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.
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.
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.