One of the first movie reviews I ever wrote for The Argus was of District 9, which was probably a pretty nice one to get started on. It was a well-made and thoughtful movie with a unique story behind its creation giving me tons of material with which to fill a 500-word space, including an attention-grabbing warning that it was probably the most brutally violent movie I’d ever seen. Now director and screenwriter Niell Blomkamp has a second thoughtful and intense sci-fi action movie for me to review, Elysium. And, again, I had no problem thinking of lots of things to say even as the movie was making me cringe with disgust or freeze with tension.

It has to be said right away that Elysium is not as good as District 9. That’s not being critical of it at all, of course; to even be comparable to District 9, a modern sci-fi masterpiece, is a significant compliment for any sci-fi action movie, but Elysium seems like it dropped a box full of all the bits and pieces that made Blomkamp’s last movie so good, and when it tried to put them all back together, it didn’t fit quite right.

Elysium is set about a hundred years in the future, after pollution and overpopulation have made Earth into a giant slum. The wealthy few who could afford the luxury have escaped to Elysium, a ringworld-like space station orbiting the planet, where everyone lives long lives of comfort and health thanks to the miracles of their space-age technology and the exploited labor of the poor back on Earth. One of those working-class Earthlings is Max, a factory worker who was lucky enough to rope a job making the same security robots that help keep the poor in line. After suffering a fatal dose of radiation in a factory accident that will leave him dead in five days, Max gets himself into a high-stakes heist with the hopes of using Elysium’s miraculous medical technology to heal himself, but it turns into a much bigger deal than anyone expected.

This setting gives Elysium a visual style similar to District 9. Where District 9 had South African shanty towns filled with stranded aliens and the near-future military equipment used to keep them in line, Elysium has the crowded slums of Los Angeles with advanced robotic soldiers and spaceships keeping order. This puts Elysium in a happy place as far as visuals. When it comes to computer graphics, making images of sleek, angular, metallic objects like robots and spaceships has gotten about as good as it can possibly get–I wouldn’t even make fun of you for thinking the robot law enforcers were real puppets or that grounded ships were part of a physical set.

But I did make fun of some of the acting choices either thought up by the actors or imposed by Blomkamp. There weren’t any bad performances, of course. You would have to try pretty hard to make people like Matt Damon, Jodi Foster, and Shartlo Copley (who emerged as a sudden and brilliant lead actor in District 9, and now plays a brilliant villain) into bad actors, but Wagner Moura’s fast, strangely articulated speech as a smuggler was at times impossible to understand, and Foster’s performance as Elysium’s secretary of defense was stunted by her strange hybrid of European accents that took her concentration away from sounding like a natural person. I would forgive her for this if Tom Hanks hadn’t already shown us that sounding natural with a made-up accent is really no big deal in Cloud Atlas.

Perhaps Blomkamp just needs some practice with running a large cast of characters after having basically one live-action character in District 9, but he doesn’t need much more practice for directing viscerally intense action scenes. If anyone were to tell me that Blomkamp is an action gamer or that his graphics team is mostly pooled from the video game development world, I would easily believe it. The creativity behind the cruel effectiveness of both Elysium’s and District 9’s weapons could only come from, and in some cases definitely did come from the world of sci-fi shooter video games. The only thing hurting the action now is an insistence on short cuts and shaky cameras. I understand that it’s easier to make an action scene look and feel intense that way, but I thought that Children of Men showed us the unending virtues of long, steady shots for action scenes years ago. People just gotta get with the picture.

I could go into more detail about nitpicky quality points, but the most important parallel of all to draw between Elysium and District 9 is between their respective messages. Blomkamp and Copley are both South African, thus District 9 was about the legacy of racist apartheid left by the British empire in South Africa, whereas Elysium is about immigration, specifically Latin American immigration into the US. And the movie is not about to let you leave the theater without this point being beaten into you many times over. Max’s LA slum is basically a poor Mexican favella run by criminals, including a crime ring specializing in sneaking people into Elysium. Elysium’s security constantly mixes and matches “undocumented,” “illegal,” and “immigrant” when referring to the Earthings who try to make their way to the space station. While all the sympathetic Earthbound characters are the poor Spanish-speaking Latinos (except Max) who typically suffer the brunt of immigration laws, the people of Elysium represent all the demographics that usually get an easy pass into legal resident or citizenship status in the US: wealthy Europeans, medical and engineering students from East Asia and India, folks like that.

