Tasha: Has a movie ever broken your heart, Scott? I don’t want to be too melodramatic about my frustration over Elysium, but I think my disappointment, and even annoyance, merits at least a moment or two of clothes-rending and breast-beating. I had high expectations for this film. Neill Blomkamp’s first feature, District 9, was No. 3 on my top 10 movies of the year in 2009. It was such a revelation: a fully realized future, a smart science-fiction take on a series of modern real-world issues, and a cracking good action feature, all made to blockbuster visual standards, on a non-blockbuster $30 million budget. I hoped that given more money and support, Blomkamp would make another movie that was just as conceptually daring and unexpected, but in a different way. Instead, he remade District 9 with three times the budget and a much clunkier, shriller, clumsier take on frustratingly similar material. Simply put, Blomkamp has made his Mallrats.
To state things more rationally: Elysium follows the same plot beats as District 9. Again, it’s about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, in this case explored via a divide between people who live on overcrowded, run-down, miserablist earth, and their rich overlords who have literally gone to live in the sky, on a space station full of green spaces and technological riches. (For other takes on this “wealth above, death below” idea, see also: Metropolis, The Time Machine, Upside Down, Battle Angel Alita, Land Of The Dead, etc.) Again, there’s a protagonist who nominally works for the overlords (in this case, Max, played by Matt Damon), but is discarded when an accident gives him a deadline on his life, and nothing left to lose. Again, he’s a selfish bastard until a child in a similar situation to his gets him thinking about others as well as himself; again, he’s taken in by hated second-class citizens, and offered a dangerous, messy form of possible salvation that involves leaving Earth and flying somewhere forbidden. The plot similarities continue right down to the ending, but I don’t want to spoil too much. Scott, how much is Elysium’s similarity with District 9 an issue for you?
Scott: Only insofar as the new film fell short of the previous film in virtually every department. What impressed me about District 9 was that it did so much with so little: Like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, it was produced for far less money than its Hollywood counterparts, and yet still put its terrific, budget-conscious special effects into broad daylight. On top of that, it also lacked the heaviness of a Hollywood production, and was able to smuggle a potent statement about apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa into a fleet, engaging, thoroughly enjoyable action movie. While I don’t quite share your enthusiasm for District 9—it wasn’t in the running for my Top 10 list that year, and I counted it more as a late-summer sleeper than a modern science-fiction/action masterpiece—I, too, felt my stomach drop as Elysium plummeted to Earth.
As Keith pointed out in his review and you indicate above, plenty of movies have taken inspiration from Metropolis’ “wealth above, death below” setup, but few have been so keen to carry over its rather hammy political sentiments. I admired the basic premise of Elysium, which sets up a future that seems fairly plausible given our current course: Overpopulation, scarcity of resources, infrastructure crumbling, security state ballooning to full-on automated oppression, need for the wealthy to set up the ultimate gated community. Okay, maybe that last part is a stretch, given the expense of a whole satellite full of rich white people, but it’s one I’m willing to allow the film, which uses the 1-percent/99-percent divide to go after savage inequalities in health-care access. But Blomkamp’s allegory is executed so bluntly that I was wondering why I resisted it as strongly as I did, given that I liked District 9 and felt politically simpatico to this film. I have ideas about why the allegory didn’t play for me, but I want to hear from you first, Tasha.
Tasha: Well, a major part of it was how crashingly unsubtle the film is about its metaphor. This is one of those futures where rich people are so evil, they practically spend the whole film rubbing their hands together and cackling. We all know rich people are exactly like that in real life, but onscreen, it gets awkward to watch as Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) kills dozens of illegal immigrants with a hand-wave, then callously, smugly delivers the equivalent of Colonel Jessup’s A Few Good Men speech about living in a world where the walls have to be guarded by people with guns. Meanwhile, industrialist John Carlyle (William Fichtner) literally yells at a subordinate for breathing in his direction, then sneers at our protagonist, dying in the next room from injuries sustained due to terrible conditions in Carlyle’s factory, which is coincidentally devoted to building the oppressive robot cops that break Max’s arm for no reason early in the film. The bad guys are almost comically one-dimensional, and the heroes, in response, are sad-eyed paper saints. And the film just will not let it go; Blomkamp returns again and again and again to shots of Max and love interest Frey (Alice Braga) as children, running and playing and promising their eternal love with the optimism of childhood. The rich people, on the other hand, were presumably never children: They were born cynical, adult, and evil.
