Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Produced by Bill Block, Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg
excellent = 4 stars; good = 3 stars;
fair = 2 stars, poor = 1 star
August 2013 -- Elysium isn't just another dystopian action movie. In this one, unequal access to health care is a central part of the brutal oppression of the 99% by the privileged few, and a skilled nurse character is one of the hero's allies in his mission to subvert the Earth's selfish overlords. South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp presents the planet in 2154 as an overpopulated, overheated mess controlled by bullying androids. Meanwhile, the wealthiest humans reside on a luxurious orbiting ring called Elysium, where "med bay" machines can cure any illness short of death. Yet no one on Earth itself has access to a med bay. Instead, people crowd overburdened hospitals like the Los Angeles facility in which nurse Frey works, apparently in the emergency department, when she is not caring for her leukemia-stricken daughter. After Frey's childhood sweetheart, the combat-ready ex-convict Max, runs afoul of the machinery of the state and seeks Frey's help, she becomes part of a desperate plan to challenge the evil order. The movie's structure owes something to Robocop, The Matrix, and Iron Man, and it's full of bloody violence and multi-level intrigue, plus Jodie Foster speaking French. So there isn't much time for nursing. Still, Frey does handle Max's serious abdominal knife wound on her own, even though she initially tells him that he "need[s] a doctor." We also see in flashbacks that when she and Max were kids, she was the clever, literate one. The film suggests that Frey reports to senior nurses, not physicians. And she is strong enough in trying to protect her daughter, though she also spends a lot of the film's second half needing to be rescued, and her character could have been further developed. But many of the human characters are somewhat underdone or overdone; the androids get most of the best lines. In any case, the striking and often compelling movie shows a nurse as someone with real health care ability and aligns nursing with those seeking a more just world.
Frey appears both in flashbacks to Max's childhood and in his troubled current life. Even as a kid in an orphanage, Max was dreaming of going to Elysium, which was visible in the sky above. In one of the flashbacks, we see that Max is surprised that fellow orphan Frey can actually read. And she reads to him from a children's book about (guess) Elysium.
In the present day, though, Max seems fully occupied with trying to avoid going back to jail, holding a job at a plant that actually makes droids and living in a shack near his old criminal pals, who try to tempt him to get back in the game. One day while he's on his way to work, a humorless police droid breaks Max's arm, and he goes to a local hospital emergency department. There, in the midst of horrific overcrowding, he is surprised to encounter Frey, with whom he has clearly not been in touch for many years. Someone who seems to be a senior nurse assigns Frey to Max's case. Frey is wary, but it's clear they still have a connection. She observes that he has a "bad break" and appears to put a bandage/splint on his hand in preparation for a cast. Soon, another nurse tells Frey she is needed elsewhere, but Max manages to find her again later on his way out. He wants a date; she agrees to coffee after work. Max notes with approval that she made it out of their neighborhood and says that he would have done the same if he had been "as smart as" she is.
Later, Frey and a white-coated physician appear with Frey's daughter, who lies in a hospital bed. The physician tells Frey that her daughter has to be released from the hospital, a decision of the heartless overlords, because there is nothing more they can do for her there. Frey protests, and the physician assures her that her daughter can return if she has further seizures. The physician observes that Frey's daughter could quickly be cured with a "med bay" like those that seem to be in every home on Elysium, although of course Frey would not need to be told that. Indeed, we see other scenes in which renegade ships from Earth try to crash through the space station's defenses solely in the hope that desperate passengers will be able to get even momentary access to a med bay before they are apprehended and sent back. Frey might have displayed more savvy and understanding here, though at least there is no suggestion that she reports to the physician.
After Max sustains injuries including a serious abdominal knife wound and is on the run from henchmen of the overlords, he shows up outside Frey's hospital, begging her to care for him away from the hospital so he will not be found. She initially says he "need[s] a doctor" and that he needs to go through the hospital system to get treatment, but she reluctantly helps him back to her home, where she seems to have a lot of health care equipment, presumably for her daughter's care. There, she manages to treat Max by herself, and the next morning he seems mostly better as a result of her expert pressing on his abdominal wound and jugular IV fluid administration. However credible that may be--it's not clear how she would have dealt with the likely internal bleeding--she seems to have single-handedly healed him well enough to fight another day. Frey observes that Max is involved in some plan that may include access to med bays, and she begs him to help her daughter, but he declines out of concern for their safety if they stay too close to him, since drones are searching for him. Before the film moves on, it becomes clear not only that Frey's daughter is adorable and optimistic, but also that she has her mother's caring impulse, since she tries to cheer and add bandaging to the battered Max.
Despite Max's efforts to keep Frey out of his problems, her aid ends up ensnaring her and her daughter in the larger effort to challenge the social order of which Max too has become a part. In these scenes, Frey does not crumple or cry, and she stays strong enough. It's fine that the film does not pretend she is some kind of warrior, although she might have had a less passive role in helping Max and his associates. In the latter part of the movie, she is primarily someone in need of Max's rescuing and protection.
One small, somewhat odd bright spot occurs near the end of the film, when one villain inflicts a severe neck wound on another villain and dumps that person into a room where Frey and her daughter are held captive, telling her ironically that the wounded villain "needs some medical care." Frey calmly proceeds to try to provide it, and in doing so she appears expert, though events quickly make her efforts unnecessary.
On the whole, Frey comes off as a strong, serious nurse who has the chance to display health skills on a few occasions. She enables Max to continue with his mission, and in that sense her nursing is one linchpin to the whole film. It's true that her role is peripheral and mostly reactive, and she is not critical to the main action, in contrast to the character Ana in Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, (right) who really was the central character and the leader of a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. But Frey is autonomous and, although there is a very light romantic theme with Max, there is no suggestion that she is a naughty nurse or romantically available to patients generally. And although her scrubs are kind of pink, at least they are solid, and there is no other sign of angel imagery.
The movie aligns Frey, and nursing, with its political and racial concerns. No one refers to "Obamacare" or "La Migra," but the film is clearly critical of modern wealth and power disparities, especially exclusionary health care and immigration policies. Much of the film turns on access to the med bays, which is limited to those with Elysium citizenship. And it's not hard to see modern border dramas in the plight of the desperate groups of Earth residents who risk their lives for a chance at that access. Frey is played by Brazilian actress Alice Braga and other key allies of Max's are Latinos and African-Americans, while the rulers of Elysium seem to be mostly white, aside from the South Asian president. Leaving aside whether Blomkamp's film is a fair critique of modern society, it's clearly presenting nursing as a positive force within the oppressed 99% of the population, which is of course preferable to portraying it as an instrument of oppression, as sometimes occurs in battle-axe imagery.
As for the med days, it's not clear how much traditional health work would be left for physicians or nurses in a world where machines could diagnose and treat everything in a matter of seconds. When one especially nasty villain gets his face blown off by a grenade, sparing his brain, a med bay reconstructs him to his lovely former self in seconds. Presumably countless health experts would be employed in creating and maintaining such machines, and for nursing in particular, perhaps part of the med bay repertoire would be psychosocial care and health counseling. Although Elysium residents do tend to be pretty, thin, and healthy, the machines don't seem to prevent aging. And so we assume that even members of this privileged elite would have to pay some attention to traditional issues like diet and exercise, lest they become like their fellow space expatriates on the ship Axiom in WALL-E (2008) (right), in which refugees from a poisoned Earth came to resemble great bowls of Jell-O after decades in which they didn't really have to do anything at all.
While Elysium may not offer nurses an afterlife of bliss and ease, it does briefly portray the profession as important and substantive, even life-saving. A better world is possible!
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed October 17, 2013
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.