Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elysium


Grade: 40/C

Neill Blomkamp has adopted a rather puzzling strategy to follow up his breakthrough film District 9: make a very similar film, except dumber. District 9 wasn’t the towering masterwork many held it up to be, and it abandoned its most potent satire in the second half for an entertaining but lesser shoot-em-up approach, but it was never less than involving. The same can’t be said for Elysium, which augments District 9’s weaknesses while botching everything the earlier film did well.

2154: Earth is overpopulated and left in rubble. The lower class citizens have been left behind in poor conditions under a brutal robot police state. The rich have moved to a space station called Elysium, where they have Med-Pods with the ability to heal nearly any ailment.

Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is an ex-convict working as a factory worker on Earth. An accident exposes him to radiation, and he’s informed that he has only days to live. Max turns to an old smuggler friend (Wagner Moura), who agrees to help him get to Elysium if he first helps him steal corporate information from Carlyle (William Fichtner), who’s currently helping Elysium Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) with a code that will make her president of Elysium. But Max and Spider soon find that Carlyle’s information could potentially save the lives of Earth’s people, and Delacourt is forced to turn to the vicious mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) for help.

If nothing else, Elysium proves that Blomkamp still has a gift for creating textured, lived-in environments. Earth is appropriately grungy and ruined, the factory Max works is a futuristic nightmare, and Elysium looks like a mix between a garden and technological paradise. But it’s problematic when the first positive is the film’s production design, and Blomkamp doesn’t even fully utilize the world he’s created- very little of the film is actually set on Elysium. Why create a new sci-fi location if you’re not going to use it?

 Blomkamp is talented enough that the film isn’t totally without memorable moments- one scene between a sarcastic Damon and a robot parole officer captures the bureaucratic satire of District 9, and Damon’s radiation poisoning is a fairly thrilling moment. But these are far and few between in what’s otherwise a poorly thought out (if detailed) world and story that gives none of its characters anything to do except run to the next shootout or fistfight, each of which play like a vividly realized but increasingly monotonous videogame.

Damon has proved adept at playing both working-class figures (Good Will Hunting) and action heroes (The Bourne Trilogy), but aside from a few early comic scenes, he isn’t given much to do other than look stern and shoot at things. What’s worse, nearly everything in his arc feels like a perfunctory decision to keep the film moving forward to the next action scene, whether it involves his paper-thin relationship with Alice Braga (complete with maudlin childhood flashbacks), a barely-there friendship with a wasted Diego Luna, or a change in motive that feels completely arbitrary.

Still, he’s better than most of the villains and character parts on display, which range from a perfectly cast but underutilized Fichtner to Copley’s thinly-conceived psychopath to Moura’s irritating, far too twitchy smuggler. And lord only knows what Foster is doing here- she seems ideal to play a cold, calculating authority figure, but her turn here is largely sunk by a far too mannered accent of indeterminate origin (French? South African? Weird made-up Elysium accent?).

As with District 9, Elysium’s allegory is blunt, but it’s not nearly as effective. Blomkamp has taken a mix of modern day news items (immigration, health care, and the 99% vs. 1%) and thrown them together into an overarching comment on class. Great idea, but there’s no payoff. Why make most of the underprivileged Latinos if you’re going to make the hero a white guy (other than box office)? Why suggest parallels between the US/Mexico border and the Earth/Elysium disconnect if you’re not going to explore it? Is the film really more effective if it makes the antagonists either raving lunatics or Ayn Rand reborn?

The worst thing about Elysium is that it manages to be obvious, oversimplified and somehow still ill conceived. Say what you will about the painful earnestness of Avatar, at least the allegory made sense. It’s embarrassing to see that Blomkamp has set up nearly every aspect of Elysium solely for the purpose of making a point about the modern world, regardless of whether the plot made sense (see spoiler territory addendum below), and that he didn’t even manage to make it well.

SPOILER POSTSCRIPT

-If anyone has an answer they think might explain some of the things I've labeled as egregious logical errors, feel free to tell me in the comments, though label it as spoilers because I don't want to be a dick to the people who want to see it. I'd really like to not feel like a crank tearing apart every tiny aspect of a movie just because it didn't work for him. That said...

-Ok: so there is nothing about this film’s allegory that makes any sense whatsoever. It’s common in sci-fi to take everything a step further in order to make a point about modern technology, but there’s a vast difference between preventative health care for all and a magical healing pod that isn’t shown to use up any resources (it may very well, but that’s not really stated). Modern social justice is based off of the idea of lessening the gap between the haves and the have-nots, giving the latter a fighting chance. It is not based on literally making it an equal playing field, not because it shouldn’t be, but because most people recognize that this is impossible. Making your device a cure all pretty much turns any attempts at incisive statement into naïve wish fulfillment, if not outright pandering.

