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You Had Me At Spaceships, Dystopia, and Power Armor: Elysium

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | August 9, 2013 | Comments ()


matt-damon-elysium-first-look-ew.jpeg

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.



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  • Craig

    "You Had Me At Spaceships, Dystopia, and Power Armor"

    I totally agree. Bugatti Veyron spaceships, remote detonating magnetic bullets, AI parole officers with attitude, what's not to like?

    But besides all that, this is actually a brainy movie with depth. It has a message about changing our perspective. The citizens of Elysium although they see the beautiful blue Earth, they never appreciate it as much as Max does when he looks down. Max spent all of his life looking up wishing he could be a citizen of Elysium but it's only when he is finally up there that he sees how profoundly beautiful Earth was.

    And Blomkamp's "simplistic" solution is that maybe we should all consider ourselves citizens of Earth instead of citizens of privileged countries. The concept of citizenship is at the heart of this movie. His point is that we in America (or other wealthy nations) live in the equivalent of Elysium. We don't have these amazing healing medical beds but we have drugs and vaccines that have virtually eliminated diseases that are a death sentence for people in the third world.

    And finally Max can be seen as a Christ figure. He is transformed from a selfish criminal into someone who suffers and sacrifices his life for the sake of humanity.

    All of this in a fun action sci-fi movie. Brilliant.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    Totally disagree about the rounded characters. They might as well have been labeled "poor Mexicans" and "Evil whites". Nothing anyone did in the movie made sense and frankly, the only performance that was near enjoyable was Copley, since he seemed to have fun with it.
    What I really hated about the movie, however, was that yet again we get a blond, blue-eyed white savior to help all the brown people. Like the last Dany scene in GOT, I get really uncomfortable with the white savior storyline.

  • poopnado

    Whoa, lots of disagreement here. But I'm with you, SLW. I really enjoyed Elysium. A lot of it doesn't make "sense", but it's a scifi film about a dystopian future. You could say the same for District 9.

    The end did kind of devolve a bit into action-movie cheesiness, but I didn't even care anymore. I had already been won over.

    Can't wait for Blomkamp's next film. I'm hoping for a female protagonist though. JUST SAYIN.

  • Sam Underwood

    His next film is about a robot voiced by Copley and is a sci-fi comedy. Maybe 4th film lol.

  • chump

    I really didn't like this movie at all. I hate the style so much, with the shaky cam and multiple cuts in a scene to speed it up. It just makes it hard to follow and get to know characters. I sound old.

    Also, I didn't feel anything but annoyance for any character other than Damons. They were all yelly and anxious and over the top.

  • alacrify

    You were so busy speaking to the larger issues that you forgot to review the film...

  • VohaulsRevenge

    I really enjoyed it. It wasn't perfect--I wanted rounder characters and snappier dialogue than I received, while Blomkamp lays on the allegory with a sledgehammer--but it was handily rescued by its style and score. As someone who lives near the U.S.- Mexico border, this film's premise looks far more relevant to me than than it might to someone farther from the action, so to speak.

    Addendum: I wish Matt Damon had had as much fun with this role as Copley's scenery-chewing bounty hunter.

  • Nicolae

    It was better than I expected.

  • tmoney

    I really enjoyed so much of this movie, I just hated Jodie Foster's performance. From her constantly changing accent to her absolute lack of humanity, she was awful. However, Matt Damon more than made up for it.

  • Jacobo

    When the end of your dystopian allegory about the 1% is completely ripped off from "Independence Day" then I would argue that perhaps the amount of criticism being leveled is not really all that unfair.
    And in what possible sense is every character in the movie fully realized, or even played as if they are the protagonist of their own story? Most of the actors seem to have been instructed to be as hammy and scenery chewing as humanly possible, particularly Jodie Foster, the dude who plays "Spider" and Sharlto Copley.
    In the world as depicted there is simply no way that the resources of Elysium would be enough to put even a dent in the needs of the billions and billions left on Earth. I guess the Somalia-esque riots around the Med pods and food shipments will be left to the sequel. And dammit, any movie that features MULTIPLE shots of children running in slow motion while angelic choirs swell on the soundtrack deserves all the criticism it gets and then some.

  • GDI

    "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."

    Reminds me of this excellent Bill Hicks mantra:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • John G.

    I have a general complaint, not just with Elysium, but many movies. When you have unbelievably advanced technology than can repair almost anything, and robots that seem very intelligent, why do they all sound like they are using the very first voice synthesizer ever created? Siri sounds way better than that now. Roger Roger!

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I like to attribute that to the uncanny value - people, presumably of this world and certainly viewers, are made uncomfortable by things that are very close to being human, but just a bit off. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U...
    Remember the Final Fantasy film (shudders)? So I'm going to pretend it's a conscious choice to make them sound more robotic, which is something we are all more comfortable with.

