Like many people, I loved Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 for its powerful message mixed with a fresh and intriguing sci-fi story. It was also impressive that it was done on a (relatively speaking) tiny budget of $30 million. So I was excited to see what Blomkamp would do when given a budget four times greater, and bona fide stars like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The result was Elysium, and as much as I wish it weren’t the case, it disappoints.
The titular space station is a paradise for the “haves” who have escaped the disgustingly overpopulated Earth. Its name is a reference to the Elysian Fields, the promised land of Greek Mythology, which was a bountiful paradise for the afterlife of those who lived righteous lives, chosen by the gods. The protagonist, Max (Matt Damon), lives in Los Angeles, which, like the rest of Earth, is incredibly overpopulated and impoverished. Max contracts fatal radiation poisoning at his job and his only hope for survival is to break into Elysium and access their futuristic technology, which can heal anything.
As Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias point out over at The Dissolve, Elysium essentially ends up a “bigger, broader, and dumber version of District 9.” Some could argue that comparing the two films isn’t fair since Elysium isn’t a sequel, but the reality is that it feels exactly like that. It’s the same “have/have-not” narrative, but in space.
But Elysium’s biggest problem is its characters. In Elysium, there are only two types of characters, the “have-nots” who want to “get” and the “haves” who want to “protect.” These one-dimensional characters aren’t very relatable. Even Max ends up seeming more like a robot than anything else. The closest we come to a sympathetic character is Frey, Max’s childhood crush who now works as a nurse and whose daughter is dying of leukemia. Because of these one-dimensional characters, the whole movie seems to be a game of king of the hill.
What I did like about Elysium was how it related to the Old Testament stories of the Promised Land. While Elysium seems to be doing its best to ignore religion, it can’t.
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead!]
In the world of the movie, there are enough resources to make everybody “haves,” but the residents of Elysium are unwilling to release their abundance of privilege to allow everybody access. This is not the case in the Old Testament in which the Promised Land, while abundant in resources, was also limited in its resources just like everything on Earth. So God promised it only to His chosen people, the Israelites – and a good many other groups were displaced in the process. However, in the New Testament, in today’s world, the promised land of Heaven is not limited in its resources and doesn’t have “limited capacity” because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. It is truly open to everyone. The Old Testament can be hard to read because it does get violent, and the God of Wrath can be seen as disconcerting (see Christianity Today’s latest cover to the left).
Max acquires a code that would reboot Elysium and make everybody on Earth a citizen, giving them access to all of the resources of Elysium. The code is in his head and to upload it and put it into action he must die. In his death, everybody on Earth is allowed into the Promised Land. Though the fear of his death is what drives him throughout the movie, he realizes that in his death everyone may have life, and he becomes willing to make that sacrifice.
Through Jesus, we all become grafted in as His Chosen People, and much like at the end of Elysium when Max dies to open the resources of Elysium to everybody, we are all saved. So, though slightly robotish and a one-dimensional as a protagonist, Max can also be seen as a Christ figure.
We hold onto a hope that one day God will make everything right in the world, that poverty and war will be no more. But we also know that, no matter our background or nationality, we are “rich in Christ.” So even though as a story I was let down, I am grateful for the reminder of how Christ opened the gates of heaven to the likes of you and me!