Elysium Neill Blomkamp (USA 2013) Matt Damon; Jodie Foster; Wagner Moura
Viewed Empire Cinema 3 Sept 13 Ticket: £3.75
The more remarkable Sci Fi films that I have seen have been memorable, because in some way they left me with a thought; which is a nice present to get from a movie. Ridley Scott's allegorical Blade Runner posed a question about the nature of what it means to be human; Kubrick's parable, 2001 contrasted the unknowable vastness of space/time in the face of man's ineffable smallness; Don Siegal's filmic metaphor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – probed the manifestation of political paranoia. Whilst stylistically Blomkamp's movie Elysium owes big time to these precursors, the impression left by Elysium was one of confusion and incoherence. It is a mish mash of forms, as if Blomkamp couldn't decide if Elysium was one thing or another, parable or blockbuster. But in the end the motif of personal quest wins out. Elysium's commitment to the mega production values crushes all the light out of the social forces that are initially set into play.
I can't say if Elysium is a good or bad movie; that depends as to whether you like your sci-fi bean feasts served up as a spectacle of special effects and combat; or if you prefer to leave muscular machinations to the men from Marvel and look to the Sci fi genre for some cogent expression of ideas.
Anyway Elysium prompted within me the following observations.
The film's initial set up divides planet earth into two contrasting worlds: Elysium and old Planet Earth. Elysium is where the rulers and controllers of Planet Earth live. Elysium is a vast tubular ring set in geo-stationary orbit, modelled as an idealisation of American suburbia: with meadows, colonial houses, lawns and 2.4 kids. The inhabitants want for nothing ( materially at any rate) and every home has a very handy healing machine that cures all ills. Aside from these images we are given almost no hard data about Elysium. Are they practicing Mormons? Scientologists? We are not told. Though some might think on viewing Jodie Foster's performance as Madame Delacourt, the evil thin controller, less is more.
Opposing Elysium is dirty old planet Earth, a slave colony of Elysium. Its population live in vast shanty towns, oppressed and terrorised by Elysium controlled robots. The earthlings do not have handy healing machines at home; if sick they have take their chances in the familiar surroundings of chaotic overloaded general hospitals.
Wardrope has kitted out Elysium people with designer suits, very good teeth and expensive haircuts: Perhaps the clever machines do grooming as well. Earthlings wear stuff from Primark or patched up rags, with bad teeth and worse haircuts, with the notable exception of Frey protagionist Max's sweetheart. You see immediately that these are two different peoples.
Now this setting of opposing worlds is a situation that South African Blomkamp will be familiar with from the continuation of Apartheid era racial and social divisions of his native country. It is a familiar also in the geophysical division between Israel and the Palestinians. So, the opening of Elysium suggests a story that will have a political premise and hence a certain underlying social weight pushing the narrative forward.
This is a bit of a shock! Elysium is a Hollywood movie. Will Hollywood caste aside 40 years of resolve not to make political films and allow Blomkamp to produce a transparently political allegory. Bless its cotton socks! Of course not. For 40 years Tinsel Town has made films about personal acts of overcoming, movies with individual self determination at their core of their scripts. This is not going to change in 2013. Next year - maybe.
Although Blomkamp's script has an opposition organisation on Earth, it's never clear what this opposition actually wants and as the film progresses any latent treacherous political tendencies are subverted and transposed to the acquisition of desire: a desire for something everyone wants: a cure for cancer.
Of course the provision of Health Care has a symbolic significance in Apartheid situations such as Gaza, where Palestinians can only access advanced health care in Israel. But it is symbolic. Health provision is seen only as part of the wider issue of repression. In Elysium it becomes the whole issue. With a trick of the script, the political is flipped over and becomes Max's quest for health. Tragically over exposed to radiation in the course of his assembly line work, Max has to get cured or die. And the only cure in town is on Elysium with one of those nifty machines. The plot driver becomes personal not political, and the story regresses to a simplistic series of CGI battles as he takes on those who would deny him the right to live.
Max's quest is given legitimacy in the scripting by the fact that Frey's little girl, Matilda, has leukaemia and so needs one of those Elysium machines. Noting President Obama's recent claim that: “it would be immoral not to go to war when small children have been gassed…”, we can see that children's stock has high currency value these days. Children in Hollywood have long played the role of moral validators. As American Political Life increasingly imitates Hollywood, so Hollywood repays this tribute in trumps as violence and war are ultimately justified by the child.
Final thoughts: firstly the idea of exo-skelitans as in Iron Man, is gaining increased leverage on the popular imagination. Elysium's script again services the idea of mankind overcoming personal body limitations by the fusion of the mechanical and the biological. Secondly: Blomkamp again exploits the computer age and its love of the technical fix. Solutions must be instantanious. A computer is plugged into the master server and at once a wholescale social about turn is effected: the inhabitants of Elysium and Earth become one inclusive society. And of course those handy omnicure machines: lie down count to ten and you're healed, except interestingly the machines cures the body but not the mind,
I said that Elysium did not leave me with a thought. Well not immediately. But whilst writing this piece, a thought happened. Perhaps the ELYSIUM as a manifestation of Hollywoods belief system is correct in anticipating the demise of politics in the face of individual desire. Perhaps the National Health Service was the precursor to ushering in the post political era. Now there's a thought. Not perhaps one intended by Neill Blomkamp.
A brief addition to my comments about Elysium. It occurred to me when watching Elysium that Hollywood suffers from a kind of belief system envy syndrome in relation to Jihadists and their jihad. However misguided and misled the West believes them to be, there is no doubt that the religious motivations and intentions of the Jihadists are pure. Their objectives are not contaminated by personal goals and gains; they fight for Allah. Jihadists believe in the religious legitimacy of their struggle. To fight for Allah lends the warriors the lustre of martyrdom and justifies the atrocities and destruction of war, exonerating such extreme practice as decapitation. To have such a clear super personal goal to fight for, places Hollywood in an asymmetrical ideological position vis a vis Jihad.
Hollywood scriptwriters have to justify the actions of their protagonists in the name of something as nebulous and imperfect as American democracy or the freedom to chose between MacDonald and Burger King. This simply does not have the same resonance as fighting for a religious ideal. Hence the strange ideological void at the centre of action movies such as Elysium; there is simply nothing there only personal desire.
And in Elysium it was interesting to see that decapitation of one's enemies, a primal primitive impulse perhaps but religiously legitimate in the eyes of Jihardis, is on the cusp of a certain level of acceptance by Hollywood. The baddie, Spider attempts but fails to decapitate one of Max allies. But Max himself does triumphantly decapitate an android robot. Thus taking a couple of timid Hollywood steps towards legitimising imitation of the Jihadist practice of humiliation of the foe. The problem being such an extreme practice needs a clear ideological or religious stamp of approval.