Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” – Fakery in lieu of satire

Poster for "Elysium"

In the distant future, Earth is a polluted, overpopulated wasteland, no longer capable of supporting human life. A privileged few have managed to escape into the only place left for them – outer space. But something is amiss. Humanity is stagnant – out of balance. All of its resources benefit a privileged few. But soon, a lone hero will venture forth from his ruined home planet to save humanity from itself. And that hero…is a cute little robot named Wall-E.

I made the profound mistake of rewatching District 9 the day before seeing Elysium. The former, Neill Blomkamp‘s 2009 feature film debut, posits an alternate present-day in which aliens landed 20 years ago, and now exist in a beleaguered slum in South Africa. District 9 revels in cynicism, and does so quite effectively. As a viewer, I patted myself on the back in smug self-assurance that – yes, that’s exactly how terribly that situation would play out. In fact, it would probably be a lot worse. Elysium posits a similarly broken and unjust world, but does so in a manner that feels completely derivative (see Wall-E) and isn’t particularly effective at world-building or satire. The viewer must either accept Elysium as a straightforward piece of populist propaganda – without an ounce of self-awareness – or simply enjoy it as a film in which Mecha-Matt Damon blows a few things up. I tried to enjoy the film on one of these levels, but found each of them to be lacking.

Many of the film’s action beats felt like pale shadows of things I had already seen in District 9. This included a few identical weapons, but let’s face it, rail guns are cool enough to include twice. Unfortunately, in several cases, the action direction and cinematography have gotten noticeably worse. The moment Damon put on his cyborg exosuit, all of his fights turned into fast-cutting, incomprehensible blurs. Whatever blend of physical and virtual effects was in play here, it clearly didn’t work well enough that they felt comfortable showing it for more than a half-second at a time.

Much of the world building of the earthbound slum (or slumbound earth) worked fine, and some of it even approached decent satire. The overwhelming reliance on automated law enforcement (including a hilarious parole droid) definitely hits a few familiar notes for American audiences. The problem is that the satire is basically non-existent on Elysium – the titular space platform. There is no allegory in place here. Elysium is America, or at least the most wealthy Americans. And this isn’t the future – this might as well be now. This attitude is readily apparent from the film itself (and the director has confirmed as much himself), and it might have even succeeded as a passable allegory if not for the one crucial detail- the most alluring amenity of Elysium is a medical bed in every home that effectively and instantaneously cures any disease or injury. You read that correctly. The MacGuffin in this science fiction film…is a magical healing bed that grants immortality.


That’s it, folks. That’s when I checked out of this movie. Because if you’re the person who is withholding the magical healing bed from the rest of the world, you are evil, you are irredeemable, and you are utterly boring. Saddling strong performers like Jodie Foster and William Fichtner with such one-note villainy feels like a waste, despite both of their passable performances. And the less said about Sharlto Copley the better. He plays a neat (if slightly incomprehensible) psychopath, but he feels like a bearded retread of David James‘ psychopathic soldier from District 9. He likes killing, he’s good at it, and he’s in gleeful service of a corrupt regime. If the regime itself had been a bit more believable, I might have enjoyed this performance a lot more. Copley is clearly having a good deal of fun with it.

Elysium should have worked as a concept. There was much about this world that made me intrigued, made me curious… I wanted to know more about how the government of this place operated. I wanted to know more about its relationship with Earth. The platform clearly possesses either the military might or political capital to exert force on the planet below (at one time locking down the airspace of Los Angeles through sheer force of will). There is enough implied substance here that the film could easily have built out that relationship further, peppering in the small details that would have made it a credible world. Science fiction (or at least its marketing) used to be about making the audience “believe” something. You’ll believe a man can fly. You’ll believe a spaceship can fly to Mars. As a film intended to make me believe in an orbital platform for the super-rich, the film was a total failure. All it really made me believe in was a world broken so badly that the film’s pretense of a happy ending provoked nothing but a mirthless chuckle.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

2008 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Part 1 of 2)

Top 10 Films of the Year:

#11: In Bruges

I’d call this one an honorable mention, but I’ve just got too much to say about it. This film was advertised as a dark comedy/action film, but it ended up being so much more… Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of hitmen who head for Bruges (in Belgium) to lie low after a hit that goes terribly wrong… The film plays simultaneously like a fairy tale and a brooding drama, as the two men struggle to cope with the terrible thing that they’ve done (which is saying something, for men in their line of work). The film is hilarious and memorable, and Ralph Fiennes, who unfortunately got no love in my Best Supporting Actor list, gave a brilliant performance as the frustrated boss man.

