If it’s not clear from the trailers, this film is a parable about health care, class division, and illegal immigration. These subjects are treated with blunt literalism and its resolution is very cut and dried, regardless of their complexity. In hindsight the tone and story arc reminded me of a typical anime with clear malignant villains, a reluctant hero in an apocalyptic setting, and an oversimplified seemingly ungoverned society; stylistically impressive, but ultimately unmemorable. In all honesty I wanted to like this film a lot, I really did. We need more science fiction, more auteur directors, more unique franchises. We need more labors of love, more allegory, more thought and depth in film today and less carbon copy studio-massaged clones designed to be accessible and appeal to the largest possible audience. A good and imaginative film can inform and inspire, it can expand our consciousness or fire up our passions about controversial ideas. Elysium aspires to that level of storytelling, that idyllic place in the sky and, like the impoverished and destitute citizens left behind on Earth, falls short more often than not. And not for lack of trying or skill, this an entertaining and thoughtful film. But it does make some decisions that frustrate and distract and fail to compose a unique or involving vision and because of that I walked out of the theater feeling a little disappointed.
I’ll get this out of the way: District 9 was a super cool and surprisingly unique little sci-fi flick. Neill Blomkamp is a South African director with a ton of hype that stems from his distinctive style and use of stunningly realistic CGI characters. His vivid depictions of fringe, impoverished communities, a thin allegory for the ravaging effect of a Post-Apartheid society evokes a newish sort of stylistic aesthetic. If Star Wars inspired a kind of dirty, chaotic Sci-Fi environment that contrasted Star Trek’s neat shiny future and Blade Runner existed in neo-noir steam punk world, Blomkamp depicts what I’m going to start calling ‘third-world Sci-Fi’. His vision of the future makes Mos Eisley look like Mayberry in comparison and his portrayal of government ineptitude and beaurocracy is almost Kafka-esque. Which is one of my first problems with his second film. Matt Damon’s character Max works in an awful factory and lives in a hovel in an overpopulated unsanitary shantytown that is policed by brutal, nightstick-happy automatons. When an accidental radiation exposure threatens to kill him in a few days he decides to make a run for the orbitting Utopian satellite in order to use its magical healing tanning beds. My question is ‘why’. His life absolutely sucks. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a right to self-preservation, but as an audience member it looks like his ultimate prize is another few years irradiating robots and barbecuing on car hoods before he dies of a staph infection.
Smarter writers than myself have pointed out that in both of Blomkamp’s films the main character is not actually the hero of the story. Rather, they are forced to assist the actual heroic character out of what are largely selfish motivations. This is a really cool approach, I like the idea a lot but where this made sense for Sharlto Copley’s character Wikus van de Merwe in District 9, who only wanted his family and life back, Max is really only out to save himself. Even when he is given the opportunity to help the one person he truly cares about, he rejects her out of some misguided attempt to protect her. A gesture that, ultimately, proves fruitless. It has also been pointed out that all of his characters have their own pathos and their own goals that aren’t dependent on the protagonist. This is good writing: every character behaves as if they are the hero of their own story and their adventures intersect and react with each other along the way. Even the bad guys are fully realized and intimidating with Copley as a particularly unsettling sort of ninja Rasputin with a cool accent.
To me, utopia is a world without Shaky Cam. Dear lord, I dream of the day this technique disappears forever and is forgotten in the annals of film history. This effect, when used in action sequences, never improves the experience. I curse the day Paul Greengrass took over the Bourne franchise and ruined the awesome and brutal hand to hand fight scenes from the first film by, I assume, kidney punching his cameraman during fight choreography. It’s lazy, stupid, and distracting, and there is no excuse for it when it comes to a director like Blomkamp who is fully capable of filming an engaging and exciting action sequence where the audience can tell what the hell is happening on screen. This is where Elysium let me down in a nearly unforgivable way. The director uses both Bullet Time and Shaky Cam in the same sequences and the affect is thus: “Oh that is really cool and….now I can’t tell what is happening.” And the parts I could understand were great. They are visceral, detailed, bone-crunchingly powerful. It’s a damn shame.
To return to my original sentiment, I really wanted to like this film a lot. And I do, for the most part. But the question of how to solve these social ills is criminally basic in this film and it made no sense to me at all. If the cure-all that is applied is so easy to distribute to the population at large then why have the privileged occupants of Elysium not shared it to some degree, meting out miracle cures that appears to cost no money, energy, time, effort; anything to assuage the desperate people left on Earth. This would eliminate the primary motivation for illegal immigration. Instead the rich upper class is depicted as either breathlessly incompetent or mind-bogglingly evil for hoarding this technology for no real reason and this is not a productive way of discussing the issue. Demonizing and marginalizing the One Percent as soulless Eloi is exactly as ignorant and reductive as describing the Lower Class as degenerate and lazy. No conversation is created, no progress is made.
All issues aside, see Elysium if you get the chance. It is not a waste of time and it has moments that display the real talent of director of Neill Blomkamp. I look forward to his next release and I want him to keep writing about challenging subjects if only in the hopes that he can come up more challenging answers.