You Had Me At Spaceships, Dystopia, and Power Armor: Elysium
Neill Blomkamp’s second film will draw inevitable comparisons to his first. So we’ll get that out of the way up front. Elysium isn’t quite as good as District 9 on a raw level, but I think it is every bit as important.
As they say in math, a single point tells you nothing, but a second point gets you a line. Write one story and all its components are on an equal playing field, but write a second and all the connections between the two link up, so that each is seen in a slightly different light. What were the attributes of a film become the attributes of a director’s body of work instead. And Blomkamp’s body of work is taking on a particular character, a particular sheen, that I am extraordinarily happy with.
There is a lot to compare between District 9 and Elysium. There are the depictions of very similar dystopian futures, in which a repressed group lives in dust blown shanty towns, while the privileged live good lives just out of view. There is no romanticizing of the downtrodden, no casting saintly auras on the repressed just because they are repressed. When your life is nasty, brutal, and short, so too do you to tend be. Maybe not the short part, but you get the drift. And of course there is the power armor, the imaginative weapons and gadgets that seem plausibly real instead of just the stand-ins for magic that so much science fiction uses as short cuts.
The world that Blomkamp builds feels so real in all its details, that you feel like you could open any door on any street and find an entire realized world within. You expect a guy coming out of visual effects to have a handle on making things look real, but where Blomkamp excels is in creating a world that seems to go on beyond the edges of the screen, where the gadgets and details make sense in and of themselves as opposed to simply making dramatic sense within the confines of a scene.
In both films, the hero is a normal guy who has far from noble intentions. They are men trying to get by, and often making terribly selfish but understandable decisions as they go. Interestingly, Blomkamp has in both films used the spin in which the real hero of the piece, the one who can actually make a difference, is not the nominal protagonist, but the side character who he is unwillingly forced to help.
And this works because the characters on all sides are fully realized in that their actions make sense, from Jodie Foster’s malicious Secretary of Defense, to Sharlto Copley’s mad dog villain, to the entire assortment of side characters. Every one of these characters acts as if they’re the protagonist of their own story. It’s a cliche that good drama is based on exactly that principle, but more films can pass the Bechdel test in a given year than this simple rule of drama.
Another point of comparison that I find fascinating between the two films is the role that chance plays in both the stories getting started and their eventual resolutions. Rather than a story feeling inevitable, it makes the crapshoot nature of life a central player. The actions of the characters matter, but the way the unintended consequences of their actions intersect creates a storm of chaos. There’s an old canard about how plans never survive first contact with the enemy, and it’s something that applies so well to Blomkamp’s stories. Plans never survive their contact with the things you just can’t control.
I think a lot of the criticism for Elysium comes from an unfair place. There are those arguing that while it engages in seriously gorgeous world building, that the film itself is overly simplistic, tossing a few explosions and fist fights to solve nuanced and complex socioeconomic problems. But I think that falls into the terrible trap of assuming that because a problem is persistent that any solution must be complex and non-obvious. That’s not always the case.
A boot on a neck is a simple problem to solve. One can tell all sorts of complex and nuanced stories about the wearer of the boot and the owner of the neck, and all that complexity informs us why the problem doesn’t solve itself. Yet it doesn’t change the unavoidable solution: the boot must be removed from the neck.
It’s a particularly interesting take given that the filmmaker comes from South Africa, which lends a sort of fevered credibility to his repeated returns to themes of inequality and the way that we draw completely arbitrary lines between the us and the them. And that also points to a problem with one of the other complaints about the film, focusing on the Macguffin solution, the magical little act that will flip the switch of repression off. They’re right to a degree, that real change isn’t so easy as changing a line in a configuration file so that everyone is considered a member of us instead of them. But in exactly the same way critics are wrong, because that really is how simple it is. It’s not easy but it is damned simple.
Look, this is a fantastic science fiction film. While it’s not quite as engrossing as District 9, I think that’s a terrible reason to rip the film down. I see this more as the next chapter in a thematically linked series of stories that Blomkamp is spinning, and see little reason to say it’s worse than District 9 anymore than I would pluck out a short story collection and complain that chapter two is weaker than chapter one. I walked out of Elysium wanting to see more of this world, and wanting to know when Blomkamp’s next release date is. And I don’t think there’s higher praise for a movie than that.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.