Elysium: Good News For All? (Movie Review)

A few years ago, I found myself “discussing” Neill Blomkamp’s first feature film, District 9, with a friend. My friend thought it was an incredibly entertaining and visual film, but nothing more. I was incredulous! How could he not see the deeper roots there, as Blomkamp unpacked segregation and apartheid, showing what it would look like if an insider was slowly introduced to the world of the outsider? My friend just wouldn’t admit to anything deeper, and I was reminded that science fiction holds up a mirror to our lives but not everyone will reflect on what they see.

If nothing else, Elysium is a powerful story about one man’s desire to fulfill his dreams and make good on a promise in a gritty, space-age story of epic proportions. But this is not just a popcorn flick. Instead, the story of how Max (Matt Damon) struggles as a life-long loser, a thief, an orphan, a good for nothing soul, only to one day succumb to radiation poisoning. Pushed to see that his dream must be realized immediately or he will die, to reach an orbiting paradise above the crumbling Earth, Max undergoes a dangerous surgery and receives Robocop-like implants that make him a threat to the security of that orbiting, saccharine world.

From a science fiction perspective, I see a blend of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, with Blomkamp’s fingerprints all over the plot and depiction. His District 9 star, Sharlto Copley, plays the evil henchman to Elysium’s Minister of Defense (Jodie Foster), the brute who will mete out punishment on Max and Max’s childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), who has her own reasons for getting to the orbiting paradise. Throw in the “download” or code that Max receives as part of the plan to get onto the space station, and you have several elements that make this an instant science fiction classic.

But to preemptively argue, this film is NOT just for a late summer popcorn run. Instead, and you may have determined this from the previews, it is a parable about the impact of laws regarding immigration and an argument about health care for all. It’s a look at the distribution of wealth, and an understanding of what it means when we divide the world into “class” systems. Words like “undocumented” and “citizen” get thrown around here, almost to the point where this seems more transparent than District 9! I’m sure someone will fail to get the message, but I expect that by now. Yet, I still see more…

In the world into which Jesus Christ was born, the religious leaders and teachers of Jewish law held that there were certain mandates that one must adhere to in order to be “right with God.” They were based on Jewish law, but they had been twisted and taken to the extreme that they had become law unto themselves, missing the mark about what God wanted. These leaders saw their interpretation as a right and a privilege, and Jesus’ teachings threatened the status quo, as he preached about outsiders who would be insiders in the kingdom of God. Jesus ultimately paid the price because he died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, allowing that everyone, not just those who could financially afford to follow the laws, would be welcomed by God.

Max lives in a world where finances determine who is welcome in “the kingdom,” where the outsiders are held down and made more and more removed from “paradise” by those who created this world for good when it was first become. But Max’s “code,” the information he carries within him, is the only thing that can change it, and by his sacrifice, everyone can be made an insider in that orbiting kingdom. In fact, his actions bring that paradise to Earth.

What are we holding onto so tightly, believing that we have to protect it from others to have more for ourselves? Is it food, or medical care, or housing, or finances? Are we treating our possessions like we’re a one-armed man eating in prison? Have we forgotten what it was like when we had nothing, to the point where we’re the insiders these days while others stand outside the gate and suffer like Lazarus at the rich man’s table?

It would appear that Blomkamp has more going on than my friend might think. On several levels. But all good parables require interpretation, and we bring what we’ve already experienced to what we see there. Let those who have ears let them hear.


About Jacob Sahms

I'm searching for hope in the midst of the storms, raising a family, pastoring a church, writing on faith and film, rooting for the Red Sox, and sleeping occasionally. Find me at ChristianCinema.com, Cinapse.co, and the brand new ScreenFish.net.
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