Revolution Goes Global: Elysium (2013)
by Joe Giambrone (8/9/13)
A desolate third world wasteland. A gated, auspicious, white people paradise. Slave sweatshop. Tea and martinis. Not all that implausible, but Elysium represents the ultimate gated community, while the third world has become the entire earth.
This fundamental class distinction leads to inevitable class conflict in Neil Blomkamp’s follow up to District 9, a similarly weighty sci-fi film. Both films take on issues of global significance, particularly immigration, apartheid and capitalist exploitation of the underclass. Blomkamp strikes a blow for the rest of humanity, and Elysium is a very good film, bordering on greatness. For an action sci-fi thriller, it delivers the battles, the archetypes and the desperation of the world. I heartily recommend seeing it.
Elysium With Spoilers
Neil Blomkamp is at the top of the list, but he’s not Jesus Christ. There are several peeves I could bring up with the production, the music, the resort to lots of fisticuffs and the like.
But the story has enough emotional punch driving it that I’m not too worried about the few nicks and bruises, continuity issues and whatnot. This film tells the story that Hollywood would never, ever tell without Blomkamp guaranteeing buku butts in seats. So we’re witnessing a rarity here, the exception and not the rule, and this movie should be judged as such.
Predictably, a number of corporate-employed critics have assailed the film. We’re not allowed to have meaningful, relevant sci-fi of course. They’ve taken to inflating some of the film’s quirks way out of proportion.
Justin Craig at FoxNews gets it exactly reversed:
“People expecting another District 9 or who expect a little more substance from their science fiction films will most likely be disappointed by Elysium, but those who like their videogame-style sci-fi shoot-em-ups will have no problem here.”
This is backwards by 180 degrees. The battles could have been better staged and tactically thought out. The moral and ethical spine of District 9 comes through louder and clearer in Elysium, and is what pissed off a number of other defenders of the status quo.
William Goss of Film.com, which looks like the marketing department of the major studios, sez:
“Blomkamp's seemingly limitless imagination in terms of tech finds itself repeatedly and frustratingly grounded by heavy-handed storytelling.”
This is code for writing about something important, rather than mindless fluff or meaningless plot twists. When the “storytelling” gets a little too close to home it is deemed “heavy-handed” and this is the gentleman’s way of nudging the people to not embrace class conflict.
Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star Ledger, a city steeped in racial tension, said:
“It's like one of those bad ‘Star Trek’ episodes, when Gene Roddenberry stopped everything on the bridge so he could lecture us about the Cold War.”
You mean like Dr. Strangelove? This is just off the mark in so many ways. Comparing the old Star Trek to Elysium is a ridiculous point to make, but I guess they’re both sci-fi, so anything flies. No one is stopping to lecture in Elysium, at all. It’s an action thriller, and the lessons are organically part of the backdrop of the story. What resonates is that these are today’s lessons, and they aren’t fictional in the slightest.
But rest assured, Time Magazine and Richard Corliss will tell you what to think about it:
“Elysium, which at least triples the first film’s budget and adds Matt Damon and Jodie Foster as marquee bait, spends less time appealing to the viewer’s What-comes-next? impulse than on elaborate social metaphors.”
Corliss is real good. First attack the artist for his budget, as many others have done. Then try to somehow tie that into discrediting the “elaborate social metaphors” in the same breath. These elaborate social metaphors are simply brilliant, desperately needed, and sure to make the film a massive hit in foreign markets. Time Mag may not appreciate them, but a few billion others may see things quite a bit differently.
I witnessed a similar Jihad against Avatar when it came out and then went on to top global box office records. The natives aren’t supposed to beat the white invaders, you see. That’s an “elaborate social metaphor,” which isn’t welcome in corporate suites.
Murdoch's NY Post gets downright frothy over the film. Kyle Smith may have broken his keyboard banging out:
"But this isn’t the first time a movie has strained so hard to issue a topical message — the poor Latino Earthlings who keep trying to sneak onto the space station are even called 'illegals' — that it lost track of basic storytelling imperatives."
So there's no way it could include a "topical message" about the "poor Latino Earthlings," and still deliver a story? Too tall an order? What those "imperatives" of Smith's are he never quite does explain, but I'm sure he should get on the phone to Hollywood post haste, since he clearly has the rule book all worked out somewhere.
So there's a sampling of the professional response to a deeply meaningful film about class inequality and extreme poverty, the inherent unfairness of today’s very real global system. Of course the film isn’t perfect, and tastes really do vary – I know that more than anyone – but there are larger agendas at work here. The people who hold these positions of cultural criticism really, really want to keep them. That means they are part of the club. That’s how they are trained, and that’s why they are hired. Chomsky and Herman elaborated on this in Manufacturing Consent.
So, what are my honest, unpaid, unsponsored views on Elysium’s weaknesses? I do have a few.
I’m not sure how much pressure a man like Blomkamp is under working in the studio system with more than $100m of their money to gamble with. The pressures to alter and to rely on old formulas are likely enormous. That’s how visual and audible clichés end up in the film, the same types of things we’ve seen before.
The music swells and punches up, as is the standard operating procedure. This was a noticeable weakness, without a lot of thought behind it. The soundtrack could have used a rethinking, another opinion, some more variety and less beating you over the head at a bare minimum.
Jodie Foster is very good, but she may not have pulled off whatever accent she seems to have been going for. This didn’t bother me all that much, but others commented on the dubbing not being completely in sync during several scenes.
District 9 also resolved with a massive battle between the protagonist and antagonist. There was a do-over quality here – with Vickus, Sharlto Copley, unexpectedly flipped around to be the baddie. Apparently he’s been working out. Blomkamp resorts to a big mano a mano bludgeoning Damon vs. Copley, to finish the film, which could have been more ingenious, something new, something worthy of the rest of the film. The villain could have done himself in, perhaps, but we can all play armchair quarterbacks on how to climax a massive studio action picture. Sometimes straight violence is what works. What felt weak is that Copley may have been a tool of the real antagonist, a hired gun, but by film’s climax he’s no longer on the payroll. He’s not a part of the system then. His vengeance against Damon isn’t really in defense of the class system of oppression, but more of a personal vendetta. That is a weakness that didn’t quite resolve satisfactorily. He was simply another obstacle by that point, and no longer represented the system that was the true enemy of most of humanity. This subtle distinction weakened the story, and it should have been re-examined.
The following scene does, however, get the story back on track. Damon’s sacrifice to change the world and the entire solar system is a direct act against the status quo, a revolution, a defiance, a resetting of the rules. One man with nothing to lose is a powerful force, the kind that sends shivers down the backs of tyrants. What shakiness rattled the story is swiftly forgotten as the real stakes and the real meaning of Elysium are brought full circle.
Joe Giambrone publishes Political Film Blog and other nasty bits of bluster.