Dystopian “Elysium” Offers Utopian Feminism

MV5BNDc2NjU0MTcwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjg4MDg2OQ@@._V1_SX214_Finally! There’s a big-budget, highly attended, intelligent summer movie with good acting, strong female roles, a cast comprised of many people of color, timely and astute political analysis and fully realized characters. Plus, not one gratuitous booty shot. Not one! I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I was not dreaming as I sat riveted on the edge of my seat at the screening of Elysium.

As I want people to see this movie and disprove the naysayers, I won’t give away anything in the first half of the review. For those who have not seen the movie, stop reading at SPOILER ALERT, move away from your digital device, get thee to a theater, procure your munchy of choice and prepare to be dazzled.

Much like director Neill Blomkamp’s first movie, District 9, Elysium is a sci-fi think-piece interwoven with heavy doses of political critique. Set in a polluted, dilapidated, overpopulated Los Angeles circa 2149, the film tells a gripping story of haves (those who live on the pristine orbital space-station Elysium) verses have-nots (those still on Earth). Though a pumped-up, head-shaven Matt Damon as the lead character, Max, had me worried that this was going to be yet another white-dude-saves-the-day film, Elysium is far from your typical white-guy movie. Instead, it offers an intersectional analysis touching on race, class, gender, immigration, militarization, heirarchical systems of power and more.

In terms of gender, Jodie Foster is her usual excellent acting self as Delacourt, the Secretary of Defense of Elysium (a role that was originally penned as male); Alice Braga shines as Frey, Max’s best friend from childhood who is now a skilled, courageous nurse on  illness-ridden Earth; and young Emma Tremblay, as Frey’s terminally ill daughter Matilda, who pulls the heartstrings in every scene she is in.

There are various key side roles played by women as well: a kind-hearted nun who assures young Max he is special despite not being a privileged Elysium-dweller and teaches him a lesson that reverberates thoughout the film—“never forget where you came from;” a grandmotherly type who encourages Max to hide under her crate of pigs, and in so doing saves his life; a brave mother who risks illegally traveling to Elysium to try and heal her daughter’s legs; and the women who work in Elysium’s command center. How often do films show women working in places of high importance in equal numbers to men?

No women seem to be a part of Spider’s (Wagner Moura) rebel dissident group, but, in general, this film is far more gender equitable in its representations. Watching it, one would think that the future is made up of women and men in equal numbers—unlike in most films, where the ratio is usually 5 to 1 male at best. And not only are the lead women key to the narrative, but they play very strong, complex roles. Delacourt is a baddy, yes, but she can be read as being in the sort of bind where women are forced to “act like men” to access power. As for Frey, she is portrayed as a familiar dedicated mother, but not in a one-note way: She saves Max various times; is  intelligent, ingenious and courageous; and is far from being the “love interest” role women are so often relegated to. Max readily admits she is way smarter than him. How often does that happen in a film?

As for race, yes, the lead guy is white—but he is not your typical white male hero. And other roles are filled with people of color—Frey, Matilda, Julio (Diego Luna), Spider, President Patel (Faran Tahir), as are many “extra” roles. Moreover, the way Elysium depicts race, class and gender is shot through with realism. The narrative suggests, and the real world sadly attests, that women and people of color are disproportionately poor, lack access to healthcare, live in substandard conditions, are forced to work in dehumanizing jobs and are treated badly by authorities. This is quite a change of pace from the majority of films, in which women are eye candy and people of color are usually villains or addicts.

***SPOILER ALERT*****SPOILER ALERT*******SPOILER ALERT****

There is no Obamacare in this future time; instead, Elysium has “med bays” (which look like tanning beds) that can scan the body and heal it of any illness or injury. Though Max has wanted to get to Elysium his entire life, once he is doused with a lethal dose of radiation at his factory job and given 5 days to live, the stakes for him become a matter of life and death.

And here is where one of the more subtle critiques comes in. Brain data can now be stolen, downloaded and uploaded—much like computer files—so Max, in his go-for-broke efforts to get to Elysium, agrees to steal brain data from one of Elysium’s citizens (all of them, multi-billionaires—the 1 percent) so that Spider can steal from the rich and give to the poor. Turns out that, Spider, initially seeming to be a villain, is actually a futuristic Robin Hood who’s far more heroic than Max. Unbeknownst to Spider, however, the “mark” they pick to steal brain data from—Carlyle (William Fichtner)—is the very man whom Delacourt tasked with corrupting Elysium’s main computer server, thus allowing her to take over as president.

While all of this is edge-of-your-seat from a narrative perspective (and is filmed in eye-popping detail), from a political perspective it’s even better, suggesting that what gives us power is what we hold in our brains, not our bank accounts. This is not a new concept, surely, but one that scares the heck out of Elysium types in our own world. For those who keep asking why education is not a funding priority, here is your answer: A population with valuable “brain data” can be dangerously recalcitrant.

When Spider views the data Max obtains from Carlyle, he realizes further that the information could be used to open the metaphorical border between earth and Elysium, making all people of Earth citizens of Elysium and thus beneficiaries of its privileges.

