Can dystopia end happily? A conversation about “Elysium” (2013)

15 August 2013

In the future according to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, LA looks like the favelas outside Rio — a vast, dusty, treeless series of shantytowns covering those coastal hills as far as the eye can see. It’s overwhelmingly Latino — everyone speaks Spanish, or Spanglish — and we learn that the rest of Earth is similarly dark-skinned and downtrodden. A title card tells us that the world is diseased, overpopulated, and broken, and that the wealthiest have decamped from Earth altogether for a kind of space station called Elysium that looks like Bel Air on steroids, where they sip champagne, swim in glamorous pools, and speak French.


It’s a great premise, fully in keeping with the brilliant work Blomkamp did with his earlier District 9 (2009) — a believable dystopia that reflects the worst tendencies of today’s world, the ways that the wealthy can hoard the best resources for themselves. In a brief flashback, a little boy called Max (who grows up to be Matt Damon) gets taught to read by a little girl called Frey (who grows up to be Alice Braga) as they pour over a book describing the wonders of Elysium. He gazes up at her with love, and promises to take her there someday.

We know he will. But how? and what will the consequences be? By the time we find the adult Max, he’s an ex-con on parole working in a factory making the robo-cops that terrorize the populace, and he and Frey have lost touch.

Add to this story a sharp-edged, power-hungry Elysium defense chief named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) with a sort of South African accent; Delacourt’s designated mercenary named Kruger, who solves problems for her with murderous glee (an unrecognizable Sharlto Copley, who played the hapless lead in District 9); and a crime kingpin on Earth named Spider (Wagner Moura), who sends shuttles full of illegal immigrants up to Elysium on the off-chance they’ll make it past Delacourt’s defenses. Those who don’t make it … well, what do the inhabitants of Elysium care?


Don’t worry: we’ll warn you in advance about spoilers.

Film blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to have an extended conversation about this film as we have many times — most recently about The Great Gatsby. So, JMM, let me start by asking: were you as intrigued as I was by the film’s premise?

JustMeMike: I hadn’t seen District 9, so I may not have the same entry point as many did. But who could resist Matt Damon as a Mad Max type wearing an exo-skeleton suit rather than leather. I was also eager to see Foster as a villain. I loved Moura from his two Brazilian cop movies that I’d seen. But those are just the actors.

As for the premise, sure, with a dystopian/utopian combo it seemed like a can’t miss. And with Blomkamp at the helm of a 100 million dollar production, it seemed that he has been anointed as the new boy-wonder of the film world. So yes, I was eager to see it.  Show me a tasty premise and A-list actors? Where do I sign up?

Elysium - 3

Didion: I loved loved loved District 9. Really: a stunner. It might have made me a bit overly optimistic for Elysium. But I have to say, the opening scenes of this film, with those miserable favelas and all the Spanish (Matt Damon does some good language work here) — well, I can’t remember a more believable dystopia, nor a summer blockbuster with so much Spanish being spoken. I was all in for the film’s setup.

JMM: We can agree, that when you add the imagery to the intellectual side of the premise — then you have created an immediate hook for the viewers with or without the language medley of English and Spanish.

Which leads to a question — why the Francais up on Elysium – or was that just for that particular cocktail party?

Didion:  I’m not sure we’re supposed to know, but I loved the contrast between the gritty, almost apocalyptic world of LA and the jolting scene of Jodie Foster, with her chiseled calves and perfect hair, schmoozing en francais with the hoi polloi. It was so jolting, in fact, that I wondered how much Blomkamp wanted his viewers to get angry about the impossible social divides that exist in our own world. District 9 was ultimately a story about race; perhaps Elysium is his commentary on class?

JMM: Of course it was. And that feeling is what has occurred to so many who have seen the film. I mean that he started with a premise of class issues (and the obvious divide created by money) — separated the two between Earth and Elysium, then switched away from that and made the film into an action/adventure yarn. I still enjoyed myself — but I wanted more thoughtful concepts than explosions.


Didion: I’m with you there. I found myself oddly ambivalent at the end of the film — feeling as if some other director had arrived mid-stream and transformed the film into something more safe by distracting us with explosions and bad bad guys, away from the class issues.

