NOTE: The post below contains spoilers.
The year is 2154, and the super rich have escaped a highly polluted Earth to live in their really cool space tree house where they stay young forever and probably only maybe die of drug overdoses. If that metaphor is too difficult to parse, just pretend it’s Matt Damon in his home in the Hollywood Hills. But these people aren’t even like Matt Damon. In terms of wealth and their predisposition to avoid working, the citizens of Elysium are more like the Kennedys. Meanwhile, Earth has become a slum where its only industry is manufacturing, kind of like how wealthier countries today outsource their most exploitative jobs to poorer countries. Baby Matt Damon runs around and gets into trouble with lil gangstas due to his obsession with trying to make enough money to buy a ticket to this mythical Elysium. A nun meditates on this. She tells him Elysium looks pretty nice from Earth, but then gives him a locket with a picture of a beautiful blue Earth, saying that this is what the folks up on Elysium see and how Earth is much more beautiful. Oh great, Sister, so you’re telling me the rich people have a better view too? Tell me something I don’t know!
However, this doesn’t stop him from becoming a full-fledged criminal with a heart of gold. After deciding to abandon his criminal past, Matt Damon works in an assembly line manufacturing police robots with really terrible senses of humor—robots which eventually push guys like him around in the name of the law. This is also a clear metaphor about people who pay into, or have little choice but to participate in a system that routinely victimizes them. These are actually all good themes. This film wants to open up discourse on class inequalities. But a movie can’t have an honest discussion about this stuff if it features an American Dream-like premise, a white savior figure, and a happy ending. Elysium has all three.
The American Dream ruins everything the movie asks us to take seriously
The American Dream is an ideology characterized by aggressive optimism. The idea that you can achieve success and upward mobility through drudgery and hard work, regardless of social class, race, circumstances of birth, or anything else that might keep an individual from being a part of a more privileged class. Like most ideologies, it’s statistically bullshit, but Hollywood is in love with it. That’s why we have a lot of stories about the little guy who triumphs against all odds. That’s why Matt Damon must be growing cancer out of every orifice and wake up looking like he got entangled in a bike lock in order to have a motivation to fight the man. He can’t just actually be poor, he has to be poor and dying.
It’s a flirtatious insult for a movie to start out by posing real questions about class, and then creating a story where these real questions are trumped by Matt Damon, who brings socialized healthcare to the world. That’s not the way the world works. That kind of plot is just fine if you’re going to have a movie about an underdog (like mostly any other movie, ever), but it’s cheating if you set up real questions about real problems and answer them with unreal answers.
The white savior is a reminder that the story is still about white people
The movie doesn’t address race very much. What you do see is that the slums down on Earth are populated with mostly Hispanic people with some black guys, and some white guys. Up on Elysium, it’s lily white, with a few model minorities thrown in, like that Asian guy who plays a doctor, or the President of Elysium, whose surname is Patel. On Earth, Spanish is spoken more than once in the film, while on Elysium, everyone speaks English, and Jodie Foster has some time to say stuff in French in between reciting her English lines with a weird, fake Mid-Atlantic accent.
But despite the fact that the underprivileged are mostly non-white, Matt Damon, a white man, is still the hero bringing justice to the world. (Please note that when I say “the world,” I’m not being hyperbolic. Matt Damon saves the world.) Though Earth is populated with billions of starving, dying, out of work brown people, it takes a guy with certain guts, a certain strength, a certain racial superiority, to triumph over all the bad guys. These brown people don’t have it, but Damon does. Almost all the flashbacks are dedicated to telling us that Matt Damon’s character is “especial,” as prophesied by the nun in a few flashbacks. He is set apart from the other foolish nothings on this planet. This is major bullshit because class inequality affects non-white people in a big way, but they are forever erased from their own narratives.
The writers of Elysium gave Damon a schoolboy crush in the form of the nurse, Frey (Alice Braga), and an extra motivation through her cancer-ridden daughter, when in fact the writing would have been tighter if Frey (who already has motivation) were in Matt Damon’s place instead. But Frey only exists to create motivation for a man who has little to do with her. She would never take on his role in a Hollywood movie. Not only because subjecting her to becoming part cyborg would destroy her purity and her beauty, but also because you don’t see brown people as the heroes in most Hollywood movies. You only see a savior like Matt Damon lift the brown people to their salvation, all for the sake of absolving the audience’s white guilt. White guilt is often absolved by the fact that most white saviors will earn the respect of the brown people they’re with and then save them all and repay years of inequality. Except it doesn’t work that way, so it’s stupid to show it that way. Next.
Happy endings are unhappy endings
In the end, it turns out that Carlyle is not actually delivering Jodie Foster’s porn, but staging a coup in his brain whereby she becomes president. But instead, Matt Damon’s brain data is used to reprogram the entirety of Elysium, making all Earth citizens Elysium citizens.
It’s not easy being Matt Damon. Sometimes the woman you like is too busy taking care of her dying daughter to notice you. Sometimes carrying all that brain data around makes your head hurt like Harry Potter’s when You-Know-Who is near. The struggle is great, but in the end, it turns out they only have to kill, like, three people to restructure an entire political system and create total equality for all! This extends back to the white guilt issue. The movie ends on a note of “Oh hey guys, we’re all pretty equal now, isn’t that great?” This kind of ending is hyper-simplistic in a movie that attempts to tackle issues that are not simple, especially when Blomkamp cites his experience in Apartheid South Africa as inspiration for Elysium’s class war themes. In fact, a happy ending belies the insincerity of the movie. It’s a false sense of happiness because the movie presents a false sense of equality, where generations of real-life social inequalities are fixed in one fell swoop. Instead of asking questions about inequality, Elysium continues to perpetuate it. What Elysium should really be doing is leaving us with questions. What it actually does is say “Hush, Matt Damon made it all better now.”