Five brief thoughts on a (relatively) recent film (SPOILERS).
1) One thing that directors always hate is unfair comparisons. It’s too easy for critics to review a film by saying that it was better than X but worse than Y so watch X instead. Often critics respond in this way because their approach is to build a mental library of film knowledge and they are eager to discard whatever is deemed unworthy so that they can retain an expert’s eidetic memory of what is considered good within any given canon or genre. Directors, who slave long and hard to put their own touches on a story and are well aware of the unique elements that they tried to put into the film, hate this. Take this discussion between Joe Cornish and critic Mark Kermode over the film Attack the Block for example.
However, director Niell Blomkamp in making Elysium has basically constructed a situation here where no right minded person who has first seen his film District 9 and then see this film could help but make such a comparison. They are both science fiction films that blend comic book pulp technology and blasters with a kind of grounded and grimy realism in order to make a larger political point amid frenetic action sequences. They look similar and both essentially star Sharlto Copley in the most distinctive and memorable roles (it doesn’t help that the mercenary character of Kruger in this film seems pretty much identical to the character of Ventus in District 9).
The trouble with this comparison is that it’s a disappointing one. District 9 is a modern classic, maybe one of the best films about aliens that I can think of right now – something endlessly spoofed and referenced and so embedded in popular culture. It didn’t present a clean cut moral issue and characters pursued their own motivations without a simplistic sense of trying to overturn some kind of great injustice. It featured a somewhat clueless ordinary man trying to make sense of a world, not a muscular, skilled and well prepared “hero/antihero” archetype. Sadly, Elysium is simply District 9 but without the same depth or charm. Critics must try to avoid making such comparisons usually, but in this case, Blomkamp leaves us no choice.
2) The unsubtly of Elysium’s message is it’s great strength but an even greater weakness. On the one hand, you can’t help but watch and think that this isn’t the distant future but an allegory for now. You can’t help but think that the film depicts the same divides that we artificially maintain between haves and have-nots both internationally and within our own countries. You can’t help but think of the endless back and forth and legislative gridlock in the US Congress which is ostensibly linked to healthcare reform (but also has a lot to do with sheer obstructionism, partisanship and perhaps even straight up racism, but it’s hardly the place for that here). The trouble is that the film does not provide any kind of intellectual journey or evolving argument. It’s obvious in the first minute of the film, and obvious in the last. The film’s solution is that all citizens get perfect healthcare that can cure cancer and rebuild lost tissue but it’s less clear what this actually would mean in a real sense. If the Elysians had the ability to provide healthcare for all the population of earth, why did they not choose this path as a matter of shrewd self-interest rather than risk the running gun battles that the film shows as a result? The film sets up a allegory that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t work to any conclusion but is quite satisfied to just repeat the same messages over and over again. You come out the other end finding the film hard to disagree with (as much as it’s hard to disagree with any simple truism) but with a strong feeling of having had the message stamped onto your face over and over again. It’s not dissimilar to the Ludovico techique.
3) So Elysium isn’t really science fiction, it’s just a message for now. The director says so himself, saying,
“Everybody wants to ask me lately about my predictions for the future,” the director says, “No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.”
But that’s a problem too. Like it or not, Elysium is set in the future and is not an alternate reality or parallel world. Elysium is basically half-assed sci-fi. The world has been diseased and ravaged but in what ways or how the film doesn’t bother to tell us. Somehow Los Angeles has turned from the city it is now into basically a shanty town…..which doesn’t really make sense. What happened to the buildings there now? Surely even in a societal collapse, we would see some evidence of the ruins of what we have now, not just a world that it was built yesterday from scrap iron out of a completely flat desert? Even Idiocracy showed us evidence of the old world in between the tarnished structures of the new.
