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The World Is Flat: How 'Elysium's Under-Imagined Dystopia Kills Its Would-Be Allegory

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire August 13, 2013 at 12:10PM

The under-imagined world of Neil Blomkamp's sci-fi allegory kills any attempt at political commentary.
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'Elysium'
'Elysium'

Although Elysium opened in first place over the weekend, critics aren't especially high on Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi allegory. Perhaps carrying over their affection for Blomkamp's District 9, some critics fault the film's execution while crediting its underlying ideas. But two pieces posted over the weekend find that Elysium's world is rotten at its core.

For NPR's Linda Holmes, the movie's accomplishments stop at its conception of a futuristic society where the wealthy live in an orbital paradise, effectively granted immortality by advanced medical technology, and the rest live their short, brutish lives back on Earth.

There's a sharp distinction between the care that seems to have gone into building this world -- imperfectly, but thoughtfully, to create a sort of alive, defiant allegorical space in which to make an argument -- and the care that went into the story and the characters. The creation of that space is not the story. As fully realized as Middle Earth or the Enterprise or Walnut Grove or Westeros may be, a built world is just a built world. However important the point you want to make, you rise or fall on what happens on the stage you've built, not on how immersive an experience that stage creates. And it's that action that fails this really ambitious, sometimes imposing piece.

At ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg argues that Elysium fails at an even more elemental level to make its world make sense. The movie's social commentary is emphatic but blunt, lacking the understanding that might make it an effective real-world critique.

But Elysium falls apart the more you think about it -- and fails in its mission to speak truth to power -- because of its inability to explain a simple question: why is health care scarce on Earth in the world of Elysium? ... [P]resenting the pods as a magical cure-all with no strings attached means that the only real explanation for denying them to Earth’s population is that Elysium’s leaders are both mean and stupid, that they enjoy watching the people of Earth suffer, but have no sense of how that suffering might ruin the sanctity of their new Eden. 

Charlie Jane Anders wrote a recent article for io9 called "The 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding," breaking down the areas in which speculative fiction authors most often fall down on the job. So we thought we'd apply Anders' analysis to Elysium and see just how many sins Blomkamp has to atone for.

Not thinking about basic infrastructure. 

Ironically, Elysium's infrastructure seems to be better thought-through than Earth's, even though it's a one-note explanation: If something needs doing on Elysium, a robot does it. Elysium has a president, a governing council, and Jodie Foster's secretary of defense, though there's no explanation of how they get, or keep, their offices. Earth is your basic dystopian cesspool -- so far, so good (if not so interesting). But in narrowing its terrestrial terrain to the single city of Los Angeles, the movie fails to account for any social structures beyond the micro level. Earth's citizens are kept in line by armed droids, but who issues their orders? Are the Elysium citizens who remotely keep tabs on Earth of a lower caste than those who get to loll around on their verandas all day? Does Elysium still use money? Foster's character quips about the president needing to head off to a fund-raiser, which makes him sound more like a university chancellor.

Not explaining why events are happening now.

Again, Elysium heeds the micro but ignores the macro. The script is phrased solely in "What does this character want?" terms: Matt Damon's character has to make it to Elysium before his radiation poisoning kills him, with the added motivation of curing the terminally ill daughter of his childhood love (Braga); Foster wants to stage a coup and take over Elysium. But what's brought society to this point, how the characters ended up where they are -- bupkus.

Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups that never go beyond one dimension.

 Here's where Elysium really screws the space-pooch. The dichotomy between the orbiting few in their white-walled, terra cotta-roofed mansions and the brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking masses below is an obvious analogue to the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, although given Blomkamp's South African nationality and the that Foster's character occasionally lapses into French, you can draw a parallel to virtually any postcolonial power dynamic. No one seems to notice or remark upon the fact that Damon's character is the only non-Latino in his peer group, perhaps because it has nothing to do with the world of the film and everything to do with how Hollywood blockbusters are financed.

Creating monolithic social, political, cultural and religious groups.

Elysium doesn't really create any of these factions, monolithic or otherwise, so let's call this one a sin of omission. You could certainly argue there's not time in a two-hour movie to develop such expansive details, but think of the way Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim sketches a transformed world with a few resonant details: the black market in alien organs, the cults that worship the kaiju as well as fear them. Audiences will fill in the details, but the movie has to provide some sort of an outline.

Inventing a history that is totally logical

Likewise, there's no hint of how Earth devolved to its present state, or why the wealthy live in an open-roofed space cronut rather than, say, simply walling off the island of Manhattan. (They're about 80 percent of the way there already.) In an interview with Wired, Blomkamp presents the movie's world as a logical extension of the current social order, but even if that's the case, the movie could use a hint of why things evolved in the particular direction they did.

Not really giving a strong sense of place.

Finally, one that breaks Blomkamp's way. Whatever else Elysium does, it successfully imagines the world(s) in visual terms: the squalid, monochromatic slums of Earth, Elysium's endless golf-course lawns and high-ceilinged, light-flooded mansions.

Introducing... insane tech without fully accounting for how it would change society.

See Rosenberg's article for a thorough exploration of just how poorly Elysium thinks through the ramifications of its quasi-magical healing machines. The movie puts more effort into imagining new forms of cool-ass futuristic bullets than it does following through on its central conceit.

This article is related to: From the Wire, Elysium, Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Neill Blomkamp


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