In the year 2154, Earth is grossly overpopulated and irreparably polluted. All the crimes against the environment that (White) people have participated in for monetary gain over the past two centuries or so have finally caught up with us, and now everyone has to pay the price. Well, almost everyone. The rich generally manage to buy their way out of having to take responsibility for their actions, and this is no exception. The elite (read: wealthy White people and literally two token people of colour) have taken their leave of this planet and currently reside in a large space habitat within Earth’s orbit called Elysium.
Our protagonist is, of course, a White man, one of the few White people still left to suffer on Earth while his rich counterparts are experiencing the very best that life has to offer. Since Hollywood always needs a white hero (see: Avatar), we have Matt Damon as Max, a man who grew up in a Catholic orphanage in what is assumed to be Brazil. Max and his friend, Frey, had big dreams as children in that orphanage, but a couple decades and a lengthy criminal record later, Max is just trying to keep his head down, avoid getting arrested again, and keep his job at Armadyne Corporation, where he works on the assembly line.
Besides getting to breathe fresh air and having enough food to fill their bellies, residents of Elysium also have access to life-saving technology that can cure or reverse most injury and disease; technology that they refuse to share with the residents of Earth, who are left to die of preventable causes. Max has always been healthy, but after an unforeseen accident at work, he becomes fatally ill, with only days to live. That’s when he decides to go back to his old ways, and goes to see his former “employer”, Spider (Wagner Moura), a brilliant self-taught engineer who often uses scrap mental and odd parts to build ships and smuggle “illegals” into Elysium’s atmosphere. Max demands that Spider put him on the next ship, and agrees to partake in Spider’s master plan steal information from an Elysian resident in an unconventional and dangerous new way in order to get there.
When Max reconnects with Frey (Alice Braga), inadvertently endangering the lives of both her and her daughter (Emma Tremblay), he must contend with Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a rogue assassin hired by Elysium’s treasonous Defense Secretary (Jodie Foster). As badly as he and Spider want to reach Elysium and get the people of Earth the medical care that they so desperately, the people of Elysium want to keep them out just as badly. Elysian President Patel (Faran Tahir; told you we had some tokens!) is too distracted with keeping the residents of Earth out of Elysium to understand that he has a government coup developing simultaneously.
As we watch all the brown people in Max’s life, whose struggles have been generally greater than his until this moment (see: disabled Spider, Frey and her very sick child, etc.) come together to help him and witness his ticking clock finally motivate him to think of someone besides himself for a change, we get a pretty accurate representation of poor White people in general. Dripping in racial privilege that they’ve failed to capitalize on, but refusing to see it because they are too busy comparing themselves to wealthy Whites (the haves) to give a second thought to the poor people of colour who have even less than they do (the have-nots). No less than three times in the film is Max presented with an opportunity to help people other than himself, people just as sick, poor, and desperate, and he refuses to do so until it becomes convenient for him.
Filled with action, incredible special effects, an intriguing plot, and excellent performances, most notably from Braga and Copley, Elysium is riveting simply because it’s a future that anyone paying attention to current political climates and the total disregard that most people of power have for the environment can imagine quite easily. Like most well-done dystopia, Elysium hits too close to home far too often. Filled with classism, glossed over White privilege, and even worse disregard for the sick and disabled than we are currently witnessing, this is a film that’s clearly a cautionary tale. But when have humans ever been good at heeding warnings?
I give this one 4 stars. (Yes, it would have been 4.75 stars without a White man in the lead. Yup, I’m petty. You’ll live.)