- Elysium by Neill Blomkamp
The devastation wrought upon a ravaged and ruined Planet Earth, one that is no longer fit for satisfactory human habitation, has emerged as the common currency of much contemporary sf cinema. From Twelve Monkeys (Gilliam US 1995), 28 Days Later (Boyle UK 2002) and I Am Legend (Lawrence US 2007) to The Book of Eli (the Hughes Brothers US 2010), After Earth (Shyamalan US 2013), World War Z (Forster US/Malta 2013) and Oblivion (Kosinski US 2013), the number of films trading in the terminal destruction of humanity has proliferated. Even the computer-animated features 9 (Acker US 2009) and Wall-E (Stanton US 2008) delighted in the decay of the surface of a previously bustling metropolis, the latter sending an inquisitive robot on a clean-up operation for a dead urban wasteland that had long since atrophied. The wider durability of doomsday and dystopia, and the big-screen pleasures to be found within apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic futures, has even situated zombie pandemics, nuclear holocausts and ecological collapse within the throes of comedy. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Scafaria US/Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia 2012), The World’s End (Wright UK/US/Japan 2013) and This is the End (Rogen and Goldberg US 2013) all mark a recourse to the rhetoric of the apocalyptic aesthetic, though their presentation of a world half-empty is mediated through the filmmakers’ desire to find the comic in the catastrophic. Popular cinema in the millennial period is thus well-versed in the terms of its own eschatological enquiry, studious in its appreciation of a global end of days and steadfast in stipulating that Earth must go out on a spectacular, often CG-assisted, high rather than a careless whimper.
Given that this is a seemingly fertile, rather than fallow, period in which contemporary filmmakers are pushing at the boundaries of their own apocalyptic imaginations, the scale and scope of worldwide cataclysmic events continues to be progressively enlarged. Following the cycle of films that revel in humans abandoning earth to start their own space-based colony, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium adds a new vocabulary to the language of global trauma. Set in 2154 – the same year as another film showing the depletion of Earth’s natural resources, Avatar (Cameron US/UK 2009) – Blomkamp’s [End Page 433] world manifests as irretrievably maimed by its frugal occupants. The result is a dramatic division in humanity and growing societal antagonism. Free from the ruins, the wealthy elite now live onboard an orbiting space station utopia, the eponymous Elysium, while the ravaged urban space left behind is populated by the underclass. The film follows the story of one such Earth dweller, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an ex-convict turned manual labourer at the oppressive Armadyne Corp who builds sophisticated weaponry and robots on behalf of Elysium’s inhabitants. Following a workplace accident in which he becomes poisoned by radiation and given five days to live, Max bargains with smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura) in the hope of travelling into space undetected for urgent medical attention. It is on Elysium that any number of ill bodies can be saved from their malaise by Med-Bays, medical devices that rapidly cure poor health. In exchange for his ticket, Max agrees to undertake a mission to retrieve digital information that the smugglers can use to take control of Armadyne.
With distant echoes of John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (US 1996), and with playful gestures to the anarchic dissolution present in Mad Max (Miller US 1979), Elysium takes its ideological cue from the economic, social and political dimensions of immigration laws, healthcare and citizenship. If Blomkamp’s feature-length film debut District 9 (US/NZ/Canada/South Africa 2009) was an apartheid parable allegorising South African racial segregation through an extraterrestrial/human divide, the narrative of Elysium is evocative of class warfare as it condemns the economic disparities between the poor and the wealthy. The luxury of Elysium’s interstellar community functions as a surrogate for the...