I’ll say this: of the summer blockbusters I’ve seen, this seems like the most original and substantial — that is, particularly compared to the superheroes and sequels — but I’m ultimately disappointed by Blomkamp’s ultimate privileging of action over ideas. Tell me, JMM, would you ultimately recommend this film — and why?

JMM: Sure I will and am recommending the film. Despite the flaws it is still a first class entertainment. Why? The execution of the technical side of the film is just perfect. I’ll say nothing bad about what we see. It is only when we start to think about it – and this is in the latter parts of the film, that we detect issues.


The hardware, the robot-cops, the expansive factory setting – all of the was done superbly. So, I think it was a visual treat. Unfortunately, the visuals have to get the highest marks, which means other areas, key areas, like acting and writing suffer in comparison. Since we’ve already mentioned the conceptual change from a theme-based story to an action film, let’s talk actors. Tell me about Foster as Delacourt.

Didion: I’m usually of the opinion that the more Jodie Foster, the better. She’s certainly got the look of the icy, powerful bureaucrat down; think of her as the fixer in Inside Man (2006). She slinks through this film as the cat-like reason why Elysium’s days are numbered — the rot at the heart of the apple. When she speaks in her effortless French in those early scenes, you believe every single bit of her ruthlessness.


But maybe it was her (weak) South African accent, or a big jump in the narrative in the second act, or the fact that we’ve seen this character before — I found her character to be too stereotypical and .. well, kind of boring. How about you?

JMM: Bingo! Hard to believe that Foster disappoints but she does. But at least half of that can be laid at the feet of Blomkamp. He wrote a one dimensional character and Foster gave him just that.

If I may make a more pointed and cynical observation. I think Foster was cast to sell tickets. As narrow as the role was, anyone could have played Delacourt. In fact I was somewhat surprised by the large number of women who attended the screening I did.  Did you have a similar audience?


Didion: Now I’m laughing because I realize my complaint is just like in the old joke that I repeat all the time, in which two little old ladies go out for lunch and one says, “This food is terrible!” and the other says, “And there’s so little of it!” I wanted a different Jodie, and I wanted more of her.

But if you don’t mind, I’d also like to issue a larger complaint: the gender stuff in Elysium is bad and boring, too. We have two women: a perfect mother/angel in Frey, and the evil ice queen in Delacourt. The men are similarly stereotyped: Max is our hunky, tattooed superhero (with a nicely gratuitous shirtless scene early on) who wants to just live up to his promises; he hasn’t got much else to offer. And then there’s the ill-fated best buddy (Diego Luna); the dark-skinned crime boss (Moura), whose main original characteristic is his cane; the super-baddy (Copley), and the evil capitalist (William Fichtner). Isn’t the real problem that there’s not an interesting character in the bunch?


JMM:  Actually there are three women that are important. The third is Frey’s sick daughter. I think once Max gets a look at her, the whole story changes.

Spider was a surprise for me. Moura, in his cop films, is a strong character, a tough guy that any guy would admire; but here he plays a geek crime lord. They could have dispensed with the cane and shambling gait entirely. But Copley as Kruger steals the film away from Damon.


Damon was driven — not so much by his idealism, but more practically to stay alive. Once he makes a deal with Spider to stay alive, Delacourt brings Kruger into the picture — the type of guy we’ve not seen the likes of before.

Did you like Kruger as a monstrous force?

Didion: Now that I think about it, you’re exactly right: Kruger steals the picture, with his mountain-man cloak and mondo-weapons and can’t-die resurrections. I’m not saying he’s got much three-dimensionality, but I could have spent another few hours creeped out by his capacity for violence.


I’ll say one more thing to agree with a point you made above: the look of the film, most of which takes place in this hell-Earth, is utterly believable — the visuals of Max’s job at the factory, getting harassed by the robo-cops — Blomkamp is a genius at creating and capturing a full world.

But let me return to your last note about Matt Damon. Do you think he lets the film get stolen out from under him, or was it a problem with the writing?

JMM: Great question. It wasn’t Damon as Max. I think once Blomkamp brought Max and Frey’s daughter together, Max’s direction was set in stone. Max was an everyman, likeable because we all could identify with him. Hard working at his dull/dangerous job. Plus his demeanor to the cops — he was just below the rage phase with the street cops and his parole officer — but he kept himself in check as best he could.


