Thoughts on ‘Elysium’

Kate Elliot, prolific fantasy author, said some very interesting things about worldbuilding that I’d like to touch on, and I’d planned to write about them next. But since it’s fresh – my thoughts on Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, and why it didn’t work for me. (Spoiler: it’s not just because it’s pretty sexist! Really, though: spoilers.)

It’s hard to make things, and easy to shred them. And once you get invested in a piece of fiction, it’s tough to see other people coming down on it. If you enjoyed Elysium, I don’t hold it against you, and although I’m going to touch on a few socially sensitive issues here, please don’t take it as personal judgment of you, the viewer.

Total spoilers ensue.

Elysium is transparently a movie about class warfare – we don’t need to interpret any subtext to see that. I think this is a cool thing to make a movie about, and it forgives many sins. Science fiction and fantasy are great places to reify the allegorical – to render abstract situations literal, and explore them. Some of Elysium‘s dodgy worldbuilding is, I think, forgivable if we understand it as a metaphor.

The orbiting habitat’s magical healing technology, for instance, should realistically probably be available on Earth – it could be sold for a huge profit, even in a much less capable form. But it isn’t available on Earth, because it represents the health benefits you get just by being part of the ruling class, the life expectancy bump you get if you’re born lucky. Class mobility is represented by literally getting to Elysium – something that’s supposed to be open to anyone who works for it, but which, in practice, is prevented by exploitation and by force. (It’s a nice touch that the rich don’t want to talk about this force – Jodie Foster’s character can kill the immigrants, but only as long as she keeps it under the table. The ruling class needs to pretend to be open, even needs to believe it’s open, to hold on to power.)

Of course, this is some pretty transparent satire. Does capitalism deserve to be treated so harshly? As the dominant ideology in the world right now, I think capitalism can probably handle it. Art should criticize power. But as a writer, I think that Elysium‘s cheap shots rob it of some of that power.

Elysium‘s capitalist villains are often villainous for the sake of it. William Fichtner’s character, a callous arms executive, encounters Matt Damon after a workplace accident, and in addition to being no help at all to his employee – fair enough, he’s an avatar of a system that cuts costs by refusing to protect its disposable unskilled workers – he’s also an asshole. In real life, I bet a lot of problems with capitalism are also caused by assholes! But wouldn’t Elysium be more powerful if it showed that class inequality is a problem in spite of our best intentions? That injustice like this isn’t caused by sneering CEOs or individual bad apples, but by structural problems? By blaming Matt Damon’s workplace cruelty on one CEO, Elysium oversimplifies the problem. It blames that CEO, instead of the corporate culture that brought him up, the legal climate that permits him to exploit his workers, and his need to cut marginal costs to save his company (against what possible competition? We never see any!)

It might sound like bad cinema to explore these issues, but I think The Wire was a pretty good piece of television! As a general rule in writing, villains with reasons are more compelling. The closest we get in Elysium is Jodie Foster’s Secretary of Defense, who wants to launch a palace coup aboard the Elysium habitat so that she can restrict class mobility by keeping immigrants out with force. She literally and metaphorically wants to create an aristocracy: she’ll be the supreme ruler, and she’ll do away with the fiction that anyone can be part of the ruling class.

This is villainous, but it’s marginally better villainy. She has reasons – she believes the lower classes are parasitic and destructive. She wants to defend her children (onscreen for one shot). She is an evil we see every day: a well-intentioned person operating rationally, but in the context of a completely batshit worldview. Her good intentions aren’t good by most external metrics. She is the avatar of entrenched class inequality, secure in the belief that it’s right.

And here we find Elysium’s biggest failing (forgiving Foster her weird, distracting performance) – its choice of villains, and the gender politics that ensue. Jodie Foster hatches a plan to launch her palace coup by recruiting the defense industry (villain agency! cool!), but her secret weapon falls into Matt Damon’s hands. To recover it, Foster deploys Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a thug and rapist who has power in society because his sociopathy is useful to those up top. Kruger’s whole life depends on this – he loves being a thug, and it is his solitary source of power and meaning. Again: this is believable evil, the enforcer attracted by the opportunity to use force.

The rest of the movie’s runtime is occupied by Kruger’s attempts to stop Matt Damon, one way or another. Kruger’s destructiveness extends to the movie itself – he kills everything interesting about. Copley is fine in the role, menacing in a slimy way, but his character’s central role creates all kinds of problems.

There are two men of significance in Elysium: Matt Damon and Kruger. Each of them is paired with a more powerful woman. Matt Damon’s childhood friend Alice Braga has become a nurse, a member of the middle class – theoretically better off, but still barred from Elysium and unable to help her daughter, who has terminal leukemia. (Class mobility: a myth, here!) Matt goes to her for help with a knife wound, and destroys her whole life. Sure, things turn out okay for her, but not once in the rest of the movie does she display agency or make a choice. Her role as a character is over.

