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Elysium (2013) Directed by Neil Blomkamp - Movie Review

Elysium (2013) Directed by Neil Blomkamp - Movie Review

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Elysium (2013) Directed and Written by: Neil Blomkamp

Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley

Runtime: 109 min. Rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout.

Under the special effects, makeup, and whiz-bang jargon of sci-fi filmmaking one often finds specific worldviews and ideologies. This is why sci-fi has long been an instrument of 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 pointed criticism category commenting specifically on the current state of the world. Director Neil Blomkamp says that "this film [Elysium] isn't futuristic, it's about now."[1]

On one hand the film has all the trappings of a sci-fi film: 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 of overcrowding, poverty, illness, and death. 

Viewers are confronted with a simple story of class segregation brimming with familiar action adventure themes. However,with its epic scope and scale and knowing that Blomkamp sees this as a current social commentary, it quickly becomes apparent the film is about his perception of America and the world. Elysium becomes 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. Depending on the viewer, you'll either see this commentary or you won't, and either agree with Blomkamp's assessment or not. 

"You Shall Love Your Neighbour as Yourself"[2]

What's a Christian to make of this commentary? Before rushing to the social justice viewpoint consider first what Scripture says about caring for your neighbour, particularly those who are disadvantaged economically. A passage that comes to mind is from the Old Testament book of Leviticus 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.”[3]Elysium presents a world in which the rich and powerful leave nothing for the poor. This disparity fuels temptation and greed for both.

Elysium as Morality Play

Elysium can easily become a morality play. A number of the Ten Commandments are central to the advancement of the film’s general premise. While greed and coveting are at the centre of the film,[4] Elysium is not truly about helping others keep what belongs to them, but rather it depicts a cycle of discontent for both the rich and the poor. This discontent 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 literally work to steal the medical advances withheld from them.[5] 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.[6] Elysium generally presents a harsh, graceless, unforgiving world.

In the midst of this there is the central character, Max (Matt Damon). Max is an orphan and thief who, while trying to make a life for himself away from crime, is pulled back into criminal activity after an industrial accident. Needing a medical treatment only available on a posh space station, Max justifies his involvement in a robbery which goes terribly wrong and advances the plot.

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, like 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. Even when she talks about Max being born for a special purpose, she doesn't follow that up with "like the baby Jesus." 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 Jesus' 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 even hear Jesus' name used 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!

Heaven and Hell?

Most movies aren't titled randomly. Directors, producers and distributors take great care choosing the right name for a film and regularly it has something to say about the story being told.[7] Blomkamp's film is called Elysium, but what is the origin of the title? In the film it’s a space station orbiting earth raised above 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 the ancient Greek religious belief system 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[8] 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 by the gods to go to Elysium.[9]

It's good for Christian’s 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[10] 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."[11]In the ancient Greek religious belief system 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."[12]

What else does Jesus say about Hades and by extension Elysium? In the New Testament book Revelation, St. John sees the risen Lord Jesus on the island of Patmos and as he falls at Jesus' feet, as though dead, Jesus lays His right 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."[13] The Greek or Roman of the first century who heard the name Hades spoken and shuddered at the thought of their prospects in death would find it interesting that Jesus claimed dominion over all of it. Reading further into Revelation, Jesus’ dominion over Hades (which contains Elysium) becomes evident: "Then I [St. John] saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."[14]                             

Thought Provoking, Fun or Both?

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 adventure sequences and doesn't spend enough time fleshing out the social commentary it wants to investigate or its central characters. Additionally, the action adventure sequences aren't 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, 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 elevate it to the greatness of Blomkamp's earlier film District 9, which used the sci-fi genre to talk about apartheid. For this reason it’s hard to know if Blomkamp wanted to use Elysium to raise social awareness for his personal worldview or if he 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 won't generally be much fun for most people.

Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to Reformation Rush Hour on KFUO AM Radio, The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese



[2]Leviticus 19:18

[3]Leviticus 23:22

[4]The Ninth Commandment. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbour's inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.

The Tenth Commandment. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbour's wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and [diligently] do their duty.

[5]The Fifth Commandment. Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbour in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].

The Seventh Commandment. Thou shalt not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbour's money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].

[6]Romans 5:12

[7] Take for example Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012) another sci-fi film that draws its name from Greek Mythology.

[8] The Asphodel Meadows

[9] The ancient Greeks also taught that Hades was a literal physical place on earth somewhere to the far west.

[10]Romans 3:21-26; 4:5

[11]Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions.Reader's Edition.Augsburg Confession, Article IV Justification, pg 36.

[12]Luke 10:15

[13]Revelation 1:17-18

[14]Revelation 20:11-15