Elysium (2013)

*. I don’t think I need to spend too much time on this one. Let’s just listen to writer-director Neill Blomkamp telling us how he felt about it: “It’s not bad, but it’s pretty much a run-of-the-mill dystopian SF film, with a tired political premise, poor effects, humdrum action sequences, unremarkable design elements, and a clumsy, somewhat ridiculous story.”
*. Clumsy, ridiculous, and old. The “tired political premise” was said to have been borrowed from an old Star Trek episode (“The Cloud Minders”) but it’s been around even longer than that in SF circles. I usually refer to it as the myth of the Morlocks, borrowing from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In the future there’s a wealthy uberclass of supercitizens who live in some technoparadise floating above the sweltering proles in their crowded favelas (Mexico City here). Rebellion threatens.
*. Needless to say, this is a social vision that’s been getting a lot of play recently. Snowpiercer, another big-budget dystopic SF film, came out the same year as Elysium and was nearly identical in this regard. And indeed it’s not so different from Blomkamp’s previous film, the superior District 9.
*. The myth is dressed up here to address more topical concerns. There are, for example, refugee boat people risking their lives to make it to Elysium. I’m not sure why, as there’s clearly no work for them to do there. Robots have completely taken over so it’s not like they’re going to make better lives for themselves. The only real plus is the advanced health care, which can fix everything (and I mean everything) that’s wrong with you just by lying down in a tube and being painlessly scanned for a few seconds.
*. I don’t think it’s all that well thought out. The Elysians are the usual villainous types, but one still doesn’t feel optimistic when the Earthers take over. The tragedy of the commons is coming, we can be sure.
*. I wonder what attracted Jodie Foster to such a role. The politics? The chance to speak a bit of French? The paycheque? It’s certainly not a very demanding or original part. Defense Secretary Delacourt is just a stereotypical authoritarian CEO (and the part was originally written for a man). Even Blomkamp seems uncertain what he wanted from her, as she makes a hasty exit so that a semi-articulate beast man (Sharlto Copley) can take over sole duties as the heavy. I was expecting something a little more interesting.
*. But then Blomkamp doesn’t appear to be much interested in anything other than blowing things up. It’s very much a Michael Bay aesthetic, with lots of fancy machinery and explosions. Our hero Max (Matt Damon) is even turned into a battlebot courtesy of an exoskelton that’s surgically attached to his body. Man and machine are one. Get a load of your rapture.
*. Rapture isn’t a word I use loosely either. Max is a Christ figure, sacrificing himself so that the poor can enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, this is nothing new. In fact, it’s a cliché.
*. Because what is Christ in the twenty-first century but a semi-mechanical superhero? Elysium is basically another instalment of MarvelCrap. The story arc is exactly the same: lowly Everyman figure gets a dose of radiation and is transformed into a superhuman fighter for justice. Meanwhile he has a girlfriend he has to win over while saving the world along the way. Etc. Rinse and repeat.
*. Well, I suppose I could go through it, picking apart inconsistencies and improbabilities in the plot, but there’s not much point. I mean, I didn’t even grasp the basics of exactly what all information Max had in his head, or what Delacourt wants to do with it. In the end, I suspect it was just a throwaway plot device.
*. I’ve already said more here than I wanted to. What makes Elysium so typical of the productions of this period isn’t the stale and half-baked politics or its superhero plot so much as the basic fact that this is a movie that looks great but doesn’t have a brain in its metal head.

3 thoughts on “Elysium (2013)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Can’t find the enthusiam for a re-watch here; feels like all that District 9 energy did not go far if this and Chappie were the results. Kind of bland and unsatisfying, despite that cast…

    1. Alex Good

      Yeah, District 9 was good but Blomkamp really seems to have been uninspired by this material, and I can understand why. Might have been another case where he got typecast as a director after an initial hit.


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