Science in Focus: Crystal Downing

Pastoral Hope in "Elysium"

Reading the layers of Neill Blomkamp's cinematic sermon.

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Other than the Med-Pods, however, the heaven of Blomkamp's Elysium seems geared mostly toward adolescent boys, its primary pleasures represented by lithesome women in bikinis. But perhaps this is part of Blomkamp's heavy-handed point: the privileged, refusing to spread their wealth around, live artificial bikinied lives, framed by garish McMansions adjacent to astroturf-green lawns. And when in need of plastic surgery or a better tan, they retreat to their Med-Pods for instant gratification, seeking physical rather than spiritual re-creation.

A bit more subtle is Blomkamp's android palimpsest. While Metropolis shows humans re-created into robots called Maschinenmenschen (Machine-Humans), Blade Runner has computerized "replicants" turn into humans—or at least nearly so. Elysium contains Machine-Humans as well, identifying them in several different ways. Early in the film we see androids, like those in Star Wars, policing the Los Angeles barrio (the word "police," of course, comes from the Greek polis), where they arrest the film's protagonist, a factory-worker named Max DeCosta (Matt Damon). When Max visits his parole officer—a robot looking like a 1950s wooden manikin—the conversation starts by way of shot/reverse-shot, the camera focusing on one speaker's face and then the other's, as they sit on opposite sides of a desk. Soon, however, Blomkamp starts filming the face of the robot over the shoulder of Max, such that we see the back of Max's head in the foreground while focusing on the speaking robot. Attentive viewers thus recognize the similarity in smoothness and shape between Max's shaved head and the robot's painted head, preparing them for Max's later transformation into a machine-human. In fact, at the end of his conversation with the parole officer, Max starts imitating the robot's mechanized intonations. Though he does so in mockery, the scene adumbrates the robotic mock-up that Max becomes.

The transformation begins after an industrial accident—reminiscent of the deadly factory explosion in Metropolis—in which Max gets exposed to radiation used to refurbish (re-create) androids. Given only five days to live, he seeks the help of underground technology wizards (also reminiscent of Metropolis) who fit him up with robotic prostheses. Drilled into his head and other body parts, the computerized metal appendages effectively turn Max into a machine-human, with the hope that the robotic technology will enable him to sneak onto Elysium in order to access a Med-Pod. In exchange, the underground technician asks Max to use his robotic powers to download, into his brain, computer information from Elysium that might help others escape their destitution on earth.

Max meets his match in a thug, also fitted up with robotic prostheses, who works as an undercover agent for Elysium's Secretary of Defense. Despite their high-tech appendages, however, Max and the thug duke it out like cowboys in 1940s Westerns, marring the film with overly long displays of conventional violence. The movie is more interesting when it alludes to the robotic nature of Elysium citizens, especially Jessica Delacourt, the Secretary of Defense, whose stilted walking and monotone voice make her seem only slightly more human than Max's parole officer. In fact, if Delacourt had not been played by the award-winning Jodie Foster, many viewers might dismiss the character as inadequately "fleshed out" by a sub-par actor. But that seems to be Blomkamp's point: privileged individuals who disregard the suffering of people in other parts of the world are sub-par humans, as fixated on protecting their comfortable lifestyle as the robots they program to defend it.

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