District 9, the turtleneck and shades-wearing alternative to the Yankees cap and cargo shorts of Avatar, was a good movie. But let’s be honest here: it wouldn’t have been called “The best sci-fi movie of the decade” without the well-known Cinderella story of its creation.
That story is one of Afrikaner and film geek Neill Blomkamp, who made a short special-effects reel with his friends that impressed overgrown nerd Peter Jackson so much that he signed Blomkamp on to help make his planned movie of the Halo games.
Now, a quick side note: A Halo movie, even done by these guys with undeniable passion for the series, would have been dumb and bad. In fact, now that they’ve got Ridley Scott signed on instead, it’s looking to be equally dumb and bad as the last sci-fi movie he made – seriously, check out that fake Idris Elba – but at least it looks to be more harmless than that other movie he’s been threatening everyone with. So yeah, one of the many reasons District 9 is so good is that it prevented another, much worse movie from being made.
But to go back to my previous point, the reason all the critics are still head-over-heels for it 5 years later is that it’s full of things movie critics like to see in SF’n’F movies these days: A director [Blomkamp] from a faraway land, set in another faraway land [urban South Africa], an unknown actor as the lead [Sharlto Copley], a sad ending [where the hero is put in a concentration camp], which leads to a message most people already agree with [Apartheid is bad] driven home by Nazis/ Nazi analogues [the aforementioned concentration camp].
Children of Men, Lord of the Rings, Avatar itself, the list goes on. These are all good movies, sure, but they don’t get the same sort of respect without these check marks. And this is shown by Elysium, Blomkamp’s latest movie. It’s about the same level of quality as District 9, but it wasn’t nearly as popular because it doesn’t quite get them all.
Elysium starts out with opening text, something you don’t see a lot these days. I like that – film is a visual medium, and you shouldn’t just put up text when you can’t come up with a clever way to get the information across. But if we must have it, I’m glad it’s this terse.
We meet our hero, Max. He’s surprisingly white-bread for future Los Angeles, a place where almost everyone else we see speaks Spanish as a first language. In fact, Matt Damon had to shave his head for the role, to hide his blond-itude – it’s not the brightest casting decision.
Max does the whole Winston Smith deal: Being punished for mouthing off to the authorities, having idealistic friends who want to topple the class system, and working at a job that helps keep that system running. It’s all okay, though, because all this is done more brutally than usual. For instance, the first point – his punishment – consists of breaking his damn arm, and the friend he has is a doctor-lady who fixes him with two-century-old medical tools.
Our hero established, we turn to our bad guys, who all live on the titular space station. It’s well designed, looking very Raman, but it doesn’t really make sense as an actual location. You see, District 9 was good because it had verisimilitude -everyone and everything felt like they actually could have existed, and every character and location was littered with little personal touches to this effect.
Elysium, on the other hand, looks like an ad for air freshener or floor cleaner – lots of white people in spotless pastels, having garden parties, visiting magic medical pods filled with SCP-500, and not doing much else. We see exactly one place of work in the whole thing: A government office, where Defense Secretary Cruella de Ville presides over a room full of compudinators who shoot down a spaceship attempting to enter Elysium, with help from the bloodthirsty Earth operative Agent van der Beard (which doesn’t make a lot of sense other than to show that he exists – the ships are already in space, after all).
It turns out the spaceship was full of people from Max’s town, who were trying to CROSS THE BORDER between EARTH AND SPACE in order to GET BETTER HEALTH CARE for their CHILDREN.
Yeah, this is, like District 9, a social justice polemic disguised as a sci-fi adventure. And you know what? I have no problem with that. So long as the message remains in the subtext, and works to serve the narrative rather than the other way round, there’s nothing wrong with it.
But Elysium doesn’t follow this rule nearly enough, and as a result the actual narrative is much too thin for my liking. Hence my previous point: To paraphrase the immortal words of Richard Scarry, what do these people do all day? Like I said, all we see is garden parties, magic healy-pods, and a single administrative facility. It’s said that these are the wealthiest of the wealthy – how do they earn that money? For that matter, who does it go to?
[And who makes these elaborate catering arrangements? Robots? No, their fingers are too big!]
I know that these questions aren’t important for the movie, but that’s my problem – this is sci-fi, and it’s supposed to stand up to this sort of scrutiny. Other stories like this are able to get a lot of mileage out of playing with their own logic, whereas this barely considers it at all.
