Elysium (2013) – Neill Blomkamp (Dir.), Matt “The Hippo” Damon, Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, Sharlto Copely, Alice Braga, Diego Luna
Guys. It’s my fucking birthday. As the earth completes yet another cycle about our solar celestial drain hole, constantly spinning and spinning like a piece of spinach that simply refuses to leave the damn sink, I step forth, or, rather, I step twenty-sixth into the future. Yes, the celebration of my not being dumb or unlucky enough to die in some sort of freak or genetic accident raged this weekend, claiming innocent livers like cirrhosis-ed trophies drowned in whiskey. After epic bouts of pizza, downing every fried delicacy I could force into my digestive tract without it hitting the emergency eject button, and passing out on my bathroom floor during a showing of Starship Troopers, my stalwart comrades of schlock film-going attended and enabled my every whim by joining me in a screening of Neill Blomkamp’s newest feature: Elysium.
And then I had a seizure.
Not really. But it actually felt as though I did. There was more flash and smash on screen than a mirror-wrestling match in the center of the fucking sun. Yes, Elysium, the newest and, if the box office receipts tell us anything, failing feature from a director smart and unlucky enough to earn necrotic labels such as ‘visionary’ and ‘genius’, thusly damning his works to a self-inflated death of recycled egotistical bullshit. I mean…that sounds harsh. But it’s true.
Elysium tells the tale of Matt “The Hippopotamus” Damon, an ex-con who’s just trying to keep his head on straight and, well, attached to his neck. Even if that head is shaved and makes the man look more like a hard-boiled egg than the prettier half of Matt-fleck (sounds better than Affmon or Matten or Bemon Maffdack – note to self: save name for terrible sic-fi epic). Unfortunately, due to the fact that everyone is poor, hungry and healthcare is distributed by creepy half-man-half-caterpiller nightmare-robots, his plan to not-die is doomed to failure. Thusly, after getting trapped in an irradiated room and told he’s going to die, “Cueball” Damon decides to storm the gates of the titular Elysium, a rich white-people paradise orbiting Earth. See, on Elysium they have these medical devices called “Magical Cure-all Get-Up-For-Fun In No-time” Machines or “MCGUFFIN” for short where, if you’re a citizen, all you have to do is lie down for about ten seconds and the thing etch-a-sketches you back to health. In order to break through the impenetrable missile defenses (which are, as inexplicably proved later in the movie, totally penetrable…kind of like licorice underpants) they must hijack the brain of a sleazy weapons manufacturer (William “I Was a Blind Guy in Contact, So the Title of That Movie Was Ironically Hilarious to Me” Fichtner).
In a spark of mind-bending coincidence, it turns out Fichtner has been planning with Jodie “The Pantsuit” Foster to create a program that will reboot Elysium’s systems and allow them to take control. Well, Damon inadvertently gets his hands on such sensitive material and decides that he’s going to make Elysium for EVERYBODY because, well, you know, there’s no such thing as limited resources. Oh yes, and to combat the cripplingly lethal dosage of radiation poisoning that is eating him from the inside out, Damon straps on a “Paraplegic Limitation Override Time-Helping Orthopedic Logistical Exoskeleton” or “PLOTHOLE” for short. What happens after that is a lot of punchy-punchy, blow-y uppy, smashy smashy, ow-my-eyeballs-hurt action along with perhaps the most bemusing performance of all time by Blomkamp regular and Teddy-Bear-cum-awkwardly-named-office-clerk Sharlto Copely.
Alright. This movie was enjoyable, to an extent. It wasn’t, however, nearly as deep nor as intelligent as it purported itself to be. Blomkamp gained fame after his aborted attempt to bring the utterly pointless film adaptation of Teenage-Boy-Power-Fantasy Halo to the silver screen and instead took about 30 million dollars of Peter Jackson’s money and made the exceedingly excellent District 9. His experience growing up in Johannesburg during Apartheid has drastically and rightly skewed his perspective of haves and have nots. He sees the world in dichotomy, one very much linked to the color of your skin. For Blomkamp, he was used to white people having and black people not. Now, this is not a unique experience, particularly in a city like Chicago or New York, though the social exclusionism of South Africa reached a fever pitch of detestable extent during that period of time. Throughout District 9 we are convinced that the bug-like grotesqueries that were the aliens had little more intelligence than your average coyote, all of them rabid, violent solipsists. However, as the hilariously monikered Wikkus Van Der Meer (Copely) transforms into one of their kind, the beings grow into a sympathetic and discriminated people. Granted, the end battle reduces the tale to little more than an ultra-violent Boss sequence in a video game, the build up excuses the digression. Eventually, we are given a surprising tale about repugnant creatures coming into a human and noble light. If you can handle swearing (I assume you can since you read this mutherfucking blog) and brutal violence, watch it. It’s fantastic. Even my mother, who said Pulp Fiction was little more than an extended smut video, thinks District 9 is one of her favorite movies.
