Part ‘Odyssey,’ Part ‘Total Recall’: What Is ‘Elysium’?

Credit: Columbia Pictures

You know you like science fiction. You know you like Matt Damon. And you know you’re on board with anything that showcases a handsome bald fella. So yes, you’re pretty certain you’re going to enjoy Neill Blomkamp’s newest feature film, Elysium. There’s only one thing you’re not quite sure about: what the heck “Elysium” actually is.

The movie lends the name — one you might have heard before — to an exclusive utopia floating just beyond the reach of a decaying planet Earth’s common man. The titular space station that plays paradisiacal home to political figures, law enforcement officers, and your everyday rich people, denying the benefits of pristine environments and universal healthcare to the working class schmoes confined to the big blue marble. Enter Max (Damon), a reformed criminal inflicted with a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, who vows to snag a spot in one of Elysium’s venerated medical facilities before succumbing to his disease. But in order to get there, he’ll need to sneak in — courtesy of a border-hopping underground organization led by a crook named, quite appropriately, Spider. And of course, when you ask a favor of a crook, you’re bound to find yourself carrying out one or two illicit deeds in the process.

But hospice on Elysium is worth anything for Max. The proverbial “castle in the clouds” seems to represent all of the ideals to which humanity might aspire: safety, prosperity, uniformity, total submission… yeah, it’s starting to get a little iffy there, isn’t it? Although Elysium is stocked lovingly with the tropes of science-fiction movie classics — everything from pulp works like Total Recall to mainstream blockbusters like Star Wars to uncategorizable masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey — the film is also clearly quite happy to emulate classic literature. In fact, Blomkamp’s Elysium takes its name from one of the greatest and most well-known pieces of writing in human history: Homer’s Odyssey.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Homer invented the Elysian plain, a temperate kingdom where mankind knew no trouble. In his epic poem, Homer described the mythical land as that “where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill-blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men.” In a word, paradise.

In fact, so potent is the idea of Elysium as a flawless utopia that many classic minds examined it in their own writings: Greek historian Plutarch and Roman poet Virgil were among those to embed the facet into their work. And centuries past Homer’s invention of the golden empire, popular culture keeps a stronghold on Elysium as its go-to heaven-on-Earth: fantasy television shows like Doctor Who, Xena Warrior Princess, and Sailor Moon have welcomed references to Elysium, as have movies like the historical fiction epic Gladiator, the comedy Wanderlust, and the spirited extended metaphor Beasts of the Southern Wild.

But instead of recreating the impeccable Elysium developed by Homer, director Blomkamp seems to draw a bit more directly from some more recent works: the novels of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley will jump to mind in the inspection of the rigidly controlled autocracy kept under glass by military figure Delacourt (Jodie Foster). The flawless sheath drawn over a scathing, fear-generated xenophobia is a staple of sci-fi fiction, with 1984 and Brave New World playing generous benefactors to this eager and inventive new twist on the genre.

We see a lot of “new” in Blomkamp’s Elysium, though plenty of fun and familiar homages to Orwell and Huxley, to Philip K. Dick and the many cinematic attempts that have been made of his library, to Star Wars and Kubrick, and to Homer. The “perfect world,” the heavenly kingdom just out of reach, is something that artists and scholars have dwelled upon for centuries. But Blomkamp proves that there are always new, fresh ways of looking at time-tested ideas.

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow on Twitter @hollywood_com

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