lethal dose of radiation he’s suffered. Twirling down a desperate frame of mind, Max could not want to stay alive anymore in such a bleak chaotic world, so he ends committing suicide in the form of retrieving the data loaded inside his brain to liberate the humans and allow their entrance into Elysium – the Paradise.

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About Kendrac

I'm a Catalonian freelance writer, poetress and film critic. My favourite genre is Noir. My real name is Elena Gonzalvo.
  • Karl Lind

    I just saw this film over the weekend, I thought it was pretty exceptional considering that most mainstream films don’t leave you with very much to consider afterwards. I also enjoyed reading your thoughtful review, thank you.

    • Kendra

      thank you very much, Karl! for those who complain about spoilers, I don’t think it’s significant, I consider this review as an interpretation of the film.

  • Chaz Lipp

    Um… THANKS for revealing the ENTIRE ending within your review. Have you ever heard of a “spoiler alert?”

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

    I’ve never understood the spoiler alert argument and don’t think it should be taken seriously.

    Why would you want to know some elements of a story but get all precious about the ending?

    Weird!

    • Chaz Lipp

      It’s not hard to discuss a film in a review without revealing the entire arc of the plot. Saying something akin to, “if you haven’t seen the film, stop reading” should really be a common courtesy.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

    So you never watch anything twice?

    • Chaz Lipp

      Irrelevant.

      There is nothing wrong with a review written primarily for people who have already seen the movie. My point is that the reviewer owes it to his audience to make that clear at some point before discussing plot points (not just the ending) that are better left discovered by the first-time viewer.

      In the case of this particularly poorly structured review, far too much time is spent objectively recapping the plot. If I’ve already seen the movie, I don’t need a blow-by-blow reminder. If I haven’t, I’d rather find out the plot twists myself.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

    It’s not irrelevant and I know what your point is, I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense.

    A reviewer doesn’t owe anything to anybody, that’s just your own opinion, which you’re entitled to of course, but to me it is just silly.

  • gkubrick

    If it was not only published but was selected as an Editor’s Pick and a Top Story, isn’t the issue also with the editor? Why has that person not been called out here? Doesn’t seem fair to just rip the writer.

    As far as spoilers, what’s not to understand? Many people read reviews to get a sense of what a film is about and whether or not it’s any good to help them determine if they want to see it not to have the entire story revealed to them. Making the choice to rewatch a movie you’ve seen and having someone else
    unknowingly reveal the end to you aren’t the same thing so that
    question is irrelevant. I agree a writer can write whatever they want. Some readers won’t care like Karl and others won’t like it like Chaz, but why they the chance of losing future readers? If the writer is going to give it all away and I haven’t seen the film, I know I wouldn’t bother reading their review, especially since the addition of a few words warning the reveal isn’t burdensome.

  • wfay

    Decent write-up but you completely fail to introduce Frey & Matilda before talking about them as if we know who they are. You just assume the writer knows all about them. Seems like you cut a paragraph (or two?) out during editing, and should have left them in…