It also basically lets us assume that the people on Elysium are just fucking everyone over out of sheer evilness, which no. Reasons behind it (greed, need for higher status) might be inexcusable, but they need to be tangible for it to work in the film. If you don’t actually address them then you’re essentially making sure your villain is a female Snidely Whiplash. I’ve looked around for something I like that might be comparable and came up with Minority Report, but that uses its technology as a way of complicating our view of the world rather than simplifying it. Plus, y’know, villain has actual motivation other than blackness of the soul.

-What is Foster’s plan, exactly? She’s instating herself as president by using the info in Fichtner’s head, but the actual details of how that would work are never explained, and since they never come to fruition it just feels like marking time in retrospect. The best thing I can come up with is that Elysium seems so run by technology that if she can reprogram it to suit her needs, there’s no going back, but that’s really stretching.

-Why does she want to be president, anyway? Control, yeah, but the president seems pretty ineffectual without her to the point where I question how much that threat of removing her is even a possibility. She is pretty definitively the one in charge, practically the Dick Cheney to his Bush. What is to be gained, here? The whole thing just feels like a really contrived way to get Damon up to Elysium.

-And what the fuck is with the mention of her wanting to protect a family that we never meet? It feels like a weak grasp at giving her motivation that’s totally extraneous because it isn’t developed.

-So, Fichtner agrees to help Foster become president by reprogramming the space station. And he seems terrified of her. Can I stress that until Damon downloads the information inside his head, he is the only one who has the information that could make anyone- Foster, or, y’know, say, himself- the president of Elysium. He has the keys to the fucking kingdom and the choice to literally rule the world, and he doesn’t because…?

 -The big one: so, Damon and Moura’s plan makes zero sense. They hit a button to make everyone on Earth citizens so they have the right to health care. Never mind that this is reducing a complex (if essential) battle against bureaucratic agencies and special interests to a literal push of a button. Even within its own world it makes no sense. We’re asked to assume that those medical pods have been there the whole time, even though there’s no reason for them to exist in massive back catalog, and that the people of Elysium aren’t sending them because fuck you, that’s why. And even if we’re to assume that: there are billions of people on earth. If it’s overpopulated now, what does “overpopulated” mean in a run-down 2154 version of Earth? There is no way they have enough pods to serve everyone.

My comparison was that it would be like making everyone bajillion dollar shareholders on Wall Street- either the resources run out or they’re just not sent out because it’s ludicrous to think that the system would approve this. I went though Letterboxd and found that Mike D’Angelo of Las Vegas Weekly had a similar example, stated much more eloquently than mine here. The automated robot army might now be defenders of all, but asking us to accept that there’s literally no way that the bad guys can’t get back in and that the system is ready-made to serve everyone if you flip a switch is asking the audience to do far more work than the movie. Some have suggested that it’s meant to be open-ended, but Blomkamp plays it as a pretty unambiguously triumphant note.

-I’d argue that most of my questions here show how little Blomkamp has thought out most of the plot elements and how the allegory doesn’t bear scrutiny. But even if all of this seems like bloodless nit picking, I’d probably be willing to go with it at least somewhat if I found it the least bit involving. But Blomkamp has labored to set up a bad allegory with clumsy plotting and then throw much of it to the wayside for a lot of shooting and punching and a character arc that’s more motivated by where the plot needs him to be than anything else. I don’t hate this movie, but it’s easily the most frustrating thing I’ve seen all year because it constantly feels like it could be great. Basically, this thing is a mess, and I worry that Blomkamp, who’s clearly talented, might repeat himself by attacking a movie allegory first, action scenes second, story and character last again.

EDIT: I've considered this in relation to District 9, and clearly lack of empathy is a recurring theme in Blomkamp's work. But he explores that fairly thoroughly in D9 even as he abandons much of the headier aspects of the film in the second half. With Elysium, it's possibly present in Foster/Fichtner/the very conception of Copley, and Damon's turnaround near the end is an example of a survival-motivated man finding something larger than himself. But it's still problematic, as it's surface-level stuff with the villains and handled in a ham-handed fashion with Damon, who's ostensibly supposed to be sacrificed for humanity but is mostly doing it for his old girlfriend and her kid, who's used in the most cloying fashion possible.

 SPOILERS END

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