But it didn’t quite work for Max. Enter Kruger with his helo, his goons, his weapons, and his Afrikaner accent. And his near deadly efficiency. We feared him and were attracted to his strengths, yet we abhorred the thought of this guy getting his mitts on Frey. So I think it was no surprise that he stole the film away from Damon’s Max.

Didion: Sigh. It’s too bad, because I have a theory that no one can do complex, ambivalent characters better than Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, etc). The problem with this one was that his character was set: even if he descended to do something illegal, it was because he was trying to do the right thing in the end.

Maybe now is the time to issue a ***SPOILER ALERT***. Because I have some questions about the ultimate direction of the story.


JMM, my biggest disappointment came at about the ⅔ mark, when two disappointing things happen: Delacourt dies, and the whole story narrows down to become a question about whether everyone ought to have access to Elysium’s fantastic medical machines, which cure everything. That is, whereas the first part of the film heightens your awareness of a whole universe of class problems — endemic poverty, miserable jobs, tyrannical police, a failed health care system — the second half collapses them into the fantasy that if everyone had access to great health care, all problems would be solved.

JMM: Well I’m not sure all problems would be solved. The idea of making everyone a citizen (for health care or other reasons) was admirable, but I thought wouldn’t it be much easier to bring the med machines down to earth rather than bring the multitudes up to Elysium. But that was the inevitable happy ending — post Max and post Delacourt.


Which leads to some questions I can ask as we’ve posted the spoiler alert.

You know that Blomkamp’s Elysium was a utopia with Earth a dystopia, so how was it that Spider not only had the means of transporting to Elysium, how was it that Spider had enough power to run his hardware? Seems like Elysium’s eye in the sky would have noticed this on the power grid. How did Spider’s transport which was called an Unidentified Shuttle get through Elysium’s sky-net defenses? Especially after we saw other ships get shot down.

Did any of this trouble you?


Didion: Will it solve anything to permit everyone the chance to come to Elysium? Or is that access only going to allow people medical care, so they can live longer in that hell? Will inhabitants of Earth still pay exorbitant prices for transport? Will Elysium simply find a new way to ban that traffic? The ending is just a mess of unanswered questions.

I was left with an overriding sense that Blomkamp had created a dystopia so believable that it ruined his capacity to find a happy ending. I couldn’t believe some computer hacking and some luck against Elysium’s defenses would create any real change to the pervasive problems. Narrative problems like the one you mention — about Spider’s illegal transport system — paled in comparison to larger problems with the film’s conclusion.


JMM: Yup. You got that right. Out of time and out of ideas — was that Blomkamp’s fault, or the suits who financed the film? Whatever the reason, it did highlight the fact that the the last ⅓ paled in comparison to the first ⅔.

But even if the film ended badly, which it did, should this result in a negative for the overall worthiness of the film. Above, you used the term “overriding sense of failure”, I mean, I didn’t leave the theater angry. As you walked out, what was your state of mind?

Didion: We can’t know who ultimately started chopping the ideas out of the third act. But we can comment on the effect, can’t we? My ultimate takeaway was the feeling that either our culture won’t put up with a film that imagines a real change to fundamental inequality, or that our culture is willing to raise the topic and then pastes an implausibly happy ending on it.


Ultimately I’d give this film a solid three stars out of five, but I must say that I hope Blomkamp gets more work, and that perhaps he doesn’t get saddled with $100m projects like this one, but rather smaller and more thoughtful projects.

JMM: I’ll go to three point five, as I did call it a flawed first class entertainment. Speaking of smaller budgets as well as thoughtful projects, I guess I will move District 9 up to the top spot in my queue. Any last comments, gripes, favorite parts, least favorite parts?

Didion: I can hardly wait to hear what you’ve got to say about District 9. LOVE that film.


I always forget that you love to ask about favorite/worst parts of the film, and I always forget to think about that while I’m watching! But there’s a teeny moment I loved which follows Matt Damon getting flooded with radiation poisoning at work. He’s lying on a hospital bed, and a mechanized robo-doctor is examining him, telling him exactly (brutally) how dire his condition is. And then it drops a paltry little bottle of pills on the bed. It’s possibly the most miserable and lowest Damon’s character gets during the film. In other words, with no gross-out operations, spectacular violence, or super-CGI, the scene pulls off a nice trick of making you feel his pain. A good example of what Blomkamp can do with a small scene. How about you?

