Of course, Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” is political, but news pundits, never exactly attuned to the subtleties of narrative and ideology, miss the big picture. Critics and observers have endlessly recycled the idea that the film is some kind of sci-fi epic for the Occupy movement, in which the 99% rebel against the 1%, in a special-effect driven battle for universal healthcare and citizenship. And yes, while this may be the case on the film’s dystopian surface, “Elysium” fails as the kind of liberal “political propaganda” that some conservatives have labeled it as.
As Messianic narratives go, “Elysium” is even more white, Christian and reactionary than “The Matrix.” Who better to save the human race, and particularly all those poor brown people than a young white blue-eyed Matt Damon, of course? At least Blomkamp’s previous “District 9” had its white protagonist literally take the shape of the oppressed alien other. But with “Elysium,” Damon’s character may be an orphan raised by Mexican nuns and in love with a Latina, but he’s still the same familiar white hero who is predestined to save the day. Why couldn’t Diego Luna have been the star and Damon the sidekick?
“Elysium” also fails to rouse its audience. If propaganda is meant to persuade its audiences of a political agenda or foist a strong political perspective, the movie’s simplistic Utopian perspective lets the audience off the hook. At no point in the movie are we in doubt of its conclusion. And when it comes, it does not arrive as a triumph, but as a let down. We do not leave the theater infuriated, angry or compelled to act in favor of passing comprehensive immigration or healthcare reform; we leave the theater believing that all is well and EMS robots will drop from the sky and save us all.