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.


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.  



Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.