But back to our story. Max works to make the robots that serve as combination corrupt cops, sleazy politicians, unfeeling bureaucrats and overmedicating pharmacists for the people of Earth – all the actual people in power are on Elysium, since no one wants to live on Earth if they can help it. This is exemplified by William Fichtner, who you might recognize as “man in authority who is defied” from every movie ever. He plays Max’s Elysian boss, who callously forces him to repair a problem manually, leading to the Wrath of Khan situation, and thus a dose of radiation poisoning.
Now, as “The consumption” was the flagship disease for fictional characters of the late Nineteenth century (and still is, in various other forms – see The Fault in our Stars for how popular it remains even today), I think “radiation poisoning” has the same potential for movies today. Think about it – just getting it implies you’re a desirable person: smart enough to be near a nuclear power source, and brave enough to be near a nuclear power source.
Then there’s the symptoms, which are perfect for action heroes: Initial dizziness and vomiting (always good for movie stars), followed by an asymptomatic period (perfect for finishing up any necessary plot-related stuff), followed by severe “green around the gills” discoloration, lots of blood, shortness of breath (although not enough to stop you from choking out last words) and finally death.
Max enters that asymptomatic period after he visits his idealistic friend I mentioned earlier. Once he’s back on his feet, he realizes that the only way for Max to cure himself is to get to Elysium, and so the goes to their old friend, Miles Morales. He’s a crime boss who operates that most baffling of services, secret space shuttles. He complains how many hundreds of people want to go take advantage of the literal universal health care, leading to an altercation with the idealistic friend before he relents.
Meanwhile (or not quite meanwhile, considering the time-dilation effects of prolonged space travel) we check back to Elysium. Cruella de Ville is undergoing something along the lines of a court martial for using Mr. van der Beard to shoot down the illegal immigrants. The prosecuting officer is played by Faran Tahir, and…hang on. You know how I said William Fichtner always plays the “outclassed dude in authority” role? Well, he’s got nothing on Faran Tahir. He’s a long-standing TV actor, but he’s only got 4 major film roles to date, and in every single one he plays a really cool, capable dude who gets murdered after only a few scenes. Must be a tough break, especially considering he seems to be a really thoughtful and nice guy in real life.
Anyway, this casting bodes well for Cruella, who tells him that Elysium needs to BE HARSHER TO ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS before recruiting Fitchner, the representative of THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, to take part in A COUP ATTEMPT ON THE PEACEFUL PRESIDENT.
Sorry about that. I don’t know what COMES OVER me sometimes. It BORDERS on scary.
Back on Earth, Max and Miles come to a deal. Miles agrees to secure transport to Elysium, but to do so he’ll have to do a very risky job for him – a space heist!
You see, this is how to do “messages” right in movies like this. We see the bad guys, and we hear their hateful point of view. We’ve seen what’s so bad about it, so next we turn it into a MacGuffin for the hero (specifically, maintenance codes for all of Elysium, which the rebellion needs…sound familiar?), which forces him to dress up in an awesome video game-style robot exoskeleton so he can work in space.
Once Max has some FPS guns to match his FPS armor, he starts the mission, selecting Hard difficulty. He’s robbing William Fichtner for revenge purposes, but because he’s helping out in the coup attempt, the data Max needs is protected by a firewall which means a really slow upload time. This means there’s a turret section, and a quick-time event to get rid of some robots that come attack him.
The level’s boss is Agent van der Beard, who ends up dispatching all of Max’s allies who aren’t wearing power armor (including the idealistic friend, of course). The developers mix things up a little with him – because Max doesn’t have the item which can depower force fields yet, he needs to do a stealth section where he hides from van der Beard’s scanning bots before the level ends. You get an achievement if Max hides in his doctor-lady friend’s house/clinic, but I didn’t really…
…what’s that? This isn’t a video game? Oh right, almost forgot. Anyway, Max actually does go to his best friend’s house, while van der Beard searches for him from his chopper. Yes, it’s funny that the good buy from D9 is playing the bad guy from D9.
At doctor-lady’s house, we meet her daughter. You see, she’s dying – she has the consumption (see what I’m talking about?), and she tells a cute little story to Max about how she wants him to feel better. Ain’t it irresistible, folks?