I’ll give Elysium some serious extra credit for representing something so contentious, even if it, like District 9, isn’t saying much beyond “this stuff is bad,” but I think it made a big mistake while trying to follow District 9’s model. This would have been a perfect and appropriate opportunity to represent the Latino minority with a Latino lead in a movie about Latino issues, but they instead went for Max, who is paradoxically the only white person in his entire neighborhood. Sure, District 9 had a white lead while it was also about race issues, but Wikus being white had purpose beyond appealing to white moviegoers. He went through a drastic character arc through which he begins as an ignorant jerk, thinking of the stranded alien race stuck on Earth as interesting animals to study, to actually becoming one of them, the first human who personally understands the aliens’ social degradation at the hands of human oppression that has turned them into animal-like shadows of the spacefaring race they used to be, and the pain they suffer with that. Max, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of a character arc, and his being white doesn’t do anything other than make us wonder why he’s the only working-class white guy we see in his LA slum.

What you can maybe condemn both movies for, though, is a lack of subtlety. The whole South African apartheid thing in District 9 probably got past most American viewers, but it was really only a little less obvious than Elysium being about immigration. The thing is, I’m not totally sure whether this should be a point against the movies or not.

A criticism people will often use against fiction that tries to be prescriptive or descriptive rather than just escapist and aesthetic is that it’s wasting time being pretentious. If the creator has something to say about society or politics or morality or philosophy or something, they should just say it, straight up. This is fair enough; if you want to make people accept the point you’re trying to make about immigration law or whatever, it would probably be best to directly appeal to people’s reason through a formal argument published in an academic journal or magazine or book. Why go through all the crap of a fictional story where people can interpret whatever meaning they want or just dismiss it altogether as fantasy? I think there are a couple reasons; though, admittedly, they’re just about manipulating psychology–but in crucial and timelessly useful ways.

The thing is that getting someone to understand your point isn’t all about abstracted logic. Depending on who you’re trying to convince, it can have a lot to do with appealing to empathy and experience. A common example of this, that I came across while doing research for one of my essays Prof Chapman decided to give an A, is a study in which two groups of people are presented a flyer on world hunger. One flyer gives them statistics of how over a billion people worldwide suffer from hunger and associated diseases, while the other flyer tells the story of a poor African family who suffers from chronic hunger. On average, people from the group who received the flyer with the family’s story donated more to hunger relief groups, when prompted after the experiment, than those who received the flyer with the statistics. Even though one billion people suffering from hunger is far more tragic than a single family suffering from hunger, the statistical flyer abstracted hunger into a number whereas the narrative flyer turned hunger into a relatable experience, thus inspiring people’s compassion. Now, that serves to explain why one could use real-life narratives, or at least realistic narratives based on true experience, to help someone understand some point they’re trying to make, but, in that case, why wasn’t Elysium a documentary about the struggles of immigrants trying to escape poverty in Mexico to make a life for themselves in the US?

Of course you can make a documentary about that, plenty of people have, but even though your documentary might serve to help people empathize with immigrants, what it won’t do is overcome the viewer’s biases. It’s possible that your documentary’s viewers grew up learning a subconscious bias against Latinos that keeps them from being able to empathize with your documentary’s subjects, or maybe they have a much more conscious bias against liberal political parties or positions that call for immigration reform. In that case, if you present them with a fictional story that is not immediately apparent in its allegory, you can separate the viewer from their biases, make them empathize with your characters and root for the allegorically represented people and ideologies that they would normally be against in the real world. Then, when it’s over, and your viewer is talking about the movie with friends, the rug can be pulled out from under them as they realize how they were just rooting for immigration reform.

That’s the problem with Elysium, though. The only way you could not know that it’s about US/Mexican immigration is if you don’t know what news is. No one is going to be effectively separated from their biases by this, and Blomkamp probably isn’t going to get his point across to anyone who doesn’t already agree with him.

So, is this a point against the movie? If I take the criteria I talked about before and evaluate it based on what I think the movie is trying to do, then I guess I have to since it fails. But this is totally a matter of interpretation, not evaluation. Jodi Foster was trying to sound like a mix of stereotypically privileged demographics but didn’t do it well, so I docked points. The action was trying to be creative and brutally violent, and it did it almost perfectly, so I awarded points. Do I get to dock points for the lack of subtlety undermining the movie’s mission? I’m not sure. It feels like I should be able to, but I think I just need to see more Blomkamp to form an opinion on this, since he is currently the king of brilliant-but-on-the-nose sci-fi action. And I definitely can’t wait for more from him.

Advertisements