We’re watching ELYSIUM by Neill Blomkamp

25 Aug

Maybe Hollywood’s better off getting the future wrong, says Sumit Paul-Choudhury


Spoilers below.

Why can’t sci-fi films get to grips with what the future might actually be like?

So asks Joe Queenan in The Guardian“More than a century into the future, the characters talk like people from the early 21st century, dress like people from the early 21st century, sport tattoos like people from the early 21st century, and wear cobalt trouser suits like people from … 1987,” he writes of Elysium, the long-awaited second film from District 9 creator Neill Blomkamp“And, oh yes, in 2154, unemployed thugs will still be walking around in vests. I don’t get it. I just don’t. Does anyone seriously believe that, 141 years from now, people will still try to scare anyone by wearing tattoos?” 

There is, of course, a ready line of argument against such criticisms, namely that science fiction movies – at least “intelligent” ones such as Elysium – are intended to allegorise the present, not illustrate the future. And that allegory is only resonant with a mass audience when dressed up in familiar signifiers: thug tattoos for scofflaws, sharp suits for one-percenters. Futuristic, not futurological.

So let’s set aside Elysium‘s alleged failure to portray a plausible vision of the future – at least for the moment. Matt Damon’s Max, an ex-jailbird trying to keep his nose clean in the slums of Los Angeles, has just days to live after an accident at the factory where (irony alert!) he assembles the droids that now keep the Earth’s downtrodden population in line. An exoskeletal graft transforms him into a “favela ninja” determined to infiltrate Elysium, an orbiting space station lined with McMansions where the champagne flows freely – and more pertinently for Max, so does the medical care.


So far, so good. Plenty of allegorical plates are set spinning in the first act: homeland security, boat people, total surveillance, universal healthcare. Alas, they all come crashing down as the film dissolves into little more than a long – not to say interminable – chase sequence.

When Max does eventually reach Elysium, his time is spent battling his way through a variety of vacant medical and industrial facilities: we get a well-worn physical clash, rather than an intriguing culture clash, with Elysium’s occupants. Most disappointingly, his nemesis ultimately turns out not to be Jodie Foster’s icy security director Delacourt, who is as implacably determined to protect Elysium as Max is to penetrate it; but the bestial rōnin Kruger, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Sharlto Copley.

The potential for a thoughtful, mutivalent encounter between between heaven and earth evaporates, a cyborg slugfest taking its place. And the ending, in which Elysium’s bleeding-edge healthcare system is transformed at the click of a button into SpaceObamaCare, without so much as a nod to resource or population constraints, rings hollow. (Parallel criticisms could also be made of District 9; but what’s excusable and even exhilarating in a scrappy underdog debut is less enticing in a megabucks sophomore effort.)

So Elysium not only fails as prediction but also, in large part, as allegory, for all that it may succeed as a box-office friendly summer blockbuster. But perversely, its failure of futurology – or more accurately, its indifference to it – is one of its strengths. Queenan may decry its contemporary and palaeofuturistic motifs, but they give it visual and symbolic heft: while the film’s narrative doesn’t satisfactorily explore the intersection of its utopian and dystopian futures, its design does – and it does so precisely through carefully cultivated atemporality. 

Elysium’s spoked Stanford torus is taken directly from Seventies concept illustrations of space habitats, its groomed lawns strolled by manicured inhabitants against a horizon that rises to become the sky. But the imagery is détourned neatly by the knowledge that its inhabitants are the TIME 100, not NASA’s envisaged 10,000 homesteaders. And there’s the further contrast with the collapsonomic milieu of Children of Men down below.

Then there’s its juxtaposition of Syd Mead-sleek personal shuttles with Chris Foss-style gunships and tramp steamers. Max’s painfully installed cyborg tech harks back to cyberpunky offerings like Richard Stanley’s Hardware; his promised salvation, on the other hand, lies within the Elysians’ pristine and magical medipods.


Elysium offers a collage of futures, then: none of them individually credible, but collectively redolent of possibiity. Like Rian Johnson’s Looper, it mixes and matches to make its point; fans of the future can amuse themselves filling in the interstices and charting out the intersections. And like the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, which met with a similarly lukewarm critical response earlier this year, its context is more interesting than its content. 

Maybe that’s where we are with the new wave of “intelligent” science fiction blockbusters: what smarts they have take the form not of prediction, nor of allegory, but of palimpsest: overwriting yesterday’s futures with today’s preoccupations. It’s hard to imagine a film that set out to be purely predictive being anything other than preachy or pedantic; drawing on our collective imaginings, in visual codes we can readily grasp, creates visions that are all the more powerful for their imperfection. Megabucks design fiction: perhaps that’s all science fiction films can ever aspire to be, after all. 

Why don’t sci-films get to grips with what the future might really be like? Perhaps because it’s more interesting to get it wrong.

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