Everyone seems to live in poverty, except later on when we see Frey’s house, it actually looks pretty normal. We’re left to imagine that there must be some kind of social strata between the street urchins and the elysians but the film can’t be bothered to explain to us what the world is like, or show anything beyond Los Angeles. Everything is covered in graffiti, even stuff that couldn’t possibly have graffiti on it, like the Armadyne factory machines where workers are put through screening to even enter the building, or the faces of the parol robot that is protected by police robots who will break your arms even for a word of sarcasm. The world building is just simplistic and half-assed throughout and when we are asked to believe silly things such as Delacort’s clever plan of defending the station by phoning some guy who (fingers crossed he isn’t asleep or on the toilet) will fire shoulder mounted rockets into space (rockets that could much more easily be fired from practically any other dedicated location), we are happy basically to just go along with something that just doesn’t try to make sense within it’s chosen genre.
4) Following on from (3), Elysium uses a rather silly and tired old trope about computers that really needs to be retired. The idea is that in the future, everything is controlled by a single computer and all you need is some kind of clever coding script or big magic button and you control that computer and then you control everything, the everything in this case being a huge space station, an army of supermen robots and a fleet of automatically piloted medical ships. In a recent interview, Dr. Aleks Krotoski of the London School of Economics discussed how that at the moment we have a disproportionate trust in internet sites, services and information sources in a way that we do not in other media. She went on to suggest that in the next phase of internet usage, questioning the ownership, intentions and political affiliations of internet sites and services would become more and more important as a topic of open enquiry. In other words, we might (we being the first internet savvy generation) now treat the internet as one big linked computer that does everything and controls everything but more and more we realise that this isn’t the case and that societal leaders and elites exert influence and power over us online in the same way they do offline (something Adam Curtis also argued in his most recent series). The idea that people in the future will continue to build systems based around key holders and big red buttons simply doesn’t make sense. It’s a way of ordering systems that isn’t true now, never was true and never will be true. If the President really fears Delacort’s actions, why on earth does he entrust everything to an army of robots who obeys anybody who happens to log in to the central core computer. In reality, plots based around who controls this core computer are as magical narrative McGuffins as “Kill the head vampire and the others die” and “If we beat the evil witch, everyone she hexed comes back to life”. It’s just not the sort of silly simplistic story that it makes sense to present to grown adults.
5) Last but not least, Kruger. Oh, Kruger, Kruger, Kruger. You’re the best part of the film but even you are just badly handled and terrible. On the one hand, Copley just drips charisma and even when given a simplistic one-dimensional character, it’s lots of fun to watch him play that panto bad guy and just chew up the scenery with gusto. It’s even disappointing when you think that he dies part way through the movie (SPOILER – he doesn’t). However, even this simple villain is basically fucked up by the script. He’s a simple bad guy. We know this when we meet him and we know he wants nothing more than to cause havoc by his acceptance of Delacort’s re-commissioning of his services and his glee in chasing down Carlyle’s attackers. However, the character goes on to jump the shark so many times, he should consider applying to Seaworld as a performer. His interrogation of Frey is nasty and a high point but his later sexual advances towards the same character are just demented, out of character and redundant. Kruger is supposed to be some sort of sadistic petty-fascist who enjoys hunting down the immigrants so why should we believe as he claims that he falls for Frey just upon seeing her? His previous sarcastic asides are forgotten as the character suddenly becomes an impulsive, sincere open book for essentially no reason. His character is then deleted and replaced again by a crazy grab for power as he murders Delacort and then tries to take over all Elysium – why? – This is the same character, remember, who asked for no reward in serving Delacort earlier in the film in order to establish that he takes the application of violence as its own reward…..and now he wants to be King too? It just doesn’t make sense. It’s all barking and grunting and no reality. Kruger simply does whatever evil act is available to him at any moment, even if it completely contradicts his previous behaviour. Then again, this is a character whose futuristic weapon of choice is the Katana so maybe it is too much to treat him as anything more than a refugee from a Resident Evil movie. I didn’t want to end on the most damning cinematic comparison it is possible to make, but here we are, I made it, and honestly, I feel that you Neill Blomkamp left me no choice. Nevertheless, look forward to you next film. Yes, I can be as inconsistent as Kruger too!