Elysium (2013)

Why We Still Dream… of Electric Sheep

In his new film Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp reaches for the holy grail of science-fiction cinema, Blade Runner. Alas, the disappointing new film starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster has the right look, inspired by the work of futurist designer Syd Mead, but none of the sophisticated thematic content of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece.

Elysium begins promisingly enough. Following in the tradition of Alex Rivera’s terrific film, Sleep Dealer (2008), Blomkamp’s new film posits the world of 2154 as not having solved the class problems facing us at the dawn of the 21st century. Los Angeles looks like Mexico City, overrun by Hispanic poverty. All of the rich white people have fled the planet, to the space station Elysium, run by Jodie Foster using her best scowling, ice queen face. A former car thief, Matt Damon’s Max has been left on Earth to live in loveless squalor. After an industrial accident leaves him with only days to live, having been irreparably irradiated, Max plays out the plot of the film noir thriller, D.O.A. With nothing to lose, Max plots an invasion of Elysium, hoping to use the station’s advanced medical equipment to engineer a miracle cure.

As a last desperate attempt at protecting her world of privilege, Foster’s Delacourt activates her sleeper agent, Kruger (played with delight by South African actor, Sharlto Copley) to destroy Max at all costs. Via this conflict, the greatness of Blade Runner can best be used as a frame for understanding the shortcomings of Elysium. Based on Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece of a novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner grapples with the very notion of what makes humans different from robots. For the entire film, detective Rick Deckard (played with shocking precision by Harrison Ford) hunts down renegade cyborgs, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Doomed to lose to his cyborg superior, Deckard finds himself finally cornered on atop the decaying ruins of the Bradbury Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Amidst the rain, Roy Batty commits one of the most moving acts of humanity in the history of cinema. Gloating to Deckard of the wonders he has seen working as a slave for humans across the galaxy, Batty spares Deckard’s life, ceasing his struggle against death. In the rain, Batty simply acknowledges, “time to die.”

Unlike the poignant last minutes of Blade Runner, the last third of Elysium features a seemingly endless fight between Max and Kruger, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Left alone on the hotel’s roof, Deckard ponders why Batty spared his life when for the last hour, he’s been hell bent on killing humans for having made him a slave. Given the hints, particularly in Dick’s novel, but also in Scott’s film, it dawns on him, and us in the audience, that perhaps Batty spares Deckard because he comes to seek him as a fellow replicant, another mere servant to humans. The philosophical ambiguity of the ending is only trumped by its emotional impact.

Two features forced upon Scott by the studio against his wishes render the ending a triumph of popular filmmaking. First, we hear in voice over the film noir detective struggling to understand Batty’s actions, clearly beyond his comprehension, raising the notion that the marketing slogan of the Tyrell Corporation who make cyborgs—“more human than human”—might in fact be ironically more true than anyone realizes. What if humans are so emotionally flawed that they are in fact only capable of making robots who can truly live up to humanity’s promise of loving and living?

Secondly, after his life is spared, Deckard rushes back to his apartment to save the robot with whom he has fallen in love, Rachel, before the police who ordered Batty’s death turn their attention to her as well. In last minute footage acquired from the second unit of The Shining, we see Deckard and Rachel for the first time in sunlight, after an entire film of dreary, rain-swept urban squalor. They are driving to freedom, away from the city, into the dawn of a new day. In voice over, Deckard utters one of the greatest lines ever to end a movie: “We didn’t know how long she had. Who does?” There’s lots of punching in Elysium but none anywhere near the impact of this.

The production design of Elysium is obsessed with the visual design work of Syd Mead, the futurist who created the look of Blade Runner. Alas, it turns out that movies are not only the sum of their image and sound components, but also an eclectic brew of philosophies and thematic content. Elysium has all the visual and aural trappings of a great science fiction movie. However, when it comes down to it, despite all of its futuristic bells and whistles, it does not have the heart of the movie it so desperately wants to be. It is all fight and chase scenes, with nothing at all to say about the complexity of human beings. It is indeed a political movie, about the importance of universal health care and about the dangers of wide gaps between the haves and the have-nots. However, these are telegraphed didactic messages, better suited for Western Union than for great cinema, to paraphrase mogul Sam Goldwyn. There’s nothing simplistic about Blade Runner, as beautifully subtle a film as ever made in Hollywood. Nothing in Elysium will be forever seared into film history as the mysterious shot of Roy Batty dying in the rain—is he crying or is it merely precipitation on his face?—as he releases a dove with the last beats of his dying heart. Those of us who long for the replication of that moment in a movie theatre will, I regret informing you, have to wait at least another year. Elysium is not the answer to our science-fiction prayers; those of us among the faithful continue to wait, longingly.

– Walter Metz