Kruger is a rapist. It’s one of the first things we learn about him. When he tracks down Alice Braga he takes her hostage, both as a way to control Matt Damon, and as a cynical, familiar way to control the audience. For the rest of the movie, Kruger and his goons threaten Alice Braga’s character with sexual violence, implied or explicit, culminating in one of those last-minute rescues by the leading man we’ve seen a thousand times. Women in captivity are threatened with sexual violence, sure. But like a lot of the arguments I’m going to be making on this blog, I invoke global data here: women in action movies and in popular fiction at large spend a disproportionate amount of time being threatened by rape, compared to everything else they’re allowed to do. And Alice Braga gets very little else to do. As in so many movies, her intelligence and agency are informed attributes. The movie doesn’t care about her, what she has to say or do, except as an emotional token – the innocent who must be helped and defended.

What else does Kruger threaten? Well, he wrecks the whole movie. Jodie Foster’s palace coup is derailed when Kruger kills her, deciding to become President of Elysium himself and take vengeance on Matt Damon. This sucks in a lot of ways. Jodie Foster is a better villain for Elysium: she’s capitalism unchecked, class inequality trying to become aristocracy, a structural villain. Kruger is merely physical, a brute, and while he’s scary enough face to face, he’s not nearly as dangerous as a whole society with a monopoly on production and force. It also sucks because it means we’re two for two in taking agency away from the women in this film. In an unintentionally symbolic moment, Jodie Foster bleeds to death while Alice Braga tries to stop the bleeding, saying ‘no more…’ and refusing help – accepting death just minutes of screentime after Kruger returned from it. What are we to make of this, except that the movie has decided (falsely) that she’s no longer an interesting villain? Why be scared of the would-be aristocrat when we could watch a crazy white guy seek revenge by punching a nice white guy?

Kruger’s coup is ridiculous – he and his two goons, despite the element of surprise and a few well-tossed grenades, clearly have no chance in the long run against Elysium’s whole security force, and I doubt they could create a stable society even if they did subvert Elysium’s core systems and robotic enforcers. What does his betrayal add to the movie? Kruger could still chase and hunt Matt Damon with Jodie Foster’s blessing. Matt Damon could still sacrifice himself to Defeat Social Inequality by changing ‘Earth Citizens’ from ‘ILLEGAL’ to ‘LEGAL’ on the boot menu (we did laugh at this in the theater). Look, dear writers: crazy villains are not very interesting. We like to watch causality and consequence. We like people with plans and motivations. What does Kruger plan, what does he want? To punch Matt Damon and rape people freely? He’s a sociopath. He works better as a goon, a smaller evil given permit by the greater one. With Jodie Foster dead, the rest of Elysium feels mechanical and aimless.

Perhaps we’re supposed to read Elysium as the story of two underclass men trying to come up – the defiant revolutionary, and the violent collaborator. Both, the movie seems to say, are pathways to revolution, one leading to the totalitarian dictatorship we saw so many times in the 20th century, the other to, uh, socialized health health care? But I don’t particularly appreciate a movie that makes this point by having each man undercut the socially superior woman he’s closest to. Matt Damon saves his friend and her daughter in the end, but that doesn’t make this her story, doesn’t give her the slightest bit of agency.

Feminists are often accused of nitpicking, of making everything about them. What I think these complaints miss is that the problems we’re trying to diagnose are widespread. Elysium was written by men, and in the end, it’s a story about men. They didn’t mean to rob women of agency or depict them as ultimately powerless in the face of male violence; it happened, I’m fairly confident, without intent, as a byproduct of other decisions, an epiphenomenon produced by oversight and underthought. Feminists aren’t just crying wolf – they’re speaking to a structural problem here, the problem of a culture and an industry that’s very slanted, that doesn’t admit women’s voices very often. This isn’t an attempt to blame men or to tear them down. It’s a structural issue, self-perpetuating, unintended, the kind of thing people in power assume is ‘just that way’ rather than trying to change. And that’s why Elysium screws up: it treats a structural problem as merely a problem of intentional evil, when in fact it’s so much worse. A sociopath trying to shoot Matt Damon, or deny him any medical care after an accident – that is the sociopath’s fault, and we, the audience, can imagine the solution is as easy as punching him. But a capitalist society that exploits its labor makes everyone complicit, and the solution is much tougher than punching Sharlto Copley.

Elysium has some amazing art design and some quite decent direction, in particular a few video-game-influenced shots and a number of surveillance-chic effects that mimic the FLIR cameras of helicopter gunships and drones. What a startling piece of intertextuality – first YouTube gives us the queasy voyeurism of actual military hardware killing actual people, then video games mimic these YouTube clips and allow us to play them. Some of Elysium‘s shots seem to recapitulate this whole lineage – touching not just on the reality of the original source, but the ways that violence has been packaged and resold to us.

There’s a weird bit of intertextuality with Inception when the criminals attempt to steal industrial secrets from a CEO’s brain, accidentally discovering the key to ending class inequality. A Marxist reading might have a field day with this – the idea of equality is literally a specter that haunts Matt Damon for the rest of the film, an encrypted ghost labeled ‘fatal’.

I don’t think we should ultimately take much solace from a film which suggests that the solution to class inequality is to make nicer capitalists, to reprogram the machine through the efforts of one white savior apparently destined from birth to do so. I wonder if there’s a transhumanist reading to be made of the film’s ending, the way technology is subverted and turned towards post-scarcity – but, another time.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘Elysium’

  1. mc

    My favorite part was the recreation of the Sydney Mead space habitat designs as pointed out in the recent Wired mag piece about it: The Dystopian. I liked the movie but not as much as I liked District 9.


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