Max selfishly tells Spider he only wants to save his own life, not Earth’s citizens. His anti-heroic side alters by the end of the film, but making the hero so flawed—especially when he is so white—is itself rare. Indeed, people of color are instrumental in shaping Max into the hero/martyr he ultimately becomes. Oh yeah, and here’s the BIG spoiler: Max dies. How often does the hero die in American films?

Elysium also manages to decry immigration policies and dehumanizing language about  immigrants (such as calling them “illegals”); show the sinister motives behind concepts such as “homeland security;” condemn power-hungry corporatism and its brother in empire, militarism; and demonstrate how hierarchal power is the handmaiden of divide and conquer. The film suggests we are all “migrants” on Earth, and all equally deserving of the planet’s riches. While some see this egalitarian message as too heavy-handed and obvious, (as here), I would counter that we need far more social-justice messages in films. Further, when comment threads such as these are far too common—decrying such films as “propaganda,” insisting actors and film-makers cannot be activists without compromising their art and slamming misguided notions of liberalism while blaming “the left” for all the world’s problems—it would behoove feminists and other just-minded people to speak with their wallets and go see such films.

Elysium, as with the best dystopias, is only an exaggerated mirror image of our own world. Where it differs is in its brilliant undercurrent of utopia—the shimmering promise that we could live otherwise. If we want films and casts that offer this promise, we need to support such movies. Feminists, get thee to a theater!

Photo of Elysium promotional poster from IMDB.  

 

Comments

  1. No, it’s not a feminist film. Ealasaid A. Haas of the San Jose Mercury News notes, “The story offers us only two real female characters: a helpless mother who totes her dying child around like a doll and has to be rescued from the creepy bad guy, and a vicious, politically ambitious would-be dictator. [. . .] It had the opportunity to be a sci-fi fable about the divide between rich and poor, but instead it’s a ridiculous, sexist mess.” You have the evil Jodie and the good Maria. The good Maria wrings her hands and does nothing while she waits for a man to fix everything. She has plenty to choose from since there are main adult characters — 12 of which are men.
    Susan Faludi outlined the basics in Backlash and with it’s whore/madonna complex, Elysium is no more a feminist film than Fatal Attraction was.
    On top of that, it’s a bad movie. Richard Roper’s called it Jodie’s worst acting ever and his was among the kinder reviews. I didn’t mind Jodie so much (there’s no part written for her to play) as the non-stop close up of boring and honestly not attractive Matt Damon. He can’t act, he’s short and squat and non-sexy, why’s he a leading man? Maybe the awful box office for Elysium (Monday through yesterday, We’re The Millers came in number one) will take care of that.
    But in the meantime, could Ms. grasp something? We’re readers, not your followers. I fully grasp that lefty males are in a panic over this film bombing (29 million opening weekend is a bomb in summer for an action film). But that someone thought, “Hey, let’s trick the girls, they’re stupid, let’s get some writer for Ms. to hawk this awful movie and then those dumb girls will buy tickets!” We are women, not mice. We will not be led by a pied piper.
    Better time could have been spent nothing the film I’m seeing this weekend that I suspect many will be seeing, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Forest Whitaker looks like he really delivers in the trailer and you’ve got Oprah in what’s supposed to be her strongest role since Beloved. Plus small parts by Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, it’s like a mini-Julia reunion. All that and one of my earliest TV crushes: Clarence Williams III.

    • I think I and countless others might be more willing to listen to what you have to say when you’re done trying to body shame Matt Damon. >_>

      • Eh, not feeling this article. I’m tired of being sidelined as a woc in entertainment and media on the basis that it’s “realistic.” Sounds like an excuse for lazy writing.

        Max. How often is it that a white person eventually sacrifices him or herself for oppressed people? Uh…very often. Max might have been an anti-hero in the beginning, but his initial instance of selfishness is vastly overshadowed by his final decision to die. But don’t mistake bad writing for complexity – Max’s reasons for going to Elysium appear to change when he sees his childhood sweetheart. This is incredibly trope-driven character development. It is not game changing at all.

        And please don’t get me started on Spider. Talk about a caricature.

        I also don’t think the nun was a feminist character in this context. While I think holy people can be really complex characters in film, the nun in Elysium was a very flat stereotype of what older woc in poor areas do – turn to God. Even her advice was the standard stuff that you give to kids who are looking for something better. There was nothing remotely feminist about her character, other than her being a woman. I really hope we aren’t so desperate for female characters that we’re willing call a 10-second shot of a nun “feminist.”

        Delacourt – her role can’t really be construed as an example of women having to “act” like men because we never see Delacourt out of her job and thus cannot assess what she’s really like when she’s not “acting” like a man. The audience only ever sees a war hawk. I guess one could say that Delacourt’s motivations are really up to the audience’s interpretation, but that sounds like a poor excuse for poor writing. For me, Delacourt’s character was just another badly written trope (strong, incredibly driven career lady) masquerading as feminism. I guess it’s cool that she’s evil? But then again, aren’t most career women viewed as too driven for their own good?

