Much has been made about the politics in Neill Blomkamp’s bloody sci-fi romp Elysium. “Matt Damon plays an angry and well-armed member of the 99 percent in ‘Elysium,’ the most blatantly political sci-fi movie of the summer, if not of all time,” Newsday says. “The film's premise feels engineered to get Maureen Dowd to write an op-ed about it,” according to Deadspin.
And Elysium does feel pretty political, no question.
But the thing I was struck by the most was how strangely, quirkily spiritual it was.
It’s not overtly spiritual, mind you. Probably not even intentionally so—though the fact the elitist space station hovering above a grim and polluted earth is named Elysium in the first place is, perhaps, vaguely suggestive. And yet, the story’s central premise does feel quite Christian.
Warning: We’re going to get into some spoilers, here, so if you haven’t seen Elysium and would like to, you might want to check in here a bit later.
Elysium’s plot centers around Max (Damon), a one-time criminal who’s trying to live on the straight-and-narrow these days, working at a grimy and dangerous factory. But when he gets thumped by a dose of lethal radiation, Max realizes he only has one chance to survive: Get to Elysium and use one of their nifty healing cots—devices that heal anyone who still has a pulse instantly and are so pervasive that pretty much every Elysium manse has one.
But as he does what he has to in order to earn a ticket up to Elysium, he runs across an old friend of his, Frey, and her cut-but-very-sick daughter, Matilda (Emma Tremblay).
The meeting is a critical moment for Max, who eventually begins to think not just of saving herself, but Matilda, too. And in the end, he does save her. With a battery of important information stored unnaturally in his noggin, Max decides to download some critical codes that make everyone in the world—not just the rich—citizens of the space station, and thus give everyone access to Elysium’s nifty healing machines. But the downloading process, apparently, means certain death for Max. Max knows it. But he still does it—giving up his own life for Matilda’s future.
It’s pretty obvious why so many observers have called Elysium blatantly political. But for me, there was more at work here.
It’s apparent that Max, for all his failings, is meant to be seen as a sort of sacrificial Messiah. One of the nuns who raises Max believes he might even be an answer to a long-whispered prayer. “You will do something very special one day,” she tells him. “Something you were born for.” Max’s sacrifice plays on a deep, time-honored theme that’s been in play for thousands of years. Perhaps Blomkamp would call Max a dystopian Prometheus, giving earth a life-changing tool.
But for me, the allusion takes on a distinctly Christian tint when we consider the paradox of Max’s sacrifice.
He sacrificed himself for one little girl. And yet in saving Matilda, he literally saved the entire world. We Christians are told very much the same thing about Jesus’ death on the cross: He came to save you and me, individually. He knows you. He loves you. He sacrificed Himself for you. It was a very personal thing, just as it was for Max. And yet in saving us, He also saved the whole world. It’s interesting that the exoskeleton Max has fused to his body seems to echo, in a way, a metallic, moving cross: an instrument of both torture and liberation.
And so, when you look at Elysium as not an economic symbol dividing the haves and have-nots but as a metaphor for heaven (where people never get sick and may, in fact, live forever—or at least for a very long time), this imperfect analogy becomes ever more resonant.
You see, before Max came around, people really had to earn their way into Elysium: They had to be, frankly, stinking rich. But Max opened the gates of Elysium to everyone—through an act of grace and of sacrifice. It didn’t matter how much money you had or what terrible secrets were in your past. Heaven was open to you in a way that it had never been before.
Elysium, I don’t think, is a great movie. The story’s not as emotionally resonant as Blomkamp’s previous work in District 9, and it does come off as a little preachy at times. But still, it has something interesting to say.