A metaphor like Elysium’s space-station heaven is designed to reflect reality back at us in a way we recognize, and let us see the world from a new angle. But reality has nuance, and Elysium doesn’t. It isn’t close enough to reality to be recognizable, and it’s preachy, histrionic, and cloying to a degree that makes me ashamed to be on its side.
Scott: We’re known for our fierce disagreements, even when we more or less feel the same about a movie, but I’m in complete agreement with you on this one, Tasha. The politics of Elysium are just brutally heavy-handed, and I’ve been struggling a little to figure out why, given that District 9, a film we both liked, gives a similar allegory a hard push, too. I think it may be a Mary Poppins problem: It takes a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, and Blomkamp keeps refilling a bottomless cup of wheatgrass juice. Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier solved this problem with satire in RoboCop and Starship Troopers—and a compelling human center in the former that’s rooted out ruthlessly and hilariously in the latter—and with District 9, Blomkamp combined a news-story urgency with some of the slapstick splatter-comedy familiar from early Peter Jackson movies. Elysium is po-faced and leaden by comparison, setting the world of have-nots, with its parade of crippled kids and rubble-houses, against the haves, who are dealt with so glancingly that all we see are pool parties at colonial mansions and white preppies listening to classical music. (Though I’ll admit to being amused by the thought that 1-percenters watching the film will quietly root for Elysium to survive this assault by the Great Unwashed.)
Opportunities for more subtle social commentary are missed left and right, and the action feels obligatory, like Blomkamp is reluctantly giving us the bread and circuses needed to sustain his political agenda. Ironies like Max working to produce the same robots that harass him on the street don’t land softly, and the bullet-time effects feel a little late-1990s/early-2000s. I’m struggling to find something nice to say about Elysium. While I mull it over, I’d like to hear more from you about why this failed where District 9 succeeded. What’s missing here?
Tasha: While I agree that part of the problem is Elysium’s humorlessness and self-importance, I think there are three other major differences between the two films:
1) The protagonists. Wikus in District 9 (Sharlto Copley, who changes sides to become Elysium’s most active villain) is sympathetic and human. He’s desperately afraid most of the time, and fighting his own fears in addition to fighting an unstoppable force. While I agreed when Keith said in his review that Damon brings across a relatively subtle disappointment as Max, he’s still playing one of those unemotive, unstoppable slab-o’-beef action heroes who stops being a person early on, and becomes a blunt tool used to create mayhem. And I couldn’t buy into the attempts to humanize him by repeatedly flashing back to his childhood; it’s a cheap attempt to tie positive feelings for cute kids into more complicated feelings about Max, and the two versions of the character never feel related. Also, Christopher and his offspring in District 9 are active participants in their fight for survival, while Frey and her daughter are little more than props used to motivate Max.
2) The scale. Part of District 9’s charm is how much it accomplishes on the blockbuster equivalent of a shoestring budget, but it does look ramshackle and raw in a way that makes it more convincing. Elysium has a more polished look and a much bigger scale that make it feel sterile and airless by comparison.