JMM: That was marvelous. I don’t think I had that in mind at all — but wow. On the other end of the spectrum – with Max’s parole officer, they really went cheap. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse representation of a non-human interacting with a human in terms of visual and technological  expertise.


But speaking of a small scene, that had significant impact. At the cocktail party, the robo-butler offers Delacourt a drink, and she dismisses him with a flick of the wrist. I noticed that and hated her for it.

Didion: In the end, JMM, I’m sorry to see that our August movie doldrums weren’t relieved by Elysium as much as I’d hoped. But the fall has lots of good stuff lined up. I’m hoping that our next convo will cover a different kind of film — perhaps a comedy? — that we can dig into. Looking forward to it, as always!

JMM: Thanks Didion. I am in full agreement about the doldrums. I’m calling it a summer-long down-turn. Elysium did brighten the summer while in the anticipation stage, and yes it might have been a lot better. Fall’s schedule does look delicious. See you then.

8 Responses to “Can dystopia end happily? A conversation about “Elysium” (2013)”

  1. Didion Says:

    Damn! The first thing I did after posting this was go over to Hattie’s Blog and find the headline “Movies Are Worse Than Ever.” Too right about that. I completely get the cynicism, Hattie, especially because we see it too many times from these Hollywood types and directors who skew entire films as if there’s a formula for box office success beyond actually making a decent movie.

    • Didion Says:

      Crap! The second thing I did was read Alyssa’s smart post over at ThinkProgress: “Elysium Wants to Be a Lacerating Movie About Health Care, But Has No Idea Why Inequality Exists.” Perfect.

      • JustMeMike Says:

        I think there are two ways, or two entry points for Elysium –
        the film and what we see before us – And the unseen parts meaning what we have to think about.

        We chose to discuss, or it just worked out that way – the film from a view perspective. We might have discussed the underlying philosophical & political issues, the economics of health care, or the exclusionary aspects that stem from haves/have nots..But then our talk would have been completely different. And we might still be writing it.

        I read Hatties, and I read Alyssa’s post and I come away thinking that Foster’s Delacourt didn’t have to attempt a coup, she simply could have argued for change. Rather, she likely wanted the power and wasn’t remotely interested in the betterment of earthbound humanity.

        Which I understand. As for Blomkamp he was given the$100 million to make a film that would make a lot of money. So depending on what one has inside them and is percolating within when they buy a ticket to this film, is quite likely the determining factor of whether or not they will like the film.

        While we don’t have a present day Elysium, don’t we already have gated communities here in the states, and private enclaves all over the world?

        Just asking.

  2. CMrok93 Says:

    Good review. Foster’s performance was very weird. But that aside, everything else was pretty solid, in terms of the look and feel of the scientific future Blomkamp had laid out. Can’t wait to see what he has built up for us next, as it seems like he’s continuing to chose better and better material to work with, even if it his own.

  3. Hattie Says:

    Hey, don’t beat yourself up about this. I do think we deserve better movies, though, with the resources filmmakers have at their disposal.

  4. Hattie Says:

    Oh, and my remarks are not a full-on review, so take them for what they are worth: not much. I have always disliked movies of this genre.

  5. She gets to employ a French accent, Damon freely switches between English and Spanish, and Copley — the only performer out-hamming Foster — growls threats with the thick Dutch inflection of his homeland. What’s meant to be a melting-pot touch feels like the latest trick of Blomkamp’s grab bag, thrown in alongside countless gadgets and maudlin flashbacks in which a sage nun prophecizes little orphan Max’s eventual acts of heroism. As our own personal Jesus, Damon sells all sorts of futuristic fisticuffs and squinty-eyed determination over the course of this ultra-violent cartoon, but even he can’t save the fact that all this more ultimately feels like a whole lot less.

  6. Hattie Says:

    This film was playing in Stockholm, as I noted on my recent visit there. It is aimed at an international audience. It is the picture of our country projected around the world. Now that’s scary!

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