Falling back on sci-fi clichés

August 22, 2013

Laura Durkay sees missed opportunities and Hollywood contradictions in Elysium.

IN THE mid-22nd century, Earth has become a crowded, polluted, poverty-stricken slum. While its poor, mostly Black and Brown residents struggle with dangerous working conditions, substandard public services and brutal robot police, the 1 Percent have escaped to Elysium, a pristine floating space station orbiting above Earth, where every family gets a Beverly Hills-sized mansion and a magical high-tech tanning bed that cures any medical ailment.

Matt Damon is the man with robot arms who might just change all that.

Trailers for Elysium offered the possibility of a radical, class-conscious message delivered in a shiny summer blockbuster package. Neill Blomkamp--whose District 9 was a not-veiled-at-all metaphor for South African apartheid with aliens--had a reputation for gutsy and visually innovative, if not particularly subtle, political sci-fi. And this time he had A-list Hollywood stars and a $90 million budget.

Reviews of Elysium have been mixed. It's been called both "the year's most radical film" and "everything that sucks about movies today." Ultimately, it's a little of both.

Matt Damon and Alice Braga in Elysium
Matt Damon and Alice Braga in Elysium

ELYSIUM'S GLEEFULLY brazen treatment of class inequality could have resulted in a fairly enjoyable action-movie slugfest between have and have-nots. But the film quickly devolves into blockbuster boilerplate under the weight of an ill-conceived plot and the standard genre cavalcade of noisy but not particularly interesting action sequences.

Some of the film's best moments come early, when we're simply being introduced to the worlds of Earth and Elysium. Shooting Mexico City for a future Los Angeles delivers the grubby, jerry-rigged look of a Third World megacity better than anything a production designer could create--because, of course, it's real. (Blomkamp has said that part of the inspiration for the film came from observing the militarization and inequality on display at the U.S.-Mexico border.)

When we meet our hero, ex-car thief Max (Matt Damon), he's struggling to live his life on the up-and-up, trudging to work in a factory making the same robot policemen who break his arm for talking back to them during an arbitrary stop-and-frisk. Checking in with his robot parole officer at a parole office will remind you of your worst trip to the DMV.

Review: Movies

Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp, starring Matt Damon, Alice Braga and Jodie Foster.

Within the opening minutes of the film, Max suffers a workplace accident that exposes him to lethal levels of radiation. His boss shrugs it off as a minor annoyance--Max's labor is easily replaceable. Meanwhile, Max's childhood crush Frey (Alice Braga) works as a nurse at the overcrowded, under-resourced local hospital, but is unable to care for her own dying daughter. That the lives of the poor are worthless could not be made more obvious.

The mere visual contrast between the desperate conditions on Earth and the sleek, artificially perfect world of Elysium is perhaps the film's most damning class statement. This is a future in which the super-rich have taken the gated community to a whole new level, physically removing themselves from those they exploit to the point where they don't even breathe the same air.

When a few pirate space shuttles' worth of medical refugees make a desperate bid to land on Elysium, they are either shot down or rounded up and deported on the orders of draconian Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster).

The film's opening scenes prove that Blomkamp has a sharp eye for the visual markers of class inequality and repression. (A shot of a line of refugees, on their knees at gunpoint awaiting deportation, is one of the film's most chilling images.) But almost as soon as the premise is set up, the film starts to go off the rails with a clumsy script that leads us into a narrative and political mess.

Turns out Delacourt is planning a coup against Elysium's President Patel with the help of defense magnate John Carlyle, who happens to own the factory where Max just got irradiated. So when Max agrees to hijack an Elysium billionaire in a desperate bid to get access to the space station's life-saving medical technology, he naturally picks his old boss Carlyle...not knowing that Carlyle has written a program that can reboot Elysium's central computer system...which gets downloaded into Max's brain the middle of a fight with some cartoonishly evil South African mercenaries.

Oh, and did I mention that Max is wearing a cyborg-suit that lets him fight robots and download computer programs into his brain? Perhaps you're starting to see the problems here.

As the film goes on, it continues to suffer from sloppy writing, an over-complicated plot, and the antics of said South African mercenaries, led by a guy named Kruger, played by Blomkamp's longtime friend Sharlto Copley. Kruger and his cronies eventually kidnap and menace Frey and her daughter for no narrative reason other than to prove how evil they are.

According to movie-villain conventions, Kruger & Co. should serve as henchmen to be dispatched on the way to Max's final battle with the true villain of the film, Delacourt--the person who both embodies and enforces the inequality that set the film's conflict into motion. But this is not what happens, making it feel at times like Blomkamp wrote this whole thing as one giant set-up for a cool-looking cyborg fight.

The women of the film have increasingly little to do as the story progresses. Foster, who could've been a perfect embodiment of icy bureaucratic evil, is wasted on a role full of ham-fisted dialogue and a premature demise. Frey has little to do but cower and be threatened by rapey bad guys for the second half of the film, and her daughter is basically a prop except for one cute moment that conveniently articulates the theme of the film.

All the agency is left to Max, whose final act is predictable enough to be visible from space. But if you like giant cyborg fights and people being blasted to chunks with high-tech weapons, there is plenty of that to go around.

PERHAPS ELYSIUM is exactly what you would expect from a marriage of Blomkamp and Hollywood. While District 9 caught filmmakers' and leftists' attention with its undisguised political allegory and non-North-American setting, it also featured a messiah-like hero (as close as you can get to a white savior within the human/alien metaphor the film set up) and a plot that was convoluted at times.

Blomkamp has proven his ability to come up with an intriguing sci-fi premise, but lacks the storytelling chops to deliver on the potential of the worlds he creates, and has a tendency to fall back on genre clichés instead of finding ways to subvert them.

For example, some have pointed to the insertion of a white movie-star hero into a future Los Angeles that seems to contain mostly Black and Brown people as evidence of Hollywood meddling. But given that Blomkamp's first choices for the part were white South African rapper Ninja, followed by Eminem, it seems more likely that a simple laziness on Blomkamp's part about challenging action-movie conventions around race and gender is to blame.

Merge that with a Hollywood studio mentality obsessed with finding a cool hook but not actually interested in developing a good story, and you have a perfect recipe for the class-war/Transformers garbage plate that Elysium becomes.

Is it unreasonable to expect a politically subversive blockbuster now and then? I don't think so. Science fiction, fantasy and horror have always had the potential to deliver cutting social commentary about our world through the lens of others.

The Hunger Games largely succeeds where Elysium falters in merging big-budget action spectacle with a commentary on extreme class inequality. And The Cabin in the Woods, whether intentionally or not, delivers one of the most damning portraits in recent memory of the kind of cold-hearted technocratic evil that accompanies the "war on terror."

The best of these films understand that the point of inserting a "social message" is not to wake up sleepy, stupid masses, but to connect with us by reflecting a slightly more extreme version of a reality we already know--to give us heroes we love to root for because their struggles are heightened, movie-reality version of our own. It's possible Blomkamp could become a director who excels at these kinds of films, but he still has a long way to go.

First published at Red Wedge Magazine.

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