        Frey was a feminist character to an extent. She knew how to read when the male protagonist did not, she rose above absolute poverty, and she eventually got an okay job. Those are not small things; her character clearly incorporates some serious feminist characteristics early on. But I wouldn’t claim that Frey’s character is a beacon of feminist craftsmanship. Her motivations were eventually restricted to the role of “Mother,” which isn’t inherently bad. It’s just not new, and the film doesn’t explore the role in a new feminist way. Then Frey was denied all agency as a character when she was captured, and she only regained it to complete her role as Mother – something that couldn’t be done without a man’s help. So her ultimate purpose in the film was to be a damsel in distress and to be the mother of a perfect victim to novitiate Max (and trick the audience) into caring. For that reason, Frey’s character becomes very boring very quickly. Seriously. I wanted to like Frey at the very beginning of the movie because it was clear that she was independent. But as time wore on, her spirit seemed to fade into a lifeless dependency on men.

        Don’t get me wrong, here. I think this movie had some good elements. But I think the film’s liberalism ultimately led to its downfall: it incorporates far too many dystopian visuals, too much technological lingo, too many side characters, too much on-the-nose commentary. The movie was too caught up in world-building and its own political message to flesh out its characters in a meaningful way. And *that* is when social commentary can be harmful, even counterproductive, to film. So, superficially, Elysium is better than most movies, I guess? But if you really analyze it, this film is nothing more than another bloated, poorly-written action movie using oppressed people as props for the white male protagonist’s character development.

        As Natalie Watson mentioned in another comment, we can certainly point out small victories. But to be super honest, calling Elysium an example of “utopian feminism” is setting the bar incredibly low.

    • Natalie Wilson says:

      I am no “pied piper.” I am an academic and feminist and genuinely enjoyed the film. I admit it has it’s flaws, and maybe my own love of Jodie Foster and District 9 led me to love the film more than many others did, but your insinuations towards Ms., (and your body-shaming of Damon, as noted by Kayne) are unkind and unnecessary.

    • Glad I’m not the only one who though that. Only two female roles of importance? There’s nothing feminist about it. Don’t get me started on representation of POC. Nothing feminist about that either.

  2. Renee Robb-Cohen says:

    It was set up to be a great movie… but it was flat. I liked the message, I liked Foster… but the “action” was boring and it had no real heart.

  3. Plenty of flawed white anti-heros. Dexter Morgan. Jack Bauer. Walter White. Admittedly the point of Breaking Bad is to gradually transform Walter into a villain, but the early seasons count. Also, plenty of full on villain-heroes (hero here meaning simply the star of the narrative) like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey.

    Heck, look at all the classic heroes. Han Solo, Harry Calahan, even as far back as Charles Foster Kane. All flawed people.

    The flaw in Elysium is the problem no one ever dares mention: birth control. Earth in the film clearly had lots of tech trickling down from Elysium. They’re clever, performing advanced cybernetic surgery in back rooms. Their real problem was too damn many people. Control that and they could all build their own fields of Elysium right there on Earth. The heck with the space station. Just hack the health pod tech and reverse engineer it.

    • Natalie Wilson says:

      Pooka,
      Great point about birth control! Especially as it could seemingly be delivered via the “med bays.” But, this would require some careful inclusion so as not to suggest forced sterilization and the like…

  4. I liked it better when it was called Johnny Mnemonic.

  5. #SolidartiyisforWhiteWomen when feminist think a film is all about intersectional analysis because “this is quite a change of pace from the majority of films, in which women are eye candy and people of color are usually villains or addicts,” failing to recognize that indeed, most of the people of color are in fact villains and addicts. There is depth to their characters and an understanding that they have few other options, but to say that it is a radical change of pace would be flawed. With regards to Alice Braga’s role, her potential rape, purely based on the fact that she was female and a prisoner, because womens bodies are “so tempting”… was also problematic. I think we often use realism as an excuse to discount the emotional trauma of oppressed groups–is it more important to display things as they are or how they should be? especially where triggering an already marginalized group of people is concerned, or when “realism” is used as a prop to reinforce stereotyping.

    Elysium discusses class issues extremely well and brings to the table a host of concerns from many marginialized people in a way that perhaps has never been done before in a major motion picture—but it still falls short of a complete intersectional analysis. What would it look like if Damon had played supporting actor to Diego Lunes’ is lead? Or better yet, Braga’s? I’m convinced we can and should strive for better.

    • Natalie Wilson says:

      Pallas,

      Yes, I agree. It isn’t so much as a radical change. I suppose I saw it as such because it’s a rather mainstream film. But, as you point out, it would have been far more radical to make Lunes or Braga the lead.

      I also agree we can and should strive for better. At the same time though, I think we can also point out small victories. At least, in other words, the entire cast wasn’t white… or, as with Hunger Games, when a character written as a POC was cast as white in the film.

  6. I did not like the way the film portrayed a dichotomy between ‘good’ women and ‘bad’ women. No one is one dimensional. Mothers are not always good and wholesome, and other women are not always heartless ass holes.

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