#10: WALL-E

This film provoked an uproar when it came out… Some people were saying it was the most didactic environmentalist wankfest since Captain Planet, others were decrying its economics, and still others were questioning the love story and calling the titular robot a date-rapist. As amusing as all of this is, it must be said that the first half hour of this film, in which there is almost no dialogue, is one of the finest pieces of animation and storytelling I have ever seen. Whatever the film has to say, it is an admirable accomplishment, and tells a delightful robot love story.

#9: Kung Fu Panda

Jack Black plays a panda who knows kung fu.

Jack Black…plays a panda…who knows kung fu. This movie looked terrrrrrrrrrrible when I first saw the ads, but I cannot tell you how much fun I had watching this film. From Dreamworks Animation, this film proved conclusively that Pixar has a monopoly on neither brilliant animation nor brilliant storytelling. You would think that a fight scene between a bear and a tiger and…a snake?…couldn’t possibly be compelling, but the action of this film is brilliantly “filmed” and choreographed. The film works equally well as an action film as it does as a comedy, and greatly exceeded my expectations.

#8: Milk

Critics were heaping praise on this movie from the moment it came out (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), and I suspected, even as I was watching it, that the film’s pro-gay rights message appealed to their left-wing sensibilities, and as such, they were overlooking some of the film’s flaws. After seeing the film, I still believe this is true to some degree, but this film deserves a great deal of the praise it’s been getting. Sean Penn gives a remarkable performance (see “Part 4: Best Actor”), as do supporting actors James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, and Diego Luna. If you have any interest in political and crowd tactics, this movie will enthrall you as it did me. They choreograph a march to city hall, carefully time disconnecting overhead cables from streetcars so they will block traffic on cross-streets, and send Milk to rush to city hall in a car so he can step out on the front steps and “calm everyone down” once they arrive. This was one particularly compelling scene of political theatre, and this film adeptly depicts a great deal of it. The film has its weak points, particularly when it comes to depicting Milk’s love life, but the performances more than made up for it.

It also doesn’t bury the lead with regard to Milk’s eventual assassination (it is announced in the first 30 seconds of the film), and yet the tone of the film manages to remain hopeful and cheery to the very end. Gus Van Sant has transcended the usual conventions of a biopic, and the resulting film is well worth checking out.

#7: Doubt

If you want a film that deals with priests molesting altar boys… Look elsewhere. This film, based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play of the same name, is all about the nature of certainty, faith, and doubt. It is driven entirely by the four central performances (who are the only characters in the play) – a stern and unforgiving Mother Superior (Meryl Streep), a young, upbeat, and impressionable nun (Amy Adams), a progressive, but suspicious priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a concerned, but shocking mother (Viola Davis). The film’s roots as a play are evident here; the scenes are long (sometimes 15-20 minutes), and driven entirely by dialogue. It is when Shanley attempts to add film conventions (such as flashbacks) that the film feels weakest, but this thankfully happens only once or twice. There are so many memorable scenes between these characters, and the film’s final showdown, while not perfect, is memorable and impeccably acted. And the ending, which is far from definitive, worked well for me.

#6: Let the Right One In

This film, from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, is a brilliantly ominous coming-of-age film about a 12-year-old boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a frequent target of bullies at school, who finds solace in a budding romance with the girl next door – who just happens to be a vampire. The film takes thorough advantage of the bleak and snowy Swedish winter locale, utilizing every possible shade of gloomy white you can imagine, albeit speckled with blood. The relationship between the two kids works amazingly well, owing significantly to Lina Leandersson’s performance as the seemingly 12-year-old vampire girl Eli. The bullying subplot culminates what may be one of the most tense and brilliantly shot horror sequences I’ve ever seen, making very creative use of an underwater camera. The film is creepy, intense, and haunting. See it before they remake it with Americans.