The average human female hand weighs around one pound. The average male hand is a little heavier at one and a quarter pounds, but nobody has a heavier hand than Elysium (2013), a sci-fi parable about nearly every hot-button political issue we now have. The movie’s commentary on today’s pressing matters is so complete, had it been made just a few months later, I’m sure it would have had pointed thoughts on how Miley Cyrus should be living her life.
It’s 2154 and the wealthy live on a massive space station called Elysium above a ruined Earth. The poor are left on Earth, where they slave away in factories, wait in long lines, are terrorized by robot policemen and live in neighborhoods that make City of God (2002) look like Westchester County. It seems years ago, wealthy corporations and citizens created Elysium and installed a government there, selecting a lucky few to possess the right to live there. Elysium is privy to space, luxury and, most important, the finest medicine available to humans, the type of care the Earth-bound rabble can only dream of. Marauders from Earth attempt to smuggle themselves into the space station, but their attempts are frustrated by Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who sits on comfy chairs on Elysium, wears white, and shoots down the ships that attempt to enter Elysium illegally.
Elysium is named for an ancient Greek version of heaven—or maybe the rich are baseball fans, as the first professional game was played on Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, but I didn’t see anybody playing baseball on Elysium, just wearing a lot of white and lounging around pools in bikinis and listening to Bach. In fact, classical music seems to be the signifier for wealth, as it always seems to be playing when it underscores decadence. I know this isn’t a new phenomenon in movies, but I do wish that liking classical music meant you were rich in real life, because I’d be a billionaire.
Instead of picking up a CD of Shostakovich, our hero Max (Matt Damon), a factory worker on Earth, chooses a different path at getting to Elysium with the other swells. In the factory where he works, Max is exposed to a dangerous level of radiation and is told he has only five days to live. Max knows that the medical capabilities on Elysium could cure him and will stop at nothing to get there, even making a deal with the criminal Spider (Wagner Moura), who operates a smuggling ring that attempts to land illegals on Elysium. A desperate Max is to apprehend the owner of the factory he worked in, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), a rich Elysium citizen who spends his days on Earth watching the factory (and demanding that his workers not breathe on him) and his nights in paradise. Elysium citizens have the technology to store information in their brains, a sort of Google glass 8.0 in which people take their information with them. Spider is after bank information that Carlyle presumably has in his noggin. Little do either Max or Spider know, but Carlyle has struck a deal with Secretary Delacourt to write a program that would remove from power the current Elysian president, who’s trying to curb Delacourt’s hardline tactics (the movie is murky on the specifics of this and doesn’t explain exactly how a computer program doles out power). When Max apprehends Carlyle and steals his brain information, he now has a program that could potentially make every person on Earth a citizen of Elysium. The rest of the movie chronicles Max’s race to the space station and the authorities’ scramble to control him.
Though the script resists using terms like “the 1%,” it’s not hard to lift the veil on what it’s hitting at. It’s about immigration, it’s about health care, it’s about class divide, it’s about the balance between security and liberty. It’s not about climate change, though, I don’t think, as it appears that the coasts on Earth are more or less the same. Although it seems pretty hot down there, so who knows? The problem is two problems: It doesn’t adequately put forth a point of view, and its desire to touch on every conceivable issue leaves it unfocused and unimpactful.
Science fiction is a perfect vehicle for using the future as a mirror for the present, and the earliest sci-fi movies have done just that, as many classics from the 1950s were using aliens and body snatchers as metaphors for the insidious nature of communism or the insidious nature of anticommunist witch hunts. Neill Blomkamp, who writes and directs Elysium has used this effect himself before, in District 9 (2009), an allegory about South African apartheid that told the story of humans abusing and segregating a race of unseemly aliens who came to Earth seeking refuge. That movie was no less unsubtle thanElysium, but it was making a point about the inhumanity of discrimination based on appearance. The trick of District 9 was to design aliens as unattractive and repulsive then make them sympathetic, drawing clear lines in the mind of the thoughtful viewer about times in which we’ve let our personal biases, our personal aesthetics, dictate how we treat our fellow human beings.
Where are the clear lines in Elysium? That the rich are bad? That wealth is inherently bad? I think anyone, including the super rich, would recognize the need for a shrinking of the class gap; the question is how to attain that. That Elysium doesn’t have a solution to that problem is not its fault (no one does yet), but that it, as a parable, doesn’t have any actionable individual messages makes it less than compelling, just a recognition of a problem for recognition’s sake. What made District 9 work is that it forced us to be better than ourselves, finding humanity and value in traditionally distasteful beings. In contrast, Elysium plays into traditional Hollywood types: Its heroes look like heroes; its villains look like villains. A subplot involves Max helping a friend get her sick daughter to Elysium to cure her lymphoma. The little girl is heartbreakingly cute, so you’d have to be a monster to not want to help her, but she looks like the kind of girl you’d put in a political ad.
Further, Blomkamp’s eagerness to shove in as many ideas as possible gets in the way of his ability to tell a good story. Ambition is admirable but unhinged ambition can lead to incomprehensible messes. Blomkamp still hasn’t mastered narrative form (Elysium devolves into standard and overwrought action set-pieces, as did District 9), and he needs to prioritize about the things he wants to talk about or find a way to marry all the things he wants to talk about with a story that will illuminate them and allow them to sink in. Here, everything is so rushed and hurried we can’t get invested in what Blomkamp is preaching because we aren’t invested in the people at the center of his story. They move around so fast, there quests reverse so quickly, and there’s no time to keep up and, worse, no desire. One sequence not only epitomizes this problem, it pushed it into the realm of the ridiculous. Spider is trying to find out what information Max has stolen from Carlyle. He puts Carlyle’s file into his computer and across a wall full of screens, hundreds of lines of information flash in quick succession. “My God,” Spider says after looking at this pulsating mess of data for 3 seconds. “This could make every person on Earth a citizen of Elysium.” I’m a very smart person, but I can’t figure out my own cell phone in 3 seconds. Yet the pace dictates that we move on to the next scene so off we go.
Blomkamp is an intriguing talent and there’s a lot here that’s good (Jodie Foster seems to be channeling Jack Nicholson inA Few Good Men  as she bloviates and puffs her chest out in exaggerated machismo about her prowess in protecting the station) but the overall effect is a jumbled mess. He’s like your clever friend who is great to hang out with unless the conversation turns to politics because he doesn’t know how to get his points across without rambling. Elysium is just a series of “And then … and then … and then …”