…No, no it’s not. I really don’t like really over-the-top sentimentality when the film’s tone has been so bleak and serious otherwise. I suppose “over-the-top” is sort of the name of the game when it comes to this movie, but I just think it’s out of place. Maybe it’s just me, though – I’m not a fan of adorable sidekicks in general. A bit of an early look for me, but I’ll say I didn’t even like the snowman in Frozen.
Luckily, before the sick girl has time to sing a poignantly dissonant lullaby, van der Beard finds the house, and Max has to run before doctor lady and her daughter get captured, and taken back to Elysium.
Meanwhile, Max heads back to Miles Morales, who downloads the information Max got in the space heist, and realizes that it’s the Death Star plans. He goes into a nerd-conniption at this, which is pretty fun to watch. Eventually, he starts talking sense, and says that the MacGuffin can be used either to save or doom everyone on Earth, that the bad guys want the latter, and that everyone will want to keep him alive because the master copy is now in his brain.
Armed with this information, he proceeds to point a gun at his head and shout at the air until Agent van der Beard finally decides to stop the supreme embarrassment and take him on a ship to Elysium. On the way up, there’s a fun zero-gravity fight scene, which end with van der Beard’s beard being blown off…along with the rest of his face.
The ship crashes on Elysium soil, disrupting everyone’s busy schedule of shaming the audience. Red alert signs go off, and Cruella de Ville starts mouthing off to Faran Tahir, before she captures Max and straps him to a table. She neglects to take him out of his robot suit, though, and he escapes.
Cruella, meanwhile, is completely unfazed by van der Beard’s face being used as wallpaper, putting him into a magic healy pod which fixes it in seconds – man, now I see why everyone on Earth wants one. He’s obviously become pretty unhinged by the experience, though, so he stabs Cruella to death, and dumps her body in the same cell where he’s put Doctor-Lady and her sick daughter.
Now, this all happens pretty fast, and it’s a bit difficult to keep up, but this is okay – I really like this part, especially since now we’ve got that verisimilitude. van der Beard is behaving like most people would after someone blew up their face – single minded rage. He straps on a next-generation version of Max’s power armor, and prepares to face him for the final boss fight.
Meanwhile, Max consults with Miles Morales – who’s come to Elysium for some unfathomable reason – and finds out he needs to go to some place or other to upload the MacGuffin, and flip its switch from “Evil” to “Good”. Along the way he meets several flavors of goon, but luckily one of them had a rail gun.
Now, for those of us who don’t play video games, two things. First, I’m sorry for how opaque a lot of this must be, and second, rail guns work by essentially creating a super strong, really small magnetic field at the back of the gun and using it to propel the electrified, heated projectile. In practice, this means anything you point it at will be essentially obliterated.
The final fight between Max and Agent van der Beard goes completely off the rails, filmed entirely in bullet-time with cherry blossoms flying everywhere for some reason. It would be wonderful to watch if it wasn’t just a bit too confusing in terms of all this unnecessary artistic stuff, but I suppose it’s a nice action climax.
Then comes the real ending, where Miles Morales uploads the MacGuffin from Max’s brain into the main computer of Elysium. As a result, all class distinction everywhere ends instantly. The huddled masses yearning to breathe free start getting medical care and robot friends, and Max gasps out some tearful last words to Doctor-Lady as she fixes her daughter, before he succcumbs to his radiation poisoning.
So, that was Elysium. It isn’t anywhere near the classic of our times that District 9 was, and part of me wants to say that it’s because it sold out: Working with major movie studios, having a much more traditionally “cinematic” storyline, themes and characters, and so on – but in truth, I think it was almost the opposite problem.
You see, it’s never easy to tell what will and won’t succeed at capturing the attention of pop culture, or geek culture for that matter. For every surprise hit, there’s a big-budget flop. Remember the sad story of Sean Connery, who passed on the roles of Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore AND Morpheus from The Matrix, only to try to hit it big as Some Old Guy in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Anyway, my point is that to be remembered in the annals of culture, you have to strike the right balance between the familiar and the unique. While District 9 hit that mark pretty much perfectly, Elysium was just too out there to be accepted as the action blockbuster it hoped to be.
Looking forward to that thing with Wolverine and Ellen Ripley doing the Gigli deal, though.
TWO THUMBS UP: The action, Agent van der Beard
THUMBS UP: Most of the character stuff
THUMBS DOWN: The adorable little girl
TWO THUMBS DOWN: The heavy-handed message that dragged down the plot