3) The villains. District 9 is about fighting a corrupt, discriminatory system: In effect, it’s about institutionalized racism. There are a few specific enemies, but they’re functionaries; none of them are responsible for the existence of racism. That makes Wikus’ fight more desperate and doomed, but also more real. Elysium puts clownish faces on its institutionalized forces, and makes no effort to make them convincing or human. I still can’t decide who’s more ridiculous: Carlyle with his exaggerated “How dare you breathe near me!” solipsism, Secretary Delacourt with her “Somebody has to kill all the immigrants you’re too cowardly to kill!” speechifying, or Kruger (Copley’s villain), who has no personality but brutality, and no motives but his expressed enjoyment of rape and murder. The aggravatingly simplistic implication is that Max can end world poverty by killing these three ridiculously monstrous schmoes. And he never even gets to face Delacourt, which is a bold but unsatisfying narrative choice.
Scott: I wonder if all three of those problems are related. Blowing up the scale of a film creates issues related to character, because we know from a summer of watching spectacle-driven blockbusters that the basics of character and story tend to get dwarfed. To his credit, Blomkamp has come up with a strong conceit—Metropolis for the Obamacare age—but the world of the film is so enormous that everything is painted in broad strokes: From the villainy of Secretary Delacourt, which rides on Jodie Foster’s abysmal South African-ish accent, to the romantic material with Max and Frey, tied mainly to a pact they made to each other as dirt-smudged street urchins. Blomkamp’s decision not to spend time getting to know anyone on Elysium isn’t necessarily a bad one, but it’s not as if the Earthlings are more richly drawn as a result. They’re no more flesh-and-blood in their victimhood than the wine-slurpers on Elysium are in their entitlement. Blomkamp’s use of a choral music cue to depict their plight reminded me of well-meaning action movies like Tears Of The Sun, where the poor people saved by some American action star are all suffering under this same musical umbrella.
“This is one of those futures where rich people are so evil, they practically spend the whole film rubbing their hands together and cackling.”
But please, Tasha, let us not think of Elysium as a political film. In this Wired profile, Blomkamp claims the film has no message, and he followed up with FOX411 by saying, “The first order of business for a big summer popcorn movie is to make a kick-ass movie with great action.” That’s all a lot of bullshit, of course, because it’s Blomkamp’s job on promotional tours to sell his movie to people of all political persuasions. (In the infamous words of basketball god/Nike icon Michael Jordan: “Republicans buy shoes, too.”) Still, as disheartening as I find Elysium’s aesthetic shortcomings, it’s even more depressing to think about a culture that can’t abide a strong political perspective in its movies. District 9 was a stronger and more distinctive action movie for having a point of view.
Tasha: Having a point of view, and having a distinct personality. On top of all the issues we’ve cited in terms of tone, construction, and characterization, my problem with Elysium is the anonymity and ubiquity of its action, once Max gets super-suited up and starts beating on robots, baddies, and Kruger. Possibly that’s what Blomkamp meant when he said the film had no message: He has a high concept, but it gets back-burnered in favor of mindless Michael Bay action. (He cites Bay as an inspiration in that Wired piece.) As much as a piece like this needs action setpieces—as much as they’re the raison d’être—the battles in Elysium feel repetitive, arbitrary, and overlong. The hand-to-hand combat often lacks that clarity of staging and sense of spatial relationships we both want to see more of in action films, and the ability to stitch together a mauled, faceless Kruger and toss him right back in for another sword-fight makes Max’s progress seem meaningless. And then after 45 minutes of fighting, there’s an abrupt and unlikely ending, arbitrarily staged with Max staring into space and that flashback-to-childhood playing for the umpteenth time. I can see this story working under the right circumstances, Scott, but like you, I’m having a hard time coming up with anything particularly positive to say about Elysium.
Scott: There’s a whole essay to be written—and I will one day write it—about the Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer obliteration of filmmaking fundamentals and its impact on film language, but the short of it is that directors of that school (of which I’d never thought of Blomkamp as a graduate until now) mistake intensity for impact. Sequences that are not cleanly and coherently staged have a tendency to be unmemorable, because we’re simply being pummeled by them, rather than being aroused by distinct elements. The fact that I saw Elysium earlier this week and cannot recall a single action sequence says it all, really.