by Ted Giese
Under the special effects, makeup, and whiz-bang jargon of sci-fi film-making, one often finds popular social commentary. The commentary generally comes in two varieties: prophetic warning of what the future might hold, or a pointed criticism of how things are right now. Elysium falls into the pointed criticism category, providing Director Neil Blomkamp’s take on the current state of the world. As Blomkamp says, “this film isn’t futuristic, it’s about now.”
On one hand the film has all the trappings of standard sci-fi: an enormous space station, a robotic police force/army, and futuristic medical advancements that can cure cancer with the push of a button. On the other hand, the film is grounded in the daily life of people, and capitalizes on the real human fears stemming from overcrowding, poverty, illness, and death.
Viewers are confronted with a simple story of class segregation brimming with familiar action adventure themes. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Elysium is about Blomkamp’s perception of America and the world. Elysium is a criticism of what Blomkamp sees as American “exceptionalism” and wealth, over and against the poverty and misfortunes of the rest of the world—one group keeping all the luxury, medicine and tranquility to themselves while letting everyone else languish in illness and disrepair. His film basically sees a world in which America is selfish and neglectful of all the outsiders. Whether you agree with Blomkamp or not depends, of course, on you.
“You Shall Love Your Neighbour as Yourself”
What’s a Christian to make of this commentary? Consider what Scripture says about caring for your neighbour—particularly those who are disadvantaged economically. A passage from Leviticus comes to mind, where the Lord, while setting up the various feasts for the children of Israel, says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner” (23:22). Elysium presents a world in which the rich and powerful leave nothing for the poor. This disparity fuels temptation and greed for both.
The film depicts a cycle of discontent for both the rich and the poor. This discontent in turn drives murder and theft; the rich cheat the poor and the poor lust after the excesses of the rich, while both parties work hard to take from each other. The rich steal cheap labour and resources while the poor attempt steal the medical advances withheld from them.
Selfishness motivates almost every character. The focus is not on helping others to keep their property and possessions or helping them when they have physical needs. There is a deep sense of depravity which many Christians would understand as a presentation of unchecked original sin. Elysium generally presents a harsh, graceless, unforgiving world.
In the midst of this there is the central character, Max. Max is an orphan and thief who, while trying to make a life for himself outside of crime, is nevertheless pulled back into criminal activity after an industrial accident. Needing medical treatment available only on a posh space station, Max justifies his involvement in a robbery which goes terribly wrong.
Always lingering in the background are the words spoken by a nun from Max’s childhood orphanage. She provided encouragement to him in his youth, implying he was born to do something special—perhaps save the world. (Where the plot is concerned Elysium doesn’t waste a lot of time on subtly.)
Jesus in Elysium
Even though you see a nun in an orphanage right off the bat, you will not see much of Jesus in Elysium. The nun doesn’t talk to the young Max about Jesus. She might say Max is born for a special purpose, but she doesn’t follow it up with: “like baby Jesus.” Likewise, when she and Max are engaged in what looks a little like private confession there is no mention or discussion of Jesus.
There are no nuns on the space station either. The only remotely religious imagery you see is on earth. And even though the world is full of suffering, there are no depictions of Christ’s suffering. There are no crucifixes, and apart from a Red- Cross-style cross, you’ll see no Christian crosses. There aren’t even any memorable shots of churches. And while there is a steady stream of profanities in the film you will be hard pressed to hear Jesus’ name used even in vain. The film seems to consciously keep Jesus out of the story. For Christian viewers the purposeful absence of Jesus may actually have the opposite effect; you may end of thinking about Jesus even more.
Directors, producers and distributors take great care choosing the right name for their films. Blomkamp’s film is called Elysium, but what does the title mean? In the film, “Elysium” is a space station orbiting earth, far separated from the poverty, illness, and overcrowding plaguing the planet below. It’s a place where there is no sickness and people live in luxury and ease.
In ancient Greek religious systems, “Elysium” was understood as the good part of Hades. Ancient Greeks believed when the average person died they sort of just flitted about at the gates of Hades for eternity in a semi-conscious state. Everyone else who died fell into two other categories: the truly evil and wicked were sent to Tartarus, the really bad part of Hades; the epically heroic might be granted access to Elysium.
It’s good for Christians to remember that theologically there isn’t a one-to-one comparison between heaven and Elysium; there isn’t even a one- to-one comparison between the concepts of hell and Tartarus. Scripture teaches that “people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits or works. [Rather] people are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith.” For the ancient Greeks, the gods largely dealt with people according to their personal merit. When Jesus mentions the Greek afterlife, He does so by contrasting Hades (which contains Elysium and Tartarus) with heaven. Speaking about those who have no faith in Him, Jesus says, “Will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:15).
In Revelation, St. John sees the risen Lord Jesus on the island of Patmos. As he falls at His feet, Jesus lays His hand on John saying, “Fear not, I Am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I Am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” The first-century Greek or Roman who first heard these words would be intrigued by Jesus claim to dominion over Hades—the place they shuddered thinking about.
Thought Provoking or Just for Fun?
Elysium is a bit mixed up as a film. It falls short of being a truly great sci-fi film because it often degenerates into a series of generic action sequences. It doesn’t spend enough time fleshing out the social commentary it wants to investigate or its central characters. Even the action sequences are not all that fun, because of the brutality and harshness of the Elysium world. This is intentional and there are a number of squirm-in-your-seat moments that are border-line manipulative.
This movie is not one for everyone and certainly not for young children or even most teenagers. There are long sequences of unpleasant tension peppered with profanity that will be hard for most people to digest. While there is no obvious sex or nudity in the film, the threat of rape is used at a number of points and this will intentionally make viewers very uncomfortable. In the end, Elysium doesn’t balance its social commentary and action well enough to classify it as great. It’s hard to tell whether Blomkamp wanted to use Elysium to raise social awareness for his personal worldview or if he just wanted to entertain his audience. Although the visual effects and style of the film are very strong and the acting, for the most part, is above average for sci-fi, watching Elysium probably isn’t much fun for most people.
Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina. He reviews movies for both The Canadian Lutheran and Issues, Etc. Starting in September, he will be conducting a free online course on Christianity and the Movies for Concordia Lutheran Seminary (see here for more details).
Banner image: NASA