Good science fiction doesn’t just tell us where we are going, it explores where we are now. Although set in Los Angeles and directed by a South African, Elysium actually feels like it could have been made for an Australian audience. Writer-Director Neill Blomkamp’s first feature District 9, as well as some of his short films, has given him a reputation for making socially-conscious futuristic films influenced by his childhood growing up during apartheid in South Africa. Elysium, his second feature-length film, continues in this vein, but is much more heavy-handed than District 9.
Elysium takes place in a dystopian future where the world’s wealthy have fled Earth to live on the opulent, wheel-shaped space station, Elysium. Thanks to high-tech Med-Pods, there is no sickness there, and Elysium’s citizens live lives of leisure. Max De Costa (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict who has always harboured a wish to live on the space station, but is driven to action after a workplace accident leaves him mortally irradiated with only five days to live.
This film is not a runaway success and is unlikely to be remembered in the years to come, but it is still important for this place and time. Australian audiences will immediately draw the connection between present-day asylum seekers and those in the film who use people smugglers to reach Elysium. These futuristic, fictional asylum seekers give a human face to what, in Australia, is a faceless group of people—deliberately so due to Department of Immigration and Citizenship regulations. In fact, journalists who visit detention centres must sign a deed of agreement which forbids them from speaking to the detainees or taking any photographs. As a result, their stories are never told and asylum seekers are only ever spoken about as an amorphous mass, never mentioning names or showing any faces.
It is unfortunate that the film fails to really grapple with the issue. Blomkamp’s previous feature, District 9, initially takes the side of the oppressor before making him, and the audience, throw their support behind the oppressed. Elysium is far more simplistic, and Elysium’s citizens are almost solely represented by Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who is one-dimensional, cold and callous. The only other Elysian with a speaking part is President Patel (Faran Tahir) who is more sympathetic but whose character and motivations go completely unexplored.
It’s this simplicity that prevents Elysium from being the game-changer it could have been in the conversation surrounding immigration law both in Australia and the United States. Regardless, this film illuminates an issue critical to Australia’s national life, but which is unable to be properly explored outside of fiction.