Elysium is another ruined-planet movie, the third this year after Oblivion and After Earth. Such movies come in two forms: Either the Earth has gone wild and uncultivated so that it’s entirely covered in grass and trees, or it has become a giant and overpopulated garbage dump where the use of road-surfacing equipment has become obsolete, and every time a vehicle drives anywhere or flies anywhere, a tremendous amount of dust is kicked up.
You might think that, 146 years into the future (the setting of Elysium), the makers of hovercraft would have figured out how to land something without creating a dirt tornado; but you would think wrong. In the year 2159, things are terrible everywhere except on the titular twirling space station 19 minutes away, where the very rich people live.
The first problem with this movie’s vision of the future is that Elysium looks exactly like a Mafia neighborhood on Staten Island where the mansions are 10 feet from each other. This is ridiculous. No self-respecting billionaire has ever had so little property: not 1,000 years ago, not now, not 146 years from now. But I guess the thinking of writer-director Neill Blomkamp is this: On Elysium, the rich have magical machines that cure every ailment. So who needs landscaping?
Our hero, played by Matt Damon, is an ex-con member of the hoi polloi who needs to get to one of those machines because he has contracted radiation poisoning from working in a factory on Earth that looks like it was built in 1952. From one leftist perspective, this is very bad: Matt Damon is going to die because there are no OSHA standards or Erin Brokoviches or tort laws in this terrifying glimpse of a hopeless 22nd century. But from another, Elysium should be heartening, because Damon lives in Los Angeles, and the movie therefore predicts a future in which heavy manufacturing has returned to Southern California!
The second problem with the Elysium dystopia is that, in a universe where there is a magical machine that can make anyone live forever, there are bound to be other technological enhancements of a near-magical nature. But Elysium imagines none, because Blomkamp is so intent on hammering home his point about the need for Obamacare that he makes Keith Olbermann seem the soul of subtlety. The movie’s depiction of the future is comparable to a work of science fiction from 1870 imagining everyone in 2013 riding in buggies and dying of consumption. Radiation poisoning in 2159? Unlikely.
Ah, but writer-director Blomkamp would surely respond that this is exactly the point! Elysium is an allegory, my friend: “This is today,” he has said. “This is now.” In other words, Elysium is a socialist brief for income redistribution and single-payer health care—made for $115 million by a Hollywood studio.
Which is all well and good. But it’s all been done so much better than this before. For one, it was done infinitely better in Neill Blomkamp’s first feature, the dazzling worldwide hit District 9 (2009). It, too, had an allegorical purpose: It used its story of a massive space-alien migration to Earth as a means of likening anti-immigration policies to apartheid. But it was so interesting, so unexpected, and so beautifully rendered that it transcended its political message and became—a work of pop-culture genius.
Similarly, Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón, subverted P. D. James’s anti-abortion novel into preposterous twaddle about hostility to Muslims and the evils of the war on terror. But its depiction of a world driven to decay and despair by universal sterility was nothing short of amazing. Even Soylent Green, the inadvertently comic overpopulation film of 1973 in which people survive by eating crackers “made of people,” was haunting in a way that Elysium is not.
There’s an apocryphal story about a Hollywood studio chieftain of the golden era who told his hired screenwriting hands, “It’s not enough to be a Communist; you have to do some work here, too.” The problem with Elysium is that its political message is supposed to turn its utterly prosaic and workaday structure and story into something tougher, more profound. But for regular moviegoers, as for that apocryphal studio chief, it’s not enough to be peddling a politically correct message—the movie has to do some work, too.