  • Valley. Uncanny Valley.

  • John G.
    When your life is nasty, brutal, and short

    PENALTY!

    use of Hobbes Leviathan when talking about class. Move back 3 spaces.

  • Michelle

    I have this problem where I want to see every movie Steven Lloyd Wilson reviews simply because his reviews are so well written.

  • Anna von Beav

    It's why I'm secretly in love with him.

  • Spiffymac

    I really hope this movie is fantastic, but with that said I'm not going for the review here and what was posted.. See... I'm still not over the idea that some people enjoyed the writhing piece of garbage that was District 9. In fact, I've only ever been so bored with a movie at one other point in my entire life.

    Yep, I was sitting in a Nicholas Cage movie, Season Of the Witch, and the thought occurred to me "Huh, even District 9 was better than this..."

    That's the depths to which I have to scrounge to find something that was more-boring than District 9. I sure hope this movie is better, I plan to see it a week from Sunday.

  • cgthegeek

    The title still sounds like a laxative.

    I'm sure I'll end up seeing this anyway. It can't be worse than Oblivion.

  • Writer451

    "the way that we draw completely arbitrary lines between the us and the them."

    I don't understand. Arbitrary lines? In my observation, the difference between "us" and "them" is rarely ever arbitrarily decided. There are usually very good reasons for why groups don't get along. What one finds totally innocent and pleasurable, others may find uncomfortable or even offensive to endure.

  • mograph

    On the arbitrariness of group formation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M...

  • Fredo

    Some lines can be arbitrary. Lines on a map that make you Canadian instead of American or Dutch instead of French. But in saying those words, I've begun the process of separating people, not just by nationality but by cultural rearing, language, mindset and experiences -- each one of which can be drilled further down for more.

    It's like the old Dennis Leary joke about dolphin-safe tuna nets. Yeah, it's great for the dolphin, but what about the tuna?

  • kinoumenthe

    I agree, but in an unrelated aside, I'd like to point out that to make Dutch French and vice versa, you'd have to move a lot more than a simple line. Like the entire other country that stands between the two.

  • BWeaves

    Mericans aren't known for teaching geography.

  • Scully

    I saw this today and I was very disappointed. I felt the plot was weak and lazy. What did Elysium need Earth for? How did Earth benefit from Elysium? Why couldn't Elysium send a few hundred medical devices down to Earth to keep the population somewhat happy? Is the future truly devoid of kind rich people? Is there no Bill Gates in the future to invest money on those in need?

    Besides the big questions, I really disliked the actor who played Spider. And Jodi Foster? What the hell was that? Her performance was atrocious. I was embarrassed for her. Some of the special effects were great, but the shaky cam and editing would have made Paul Greengrass proud.

    I really hate crapping on this movie so hard. I had so much hope.

  • I had many of those same questions. And I had them because I didn't care much about the characters. They were pretty thin.

    Shaky cam needs to die a swift death.

  • Scully

    That's because the characters were caricatures. The Elysium citizens were all white, Ralph Lauren models, hanging by the pool and drinking bubbles, and all the Earth citizens were brown and poor and sick. Delacourt and Carlyle must have been stripped of all empathy by the magic medical scanner during their Botox treatments and Kruger was the Standard Murdering Psychopath™ (because apparently the magical medical scanner, which cures cancer and regrows granade 'sploded heads, does not cure mental illness). Lazy.

    Matt Damon was great, though. Great and so, so pretty.

  • Sadface

    I loved District 9 but this movie was stupid. The world is anything but realistic and the story is ridiculous. Even the action was lame. He fires that cool looking gun literally for five seconds and then drops it. I fear Blomkamp won't recover from this.

  • TCH

    Hopefully he comes out ok. Blomkamp has some great potential. I remember him discussing a potential film in which the protagonist was a mute who lived in a future Bremen. Who was solving a murder.

  • Evolve Today

    I wish I could feel the same way about this movie. But to me so much of this movie felt inconsistent and, at times, just plain dumb. Breaking the rules it sets for it'self and characters doing things for no clear reason. It sure looked purdy though.

  • Guest

    You've made me want to watch it more, but there is one problem- that picture of Matt Damon looks like my brother, and I couldn't take my brother seriously.

  • Wigamer

    He looks EXACTLY like my brother in that picture. Do you have something to tell me?!?!

  • Manly Bowler

    Yes. I'm your dad, you two. Also of your brothers. *hugs*

  • TCH

    Hopefully Elysium does not disappoint.

  • Sam Underwood

    It doesn't. It was my favorite movie so far this year and the best Sci Fi i've seen since Moon.

  • TCH

    Well that is good.

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