Troubled Angels: Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium
Isaac Pletcher | On Aug 10, 2013
To be healed is a powerful motivation. In his short play, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, Thornton Wilder brings a startling clarity to the tension between the desire for healing and the knowledge that wellness and wholeness is not always in the cards. The angel speaks thusly to the despairing doctor:
“Without your wound where would your power be? … The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of the living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve.”
Soon after the beginning of Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi epic Elysium, it seemed clear that this tension between healing and knowledge was first and foremost on the mind of the director. And this is appropriate. After all, this is the same filmmaker behind the gritty 2009 epic, District 9, in which the life and fortune of the protagonist is forever altered when he finds himself turning into one of an alien race against whom South Africa has reinstated an abhorrent system of apartheid. Unfortunately, in almost all the areas where District 9 was a jaw-dropping success, Elysium consistently fails to deliver.
The premise of the film is explained with a series of title cards that dances on the borders of cliché. At the end of the 21st Century, earth is overpopulated and falling apart at the seams. The rich and affluent build and inhabit a self-sustaining space station locked into orbit above earth. This is immediately setting us up for a film that explores the politics of power, economics, and, of course, race. It can hardly be a surprise that the iron-fisted defense minister Delacourt that Jodie Foster capably performs speaks French to her family. We are being treated to a rather ham-handed caricature of a Marie Antoinette type figure in the guise of a young Margaret Thatcher with all the evil subtlety of Snidely Whiplash. In her official capacity she cartoonishly employs an overabundance of force against those who might disturb the peace of the society up on the hill. In true melodramatic fashion, she also schemes to take over Elysium from President Patel, a role that Faran Tahir attempts to play un-ironically — difficult considering he is just about the only non-Caucasian on Elysium. In a film that is so obviously divided along class and racial lines, the presence of the only Elysian person of any color being the sitting president just smacks of authenticity and courage on the part of Blomkamp.
The hero in this twisted post-Marxist collage is Max, a literal blue-collar workingman stuck on earth who is given a short amount of time to live after being exposed to deadly amounts of radiation in his robot factory job. Matt Damon is a safe choice for the role and plays it with a fervor that, while not entirely inspiring, is serviceable. The motivation of healing becomes mighty, driving Max to join forces with all-too-obvious Che Guevara lookalike named Spider, given an ultimately sympathetic portrayal by Wagner Moura. Max’s desire and timeline push him into this relationship even after leaving it due to serving prison time for Spider in a time before the events of the film. In order to shore up Max’s altruistic side, and have us believe that he wants more than just the healing of his own cells, a side love story involving a girl Max grew up with in an orphanage and her leukemia-suffering daughter is thrown in and quickly proceeds to run headlong into a brick wall, never gaining traction or allowing us to root for them.
That the film manages to hold a substantial narrative together for two acts is no surprise. Blomkamp is a talented director and the visuals are realistic and visceral. However, there are only two places where a film like this can seem to go. One is in a fantastical direction, a la Oblivion, where the protagonist is making such aberrant discoveries that the audience must choose to go along or be lost forever. The other is a degenerative direction. Unfortunately, Blomkamp jumps the tracks with this train. By the third act the motivations for almost all the characters have been thrown to the four winds and it all devolves into an unnecessary shoot-em-up between Damon and the fun to watch but tough to listen to Sharlto Copley.
Max starts out the film being broken on the wheels of the living. Yet by the final act he seems to be simply waiting for the angel to stir the waters so that he can jump in and get healed. He starts out as a hero because of his attempts to become a voice of reason and level-headedness in a world populated by the wretched and blundering children who have been left on earth while their hopes, dreams, and fates spin in orbit above them. He does become the wounded soldier, yet it is in a fight that quickly loses all direction and sense of purpose. The set piece that Blomkamp gives us in his third act has more of the budget and none of the humanity that we saw in District 9. And, ultimately, the healing that we long for is buried in a place that might be served by love but is as far removed as Elysium is from heaven itself.
Isaac Pletcher is an award-winning director of photography and producer from Denver, Colorado. He holds degrees in Shakespeare and film and loves to write about the intersection of visual art with the written word. He has worked on everything from music videos to feature films and has taught at Asbury University and Liberty University. He currently is an adjunct professor at Houston Baptist University and would love to watch a movie with you.