Gunty is associate publisher/editor of the Catholic Review.

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A look at Columbia Pictures' 'Elysium'


In the 2150s, earth doesn’t look very good. People on earth are stacked on top of each other (worse than today’s skyscrapers and dense cities). Greenspace? Virtually nonexistent. Pollution, a police state and policies keep the underdog under foot.

But if you are among the planet’s upper crust, you can live off-planet on Elysium, a space station, where all is beautiful and everyone is healthy, thanks to the “medbay” in every home that diagnoses and cures all maladies within moments. As Garrison Keillor might say, “Where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Such is the premise of “Elysium,” in theaters today.

Wagner Moura (left) and Matt Damon in Columbia Pictures' ELYSIUM. (© 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.)


From this dystopia emerges a savior, Max (Matt Damon), who is told as a young boy by a wonderful, compassionate nun (played by Yolanda Abbud L.) at an orphanage that he is born to do something great.

He longs for Elysium, a wheel in orbit around earth that is visible to the naked eye from the scorched planet’s surface.

TriStar Pictures’ ELYSIUM. (© 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.All rights reserved.)


Years later, Max is an ex-felon factory worker, ironically helping to manufacture the police robots that herd and harm the people.
Max gets blasted with a lethal dose (a “maximum” dose) of radiation at the factory, and is given a bottle of pills by a robotic medic and sent home with five days to live.

Elysium is science fiction, but it’s also a political allegory. As 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” was an unabashed portrayal of the dangers of global warming, “Elysium” clearly highlights immigration concerns and the lack of universal health care. It’s no coincidence that most of the earth-bound residents of Los Angeles who seek the ability to migrate to the space station are Hispanic. Even the terminology is clear: the shuttles the earthlings use to attempt to go to Elysium are called “undocumented ships.” It couldn’t be more obvious than that.





The science in “Elysium” is probably as accurate as in “The Day After Tomorrow,” which is to say, not very. In 2008, Yahoo! Movies listed the climate change diatribe as one of the “Top 10 Scientifically Inaccurate Movies.” Certainly, we can expect advances in medical technology in 150 years, but it’s unlikely that we will achieve the kind of progress Elysium depicts. Cranial reconstruction? It might take a few minutes, but sure, we’ve got that.

The grotesque violence in this film is predictable. Think “Mad Max Beyond the Atmosphere” for a new take on the apocalyptic “Mad Max” movies featuring a young Mel Gibson. For the most part, people left behind aren’t very nice to each other.

In Ancient Greek folklore, Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, was a concept of the afterlife where “admission was initially reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life,” according to Wikipedia.

The 22nd-century Elysium is similar, except these privileged few aren’t dead. They have beautiful homes, free medical care and room to breathe.

What they don’t have is utopia. We note that in both cases where an undocumented mother makes it to the space station to ensure her child a chance at medbay miracles, they have to break a window to open the door. If life on Elysium were perfect, who would need to lock their doors?

The church supports sound immigration policies and universal health care (as long as it promotes life rather than diminishes it), so this might be a movie about which Catholics have a lot to say.

But my favorite takeaway from the film was the nun. A century and a half from now, I believe there will be Catholic sisters (still wearing a veil and habit) who will carry on the good work of Jesus, as depicted not on the space station but on the dirt-poor planet below. I believe those in church ministry will care for the sick and orphaned. I hope they will all be as kind as that sister, who spoke lovingly and sweetly to a young, lonely boy, and inspired him to be a savior.

8/9/2013 5:37:04 PM
By Christopher Gunty