Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Cinema File #236: "Elysium" Review

As the credits rolled on Elysium, the sophomore sci-fi epic from Neill Blomkamp, the first thing out of my mouth was an emphatic “Wow!” Ordinarily that’s the kind of reaction you’d want after seeing a big high concept spectacle like this, like when you walked out of Avatar having just been immersed in this magical world of blue cats, hair sex, and floating mountains that somehow still have waterfalls even though that doesn’t make any sense if you think about it for more than five seconds. For many, Blomkamp’s first film District 9 elicited that same response, though personally I found that while it was genuinely entertaining, it was also more than a little overrated. His new film, at least based on the middle of the road reviews I’ve read thus far, is if anything proving to be underrated. Far from “lukewarm” or “just okay,” Elysium is nothing short of amazing, which is to say that it is startlingly, amazingly terrible. I mean, really…just…Wow!

Artist rendering of my soul after watching this shitty movie

Elysium is set in a future world where the wealthiest among us have abandoned a dried up old Earth in favor of the ultimate gated community in space, having developed robots advanced enough that they no longer have the need to directly exploit poor people in any day to day service capacity. Basically, they’ve gone Galt, leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps of the civilization that was, and if my pointed reference to the most ridiculous vision of a horrifying sci-fi world ever written and regrettably filmed tells you anything, the first problem with this movie is conceptual. Its not that the main conceit of a society literally fractured along class lines is far fetched, its just that the execution is so hackneyed and clueless that the social commentary feels like a cheap disguise for a movie built around a series of largely mindless and honestly poorly thought out action sequences. It feels like it wants to be Soylent Green, a cogent critique of a modern class based society, but ends up being more like Zardoz, a silly failed attempt at the same thing.

While I was gathering my notes for this review, I wondered if I might be skating towards hypocrisy given my position on the recent thriller The Purge, where I spent the majority of that review excusing the film for allowing logic and realism to take a back seat to an implausible allegory. The thing is, that can work in science fiction, but only if the allegory is intellectually worthwhile. The Purge dealt with the confluence of our nation’s gun culture and violent underbelly with a criminal justice system disproportionately skewed against the poor in a unique and interesting way, but for the life of me I can’t figure out just what Elysium is actually trying to say with its allegorical setting, unless its literally as insultingly simple as “wealth disparity is bad,” and “our current immigration system is dehumanizing.” No shit. I get the impression that Blomkamp desperately wants us all to think that he has something very important to say about really vital real world issues, but when it gets right down to it, he doesn’t have anything beyond a vague emotional orientation.

The immigrants of Earth attempting to leap the massive interstellar border fence between their planet and Elysium do so not to find work or a better life in general, but for one simple thing – Healthcare. Now, on one level, that makes sense, as this is also a concern for many Mexican immigrants coming to this country, so the metaphor tracks. The problem is, in the context of the film, healthcare is not a complex bureaucratic system requiring long term residency and assimilation, but rather a bed that cures all your illnesses in minutes. I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just placate the Earthlings by sending them a few of these beds and letting them fight over ‘em, rather than hording them and inviting these constant assaults, especially considering that for some reason the wealthy elites who literally can’t bear to have poor people breathe on them still have some moral problem with civilian casualties, or at least some political motivation not to kill too many of the people who break through their comically slight defense system of one crazy hobo with a surface to orbit missile launcher.

And by conflating the Top 1% thing with the immigrant experience, the message here seems a bit muddled when you realize that the film seems to be suggesting the ultimate solution is for these two societies to once again become one. As a committed socialist, I’m all for the idea that the wealth of the wealthy should be redistributed downward (particularly to me), but what am I to make of the immigration thing? Is the solution to have America become one country with Mexico? For that matter, why do the rich people on Elysium even let the humans on Earth continue to live at all? Couldn’t they just nuke the planet or poison the atmosphere and just have the robots they have start building and maintaining new robots to continue operating Elysium, or better yet, move back to Earth once the poor Earthlings are dead? Even if you want to say that they fear a robot uprising, how about a little bread and circuses to quell the human ones already happening? Blomkamp wants us to see the parallels between this horrible future world and our own present one, but the one thing he forgets to mention is that we don’t have time to care about the corporate oligarchy screwing us over at all times, because we’ve got TV to watch, not to mention crappy blockbusters like Elysium to distract us.

