I must admit that I had seen Elysium weeks ago already (o redy for my Singaporean readers). But as South African cinemas usually lag behind by several weeks, it bought me some time to ruminate over Elysium and the message it tries to communicate.
The South African elements in this movie (ranging from the director, to one of the villains, to the theme) will speak to South African audiences in a much more detailed and personal way than international audience may appreciate. These cultural elements, however, are not a salutation but a nod so as not to alienate international audiences.
Neil Blomkamp (a South African-Canadian director) is the genius behind Elysium and previously District 9. I am also happy to say that Sharlto Copley again stars in a Blomkamp’s movie. (Perhaps we are seeing the South African version of the Burton-Depp combo.) Sharlto plays the disturbing role of a South African mercenary helping the elite on Elysium track down and silence dissenting elements on earth, which is now a planet-wide squatter camp filled with human filth, suffering, and violent gangs.
I don’t really know why a Pretoria English accent (and affliction I only narrowly avoided—being a born and raised in Pretoria myself) became the de facto South African accent, but it works well in this movie to remove all doubt as to the origin and authenticity of the character. Lord knows I would hate to hear that pretentious British metro-Capetownian accent, so a Pretoria accent will have to do.
Despite what some reviewers may say, poverty and its ills are not the theme of Elysium. The theme of the movie is an unmistakable reference to … apartheid. This apartheid theme is so strong and pervasive that it may upset those who are constantly asking (no, demanding) that everyone ‘just forget’ about apartheid. The trick being that if people forget about apartheid, they will forget about how some people got very wealthy and influential with their skin colour providing their professional qualifications.
I really can’t blame Blomkamp for capitalizing on this mostly misunderstood and highly controversial element of South African history and, certainly, world history, but it is brilliantly done and shows why such dystopian systems, inevitably, fall apart. Poverty alone does not drive the human soul to desperation and revolution. Robbing a person of their dignity and human status, however, will ensure that the overseers be overthrown by revolution and never forgiven for their inhumanity.
Atop this most relevant theme rides a template plot that is predictably Hollywood in its execution. In short, the protagonist (played by Matt Damon) suffers an accident at work that irradiates his body and leaves him with five days to live—provided he takes the medicine the robot nurse gave him. His desperation (one shared by many people on earth) is aimed at Elysium, a superstructure orbiting earth, the name of which looks and sounds like a combination of Elite and Asylum, where earth’s former aristocrats, billionaires, and politicians live like the gods of Olympus. Elysium has technology that can render any disease inert and regenerate a human body suffering the effects of old age or injury.
So long lived are the residents of Elysium that some individuals have become fluent in multiple earth languages. They sit around sipping fine wine and eating gourmet food while the residents of earth starve and succumb to illnesses that could have been eradicated if only someone, quite literally from above, would intervene.
But, of course, the elite—as we have come to appreciate in both fiction and reality—are in no mood to share their wealth, power, and technological with the poor, and any attempt by a non-citizen to even reach Elysium for life-saving aid results in missiles being fired at the conveying transports. Anyone who is not a citizen is merely human filth destined to live, suffer, and die on the wasteland that now is planet earth. The few who don’t live and die like cockroaches enjoy exploitation in one of the few remaining factories that build the surveillance technology and security robots that further help pacify and enslave the population of earth.
But even Elysium has its flaws. A small group of tech-savvy gangsters on earth has found a way to temporarily grant earth-born people citizen rights on Elysium. This is not to assure them safe passage to heaven, so to say, but to allow those who survive the suicide flight to Elysium to, if their luck holds out, put a loved one in one of the med-bays on Elysium and cure them of whatever afflicts their health. Detection, detention, and deportation are unfortunately unavoidable.
I would give away many of the revelatory elements of the plot if I elaborate much more on the story than I already have, but I must admit that I was not bored or longing for action at any time during the playing of Elysium. I think all the actors played their roles convincingly and with panache. The acting, visuals, theme, and message all combine to make Elysium a movie well worth seeing.
Stylistically, Elysium looks like a mix between District 9, Oblivion, and Mass Effect. I like that this movie’s tech, people, and style all feel authentically futuristic. Undoubtedly, the world of gaming has helped the bland directors in Hollywood understand how to get the look and feel just right.
Elysium (the space station) is unapologetically stolen from Mass Effect’s Presidium commons on the Citadel. In fact, so identical is this similarity, that I frantically pestered my wife that the trailer must be for the rumoured Mass Effect movie; however, that is still in the works. Despite borrowing (stealing) elements from other franchises, Elysium feels unique and original and provided me the necessary reflection and entertainment that one demands from a good sci-fi movie.
For a South African like me who has been away from ‘home’ for two and a half years now, hearing Jan Pierewiet in the movie and being the only person in the cinema capable of understanding it inclined me towards the infrequent sense of pride for my nationality and culture. Hearing the South African mercenaries say, in a very typical South African manner, “Don’t worry boss, we’ll get that poes” brought warmth to my soul. Of all the things I voluntarily gave up leaving South Africa, the plethora of Afrikaans curse words I will never be made to part with.
I especially liked how Sharlto’s character has a braai on the roof of his shanty town villa to celebrate his latest successful mission. (A braai, my god, it’s been years since I had one. Perhaps it is time to visit SA again and reconnect with my roots.) Although, his celebratory mood quickly turns into a violent fit of rage as he receives a message that his contract with the elite on Elysium has been suspended.
After weeks of contemplating the movie, I’ve come to think of its central message as this: Elysium, like all regimes, is rotting from the inside as power squabbles forces some politicians to attempt supplanting the current leaders. Regimes are doomed to fail, eventually. Again, a South African would have much to ponder when considering this message as our former president Thabo Mbeki was replaced by those who wanted their time in the seat of power. And, maybe, just like in the movie, the ANC is about to implode under its own corruption (one can hope).
To bring this review to a close, I highly recommend Elysium to any audience, but particularly to South African audiences as it is another in a series of ongoing reminders to the former elite to stop pursuing their success at the expense of their fellow human beings. When wealth, fortune, and happiness become congenital and inherited conditions, the scene is set for another ‘Elysium.’
Elysium is a visceral reminder that when we fail to see the human in others, we rear the savages that will, one day, literally drag us down to their level.
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