Us older sci-fi fans are always bitchin’ and moanin’ about how no one makes science fiction movies about ideas anymore. How it’s all just special effects and big stars and non-stop action. Which is why fan-boys and –girls of a certain age got very excited (probably too excited) about South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s debut District 9 four years ago this month.
A (very) thinly veiled Apartheid parable–only with aliens and giant alien weapons—Blomkamp’s DIY-feeling, R-rated District 9 showed a lot of visual verve and a willingness to gritty itself up with the sort of social messages usually flushed out of mainstream PG-13 teenage Cineplex fare. At least until it’s last act, when it slipped into yet another “oh cool, shit blowin’ up!” mindlessly “cool” action flick.
So elder-geek hopes were understandably riding high for Blomkamp’s follow up, this weekend’s Elysium. All the pieces were there: a teen-free R rating; timely and resonant themes about the haves and have nots; and the same dusty, down-and-dirty visuals from District 9 cinematographer Trent Opaloch.
Except Elysium has a higher budget, better-known stars (Matt Damon! Jodi Foster!), a wider scope (the action wings its way between a used-up Earth and the titular giant “gated space station” in orbit), and more impressive CGI. It’s all-around larger and louder with more action, more awesome weaponry, and a lot more ass getting kicked on all sides.
All of which makes Elysium twice as big, half as smart, and considerably more muddled, misguided, and flat-out disheartening than District 9.
Where District 9 showed admirable innovation in its mix of sci-fi action and social-justice messaging for its first two thirds before clamoring into emptier action-flick noise, Elysium tips the scale in reverse. It starts out with a decent enough dystopian idea, but quickly gets louder and dumber and soon is drowning in hackneyed clichés, cartoon dialog, ridiculous plot contrivances, and non-stop “cool violence gore” action-banging silliness.
The premise is that by 2154 the Haves have all moved on up and out of a wasted, blasted, used-up, polluted Earth and live in orbit on the massive, 2001-style Elysium “habitat,” complete with Hollywood Hills mini-mansions, swimming pools, and perfectly manicured yards (all of it tended to not by illegal immigrants, but robo-butlers and -gardeners).
The Elysium elite also have sort of Ultimate Tanning Beds that nicely, easily erase not only bodily imperfections, but any health issues, from cancer to broken bones to faces accidentally blown off. All of it is overseen by some sort of multi-national political body, but Elysium’s real power is held by Foster’s Director of Homeland Security Habit Defense, whose job it is to keep the orbital borders secure and the low-life rabble out. (And maintain control of her wayward mid-Atlantic faux-French accent.)
When Foster needs a hand overthrowing the mamby-pamby government up on Elysium, she recruits the aid of a bloodless, soulless corporate eel played with inhuman detachment by William Fichtner. And when she needs a big gun to do the messier work down on Earth, she calls on District 9 star Sharlto Copley, a wild-eyed, hirsute special forces mercenary who spits out an Afrikaner accent.
Meanwhile, down on Earth, Los Angeles has become a giant San Paulo-style favela, spread out over the post-quake rubble and industrial sprawl and jam-packed with the Have Nots.
Despite the fact that the Future Los Angeles is primarily populated by Spanish-speaking Hispanics, our hero is the not-so-Hispanic Matt Damon. Naturally he’s trying to scrape out an honest living amid all the downtrodden decay and save up enough to someday buy a trip to Elysium. Naturally he’s a grown-up orphan. Naturally he’s also a reformed car thief. Naturally he’s just reconnected with a childhood sweetheart Alice Braga, and naturally she has an adorable daughter, who is, naturally, dying of leukemia.
It doesn’t take a sci-fi genius to see where all this is headed. (In fact, all it takes is a peek at the commercials for Elysium.) Matty Matt is injured on his Earthly factory job (add Upton Sinclair-esque worker safety to the film’s list of Serious Issues), falls back in with his old revolutionary tinged crime ring, gets outfitted with some sort of super-powered robo-exo-skeleton, and then has to do “one last job” as he steals and shoots and punches his way up to Elysium to save the girl, save himself, save the people, right the wrongs, fight the power, and fix all the injustices
With the District 9 fan-boys and –girls already rooting for him, Blomkamp wants to rack up social-conscience points for supposedly addressing pressing current political issues such as illegal immigration and health care. But those points are made so broadly, so blatantly that they barely qualify as parallels or allegory—Blomkamp hits the viewer as hard and often in the face with his Big Issues as Damon smacks around robo-policia and bad guy mercs. As loud as it shouts about them, Elysium doesn’t have anything smart or interesting to say about these complicated social ills.
(Likewise, we’re never shown the governing political system of Elysium and presumably Earth—the political structure that, as we all know from our present-day debates, must be central to maintaining immigration and health-care status quos. In fact, when Foster’s Machiavellian character sets out to topple the space habitat’s power structure, she does so by “rebooting” its computer system–it feels less like a coup than a cheat code.)
Instead, the only ideas Elysium has is about how to kill people in fresh and exciting ways: Most of the film’s considerable cinematic energy is poured into coming up with “cool” ways to blow folks up. Granted, the film is rightfully rated “R,” which means theoretically this parade of highly stylized, slo-mo “awesome!” gun porn and bodily destruction is not intended for kids. (Unlike this summer’s reprehensible White House Down.)
But still, for as much as Blomkamp and Opaloch act like they to want to drive home the scope of human suffering among the less fortunate, they save all their snazziest visual flair for the endless scenes of Damon firing super-cool future guns at people and duking it out in pointless robo-whatever battles. Those are clearly the parts of the film that are supposed to make the geek nation go, “Ooooooh!” Instead, I felt more like, “Eeeww.” Or worse, “Ehh.”
Both the old and new versions of Total Recall had fairly overt themes about the plight of the underclass and the human cost of corporate greed and power. But I’m guessing all most of us remember about those films is the action scenes… Well, those and the whore with three boobs.
Blomkamp showed with District 9 that you can balance social ideas with action entertainment—he set out to subvert the very idea of the mindless sci-fi action flick. But the film maker has completely lost his grip on that vision in Elysium, and the result is just another clamorous, effects-heavy sci-fi action film in a cinematic landscape already far too thick with them.