On that note, the politics of this movie are really weird. I don’t mean the larger political issues the movie tries and miserably fails to grapple with through allegory, but rather the actual political system that the people of Elysium live under. I get the Earth system, basically anarchy barely kept in check by a totalitarian bureaucracy, but I don’t quite understand how a society made up entirely of the wealthy, power brokers behind elected power in any other situation, would govern itself, and the movie exploits this confusion for an unnecessarily stupid plot point. The villain’s master plan involves a coup in which the computer system of Elysium will be hacked to make them president. At first I thought this was meant to refer to the results of an upcoming election, but no, it turns out they are literally trying the make the computer think someone other than the president is in control, because none of the citizens who presumably elected this president would have a problem with that. This gets even more ridiculous when the aforementioned crazy hobo gets the same idea, because I’m sure all these posh sophisticates wouldn’t even question the installation of President Bearded Psychopath. One would think that a society of wealthy elites paranoid enough about their own safety to leave the planet for a space station wouldn’t leave their new home so vulnerable to usurpation both from within and without.

I haven’t even gotten to the acting yet. I’ve never been the biggest Matt Damon fan, as I find him typically lacking in the sort of manic energy I look for in charismatic leading men (full disclosure, you’re looking at a devoted Nicolas Cage fan, so take my acting preferences with a grain of salt if you wish). Here, he apparently uses one of the dials on his clunky looking exo-suit to crank up his bored detachment into overdrive, which considering he should be expressing the urgency of a man a few days away from a painful death kind of takes away from the driving force of his character. Sharlto Copley probably fairs the best as the psychotic hobo bounty hunter, that is when I can actually understand anything he says over his accent. By far the worst among this lot is Jodie Foster, who affects an accent of her own that is just laughable, and turns in a performance so wooden that I honestly think she might have forgotten how to act in her last few years of self-imposed semi-retirement. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if the movie didn’t also cast the great William Fichtner in a small supporting villainous role, which only makes me continually question throughout Foster’s terrible performance why they didn’t just make him the main bad guy instead.

Even the science fiction elements are a disappointment here, which surprised me considering that despite my lackluster opinion of District 9 as a whole, it at least displayed a keen eye for visuals and a unique vision of sci-fi technology. The big gimmick is the exo-suit welded into Damon’s body, which works for a nice visceral moment when we see the pieces crudely jammed into him on an operating table in a dingy underground sickbay, but once he has it on him and it serves its primary purpose of setting up the macguffin, its just sort of there. None of the technology is used to its full potential, and frankly it doesn’t really look all that cool either. I already mentioned the stupid surface to orbit missile, but once you see Copley’s force field, I defy you not to roll your eyes at just how much more they could have done with this. Even the recent remake of Total Recall, which I loathed for having the temerity to try and remake one of the greatest science fiction films of the 80’s with a cheap CGI rehash, at least had a few interesting set pieces, like the multi-directional elevators and the reverse gravity shoot outs. This is just bad, and made worse by the fact that you have every reason to expect it to be so much better.

Elysium is a mess of a movie that fails on almost every level and only avoids being the worst sci-fi film of the year because this happens to be the same year After Earth came out. It’s poorly written, poorly directed, and just poorly realized from top to bottom. It hits that glorious sweet spot of completely lacking in substance and being so pretentious concerning its own imagined importance, that as much as I want to criticize it as being science fiction for dumb people, I have to acknowledge that it would be just as dumb even without all the high concept bells and whistles. It’s so bad, I didn’t even pick up on the weirdly racist undercurrent of the film until almost the end, where we have the only white guy in a world of non-white people saving the planet in the only way he can, by appealing to the benevolence of even whiter people. I can’t even be mad at that, because I’m already pissed at like nine other things before I even get there! If you liked District 9, or you’re as big of a sci-fi fan as I am, chances are you’re going to see this anyway, but just take my advice and don’t get your hopes up. And if you’re not a big sci-fi fan but open to it, please find a better example of the genre to start with. Try Oblivion; it just came out on DVD, it’s like five sci-fi movies in one, and it’s got Maverick from Top Gun in it. Really, anything but this.

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