I’ve always found it puzzling that the media (movies, books, etc.) commonly associated with geek culture is so looked down upon by the mainstream, often academics or cultural elites. In their early days, comic books in particular were derided as being simply for the sub-literate. Perusing blogs like Jeffrey Welles’ Hollywood Elsewhere reveals an intense hatred for science fiction and comic book mythology, which I think is quite odd from a literary perspective. Genre material is far from stupid. After all, science fiction and comic book mythos are frequently steeped in allegory and social criticism. While critics may sneer at genre material, there’s no denying it can work on many different levels. Since the ’60s, the X-Men have represented every kind of political and social oppression, from African Americans during the Civil Rights era to modern-day LGBT Americas seeking marriage equality. George Romero has used his zombies to stand in for both American consumerism and American militarism. Science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick used their visions of the future to comment on what was happening today. Hell, Fahrenheit 451 is every bit as prophetic a piece of writing about our relationship to television as Paddy Chayefsky’s revered screenplay for Network. But, Chayefsky is viewed as a genius where the typical sci-fi novelist is usually looked on as a hack.
Four years ago, writer/director Neil Blomkamp made a very promising debut with his sci-fi film District 9. A story of stranded space aliens who had been stripped of their civil rights, District 9 was a cracking good action film, but it also worked and worked well as a commentary on South African Apartheid Blomkamp had grown up with. District 9 presented a smart, resourceful filmmaker who got the most out of his limited budget. It was that rare piece of genre entertainment to receive recognition from the Academy.
Blomkamp is back with his follow-up, Elysium, and this time he’s got a much bigger budget to play with. The good news is that it’s quite good, though not having the lighting-in-a-bottle surprise quality Disctrict 9 had. The even better news is that working with bigger studio toys (and well-known actors like Matt Damon, Jodi Foster, Alice Braga, and Diego Luna) hasn’t forced Blomkamp to shy away from more social commentary. Hats off to Sony for ponying up the dough to make Elysium and not forcing the filmmaker to shave of the film’s political undercurrent. Fox News pundits are really going to hate this movie.
Not unlike one of its sci-fi predecessors, WALL*E, Elysium is set in a dystopian future (Is there any other kind in the movies?) where Earth has been polluted to a point of being nearly uninhabitable. Unlike WALL*E, however, in which everybody got off the planet to live in that groovy space/cruise ship, in Elysium, only the very rich have been able to get out of Dodge. They live on the titular space station, a Utopia where nobody gets sick or ages, while the rest of us are left behind to fight over the scraps – sort of like the Rapture, but for rich people.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con trying to stay on the straight and narrow. After he’s accidentally exposed to high doses of radiation at his job, Max has only days left to live. (In a comic book, he would get superpowers; here, he’s just screwed.) Wanting desperately to get to Elysium where he knows he can be cured, he turns to Spider (Wagner Moura), a shadowy underworld figure who specialized in smuggling illegal immigrants to Elysium. The plot is to steal information uploaded into the brain of a corporate CEO and wind up getting way more than they bargained for in the process.
I’m a big believer that before a film can be effective allegorically, it has to work as a story. Does Elysium work as a story? Yes, for the most part, it works pretty well. While I found some plot holes that didn’t quite connect (I’m not sure how a man with his face blown off by a grenade can be healed on Elysium when everybody else stays dead, for instance.), overall, the picture covers its bases well. Like District 9, Blomkamp is world-building here, and I loved that he does it by showing us how this future works rather than telling us. Damon does a very effective job of playing an everyman that also functions as the audience’s entry point into the movie. Max isn’t given much of an arc, so it’s vital for an actor with Damon’s skill (and inherent good will with the audience) to give him shading and depth. The effects crew has done some really terrific work as well, with CGI practically indistinguishable from practical effects and sets.
So, how about the politics? Elysium is a film that can likely be read on several different levels, but there’s definitely stuff here about universal health care, immigration, and the mayhem that can be caused by unfettered Capitalism. Most of that is handled pretty efficiently, though I felt the image of the rich floating above the poor in a shiny space station was a bit ham-fisted. I don’t think there’s any doubt Elysium carries an at least partial socialist message. But, who cares? Should that affect your ability to enjoy the film? We live in a very polarized climate, politically speaking, but I am dumbfounded by people who will actually get angry that a film didn’t reflect their own personal points of view about the issues of the day, or refuse to see films featuring actors they disagree with. Are people really that insecure in their belief system that hearing other ideas pisses them off or frightens them? Last week’s big release was a movie called 2 Guns, and it certainly glorifies firearms (If you didn’t notice, its title is 2 Guns.) and proposes violence as useful means of problem solving. The idea that Hollywood only produces movies with liberal messages is patently ridiculous. There can be little good that comes from a fragmented media that tells people what they want to hear rather than what they need to know. Also, did I mention Blomkamp has a penchant for people exploding in the movie? He does! And, people exploding in movies is never not awesome.
A big-budget summer movie is usually as dumb as a sack of hammers, so, as a film fan, I think it’s great that a major studio release like this actually (in August!) has some ideas in it, regardless of where it falls on the political spectrum. God forbid people have something to debate about over dinner after a night at the cinema.