By Josh Treviño
Neill Blomkamp's 2009 District 9 is an outstanding exploration of timely themes including immigration, state power, corporate accountability, alienation, class, and love. Its approach to storytelling, framed by a mock-documentary premise held over from Alive in Joburg, the 2005 short (viewable at http://bit.ly/MssmJ) from which it was a developed, allowed the audience to come to its own conclusions -- at least at the pace at which its protagonist, Sharlto Copley's hapless Wikus van de Merwe, did the same. Among the things that didn't happen in District 9's storytelling: no one said, "The treatment of the alien underclass is disgraceful," nor "MNU is evil and unaccountable," nor "There will be terrible consequences for this society when the bill comes due." Actions were allowed to speak for themselves, and this combined with a plausible near-future -- you can easily imagine the policy decisions that lead to District 9's creation, and South African audiences recognized it as a callback to the real-life District Six (http://bit.ly/aRBud) -- made District 9 one of the most compelling cinematic surprises of the past half-decade. Blomkamp's Hollywood debut, coming at the culmination of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, made science fiction relevant again, as a mirror in which we could see ourselves.
It is necessary to revisit all these virtues of Blomkamp's inaugural effort, because they are precisely the grounds on which his sophomore endeavor, the recently-released Elysium, fails. Much ink has been spilled on its political content, but the debates over whether it is a conservative or liberal film miss the mark. For example, Ari Rabin-Havt of Media Matters has praised the film as "an accurate portrayal of the world [conservative] ideology will ultimately create" (http://bit.ly/142t11l) thereby making him the only leftist alive who thinks the conservative ambition is to create a society of corporate-government elites who hold multicultural garden parties (in space!) at which everyone chats in perfect French. (In fairness, Rabin-Havt was an '04 Kerry staffer, so for all we know, this is that elevated clique's concept of the redneck life.) On the other hand, this is precisely the sort of closed and cronyist-elite world that the recent "libertarian populist" boomlet touted by Tim Carney, Ben Domenech, et alia, seek to undo. It's possible to see the villains of Elysium as idealized evil conservatives or idealized evil Upper West Side liberal elites -- both share a horror of the purported rabble that are the downtrodden yet virtuous masses of this tale -- and so we ought to step past attempts to politically interpret a movie that doesn't really earn the effort.
None of this is to say that Elysium doesn't try for political content. District 9 did too, although one needed some basic cultural literacy to fully grasp it: and it presented the source of the aliens' oppression as something of a rational, if not wholly moral, response by the human majority. Elysium dispenses with that real-world ambiguity altogether. Its premise -- that Earth is overpopulated and poor, and dominated by an offworld elite who live in perfect health while despising their planetside relations -- is taken straight from old-school hard science fiction of the 1950-1980 period. In fact, it's almost identical to the world created by Isaac Asimov in his 1950s The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, in which Earth is … well, overpopulated and poor, and dominated by an offworld elite who live in perfect health while despising their planetside relations. But that scenario had a plausibility then that it does not now: science fiction in 1950 had no inkling of the just-beginning "Green Revolution" in global food production, and even in 1970 there would have been a general belief in Malthusian doom. In 2013, we know better: environmentalist doomsaying, once focused on overpopulation, food production, and a coming Ice Age, has moved on to catastrophic global warming, and will likely seize upon something else in the coming generation. Plus ça change, but Blomkamp doesn't seem to know it. The audience for Elysium is immediately confronted with a scenario that simply doesn't pose a meaningful threat in light of global experience, and so loses from the start its allegorical power -- except inasmuch as the viewer clings to the fears and beliefs of popular culture long ago, and/or has a well-thumbed copy of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb on his bookshelf.
Admittedly, that probably describes a lot of the Hollywood power structure.
As for the plot of Elysium, a few words will suffice. In the overpopulated and desperately poor world of the future, everyone is Hispanic. Even Matt Damon, hero of the piece, is Hispanic, growing up as he does in the care of Spanish-speaking Catholic nuns (who manage to never mention God or Christianity, so maybe they're the future "Nuns on the Bus"). His motivations are not terribly complex: if you've seen 1995's Johnny Mnemonic, you already know this character. The all-Spanish-speaking Los Angeles of the future is actually mildly interesting to see, although it runs contrary to any purported liberal messaging, as it's a total hellhole that looks a lot like real-life gangland Guatemala. As a viewer generally sympathetic to the benefits of immigration and immigrants -- including low-skilled Mexican immigrants -- even I wasn't entirely sure the inhabitants of the paradisiacal space colony were unjust or irrational in seeking to keep this milieu well away from their homes and communities. The rulers of Elysium, the eponymous orbiting colony, are simple villains without apparent redeeming qualities -- the best among them, Faran Tahir's President Patel, is still a callow and morally confused politico whose leadership ends about as well as Tahir's last turn helming a spacefaring craft, when he was Captain of the doomed USS Kelvin in 2009's Star Trek. The major villain, Jodie Foster's Delacourt, is simply awful. This is possibly the worst performance of Foster's movie career, burdened with preposterous lines that could easily be read in the voice of Chris Latta's Starscream, pretending to be Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup. Finally, William Fichtner plays almost exactly the same character he did in 2008's The Dark Knight, except that earlier film had the sense to realize it was entirely played out in the first ten minutes.
So what's good about Elysium? Despite stumbling over itself again and again in the storytelling department, Blomkamp's sheer talent does rescue it from being a total waste of time. As in District 9, he is here at the top of his game as a visual auteur, delivering some of the best action sequences in film today -- and some of the greatest spectacles anywhere. If you've ever wanted to see a convincing depiction of a Stanford torus (http://bit.ly/FV3Kn) in orbit -- and this reviewer is guilty of exactly that -- then Elysium delivers, right down to the design of the gigantic walls that keep an atmosphere confined to the torus's inner surface by centripetal force alone. If you want to see some serious robot FX that make you realize that Macross, Battletech, Ghost in the Shell, and all sorts of mecha-themed live-action movies are eminently plausible now -- also guilty! -- then Elysium delivers as much as District 9 did, which is quite a lot. Finally, the one standout actor in this film is the same as in its predecessor: Sharlto Copley, whose malevolent mercenary Kruger is perhaps the sole believable character in the tale, bringing genuine menace and evil to the fore, and almost making up for his castmates' deficiencies.
In short, you should see this movie if you are willing to settle in for hard-SF spectacle and pretend it's 1971. That's not the worst way to squander an afternoon at the Alamo Drafthouse.
Elysium is a perplexing film: terrible where it should be easily good, excellent where it could afford to be awful, and blundering its way through an allegory that ends up at once moving and absurd. (Despite seeing the final resolution from a mile away, if we define "a mile" as "the first ten minutes of the movie," it was nevertheless rather touching.) But it is most perplexing because of what it portends for Neill Blomkamp. In his nearly-indie South-African themed works, he brought an intensity and a subtlety to his moviemaking that resulted in genuinely outstanding art and yes, social comment. (One of the nice touches of Alive in Joburg is its use of found-footage of humans complaining about the aliens: some of them are actually real South Africans complaining about real Zimbabwean migrants.) In this, his first big Hollywood epic, organic messaging is left by the wayside in favor of blunt exposition and simplistic morality plays that assume the audience is not terribly intelligent or perceptive. There's money in that, but not as much art. One couldn't blame Blomkamp for shrugging, cashing in for the remainder of his career, and receiving the complaints of disappointed critics while reclining on a chaise lounge stuffed with money.
But one hopes for more nevertheless.