Films set in the future will often trot out advanced technology as if it was show-and-tell day at school. Hey everyone! Look at the Genesis Chamber I brought! The good future movies are more matter of fact about it. The gadgetry is there, but it’s in the background, insinuatingly informing everything else we see.
Elysium does this in spades. On the surface this is a heavy-handed, sci-fi action parable about immigration, but woven within that is an unsettling vision of the increasing pervasiveness of technology. Just about everything in Elysium is a few steps beyond what already exists today – from prosthetics to flash drives to Google Glass – and watching the movie play with what might very well lie ahead is both thrilling and terrifying.
On the surface this is a blatant riff on the current immigration debate. In 2154, the entire earth has devolved into a third-world country: dusty, impoverished, technologically destitute and largely brown-skinned. The wealthy have fled to an orbiting habitat named Elysium, dotted with manicured mansions, lush gardens and WASPy citizens. (It’s a combination of Eden and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing). Space shuttles of refugees, desperate to take advantage of the miracle medical pods that are commonplace on Elysium, occasionally try to land on the habitat, only to be shot down by – yes – Homeland Security.
As you can see, writer-director Neill Blomkamp is hardly subtle in his social commentary. (His first film, District 9, is a far defter handling of art as allegory.) Yet Elysium still captivated me with its depiction of a not-so-far-off future and the technology that governs it. The central figure is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-con on earth who’s trying to walk the straight and narrow while working at a factory that builds robots for Elysium. Max lives under the thumb of technology. He wears an ankle bracelet, which is familiar to us, but there are also the robotic police who can instantly scan his societal status and consequently rough him up. In addition, he reports to an animatronic parole officer that analyzes both his whereabouts and the emotional tone of his voice. (Previous parolees have drawn graffiti on the officer’s oblivious face.)
Elysium captivated me with its depiction of a not-so-far-off future and the technology that governs it.
Indeed, it initially appears that there is no human authority left on earth at all. It’s as if Max and his fellow earthlings have been abandoned to a bunch of cruel and callous WALL-Es. Even after Max suffers a radioactive accident at his factory, it’s a glorified forklift that pulls him away. When he awakens, a medical robot stands over him, calmly declaring that his exposure was so high that he’ll be dead in five days.
That kicks the movie’s plot into high gear, as Max teams up with a crime boss (an abrasive Wagner Moura) from his past in order to sneak his way onto Elysium and into one of those medical pods. It’s at this point where Blomkamp starts adding too many narrative threads – there’s also Max’s childhood friend (Alice Braga), who has a sick daughter, and a rogue Elysium agent (District 9’s Sharlto Copley), who is out to stop him – but connecting each of these subplots is the persistent idea of technology as humanity’s curse/savior.
This notion becomes personified in Max when he agrees to undergo surgery at the hands of the crime boss. The plan is to implant a device that will allow Max to download the memory of an Elysium CEO directly to his own head (thereby giving them control of the habitat). After the surgery – a sequence that, along with District 9’s alien invasiveness, suggests Blomkamp may be David Cronenberg’s heir in the body-horror genre – Max becomes a military-grade flash drive, part Dropbox and part Robocop.
For a society that’s already planting microchips in its pets and wearing computer devices on our faces, Max should be a striking, disturbing figure. As a whole, Elysium may not entirely work – it’s certainly more of an overstuffed studio product than Blomkamp’s endearingly scruffy first feature – but there’s enough ingenuity around the edges to keep things interesting. Especially if you’re thinking about ordering a medical pod.