Regrettably, where District 9 succeeded, Elysium fails. Once again, Blomkamp has taken the honorable task of exploring a modern day political conflict and examined it in the light of historicization (or futurism or reverse-something-or-other). This time? The one percenters. Fuck those guys. Oh yes, and healthcare. Well, race is definitely still there, but certainly resting in the back seat like the quiet middle kid who knows it’s probably best to let the newborn cry and the eldest pitch a fit about not getting to spend the summer with her boyfriend and if only she would shut up the drive to Phoenix won’t be quite so goddamn agonizing. I’m not sure what just happened. Let’s move on. Anyhoo… Once again Blomkamp brings his infinitely precise eye for detail to the environment and artistic direction. The clothing design is simple and poor. The technology is, when not concerned with weaponry, believably basic. The future for him is not a pristine place. It’s dirty. It has graffiti. On EVERYTHING. He also focuses on making sure that the future is multi-national, his characters sporting more accents than the Swiss Linguistics and Polo Team (that’s totes a real thing (no it isn’t (how many parentheses can I put in before it gets annoying? (like, at the end there are going to be so many parentheses stacked up in one place (did you know we call them brackets in the UK? (true story (what if I ended this whole thing with a colon, like this :))))))). That’s absurd. Anyway, we’ve got Jodie Foster masticating some form of Quebecois ridiculousness, every possible Cholo accent they could dig up from LA, and Sharlto Copely barking tones that make him sound like a mentally deficient pirate (it’s heavily backwoods South Africa and it’s unintelligible). Also, for fucking once, the majority of side characters in this film are non-white. Granted, they’re also gangsters, car thieves, violent potty-mouthed brutes. But at least they’re not caucasian. Even an Indian fellow manages to work his way onto Elysium as the President. He’s the only one though. Fucking white people.
Unfortunately, such specificity of universe doesn’t necessarily extend to the script, where almost every plot decision is a facile as a fax machine (get it? Facsimile? SAT joke? No? You plebs) and the dialogue carries about as much gravitas as a toddler with a fucking crayon. Due to the plethora of international accents and the seemingly improvised script, every scene devolves into a baffling shouting contest with more curse words than a Wicca Pride Parade. Seriously, these people have mouths so dirty, they might as well open a porno-orthodontist (Pornodontist!). Somehow, throughout it all, Damon demonstrates why he is the lost golden god of cinema. He is infinitely likable at all points, never allowing his charm or charisma interfere with the action, but always buoying him to the top of the ‘watchable’ pile. Most of the performances are passable, with Foster giving a steely show in a role written for a male (something she admirably excels at) and Copely acting nuttier than squirrel turds. Unfortunately, the script is riddled with more throw-away lines than a fucking fly-fishing convention. When you cannot understand a goddamn word coming from a character’s mouth and yet you still know exactly what’s going on, you have to reevaluate your writing style, Mr. Blomkamp. Seriously.
While District 9 did such a beautiful job of altering its audience before the 90 minute mark, this does little more than laud utopian and unrealistic ideals. What’s worse is that it crumbles into the same vicious mess as its predecessor…this time without the effective preamble. Honestly, though, I’m impressed with much of Blomkamp’s violence. Much like most of the artistic design and the gorgeously nasty CGI, it fits the world. He doesn’t give the gore a front seat like that guy voted Most Likely to Have a Woman Tied and Gagged in His Trunk, Eli Roth, but he makes it real and organic. Yes, a man is brutally dismembered by a railgun…but it’s more of an afterthought. It’s shocking, yet not titillating, as though it was filmed by a documentarian who had no idea what nastiness is coming. Such subtlety doesn’t follow with his camerawork. The child of the age of technology, Blomkamp employs every shaky-cam visual blending technique he can possibly think up to make the action more visceral. Well, it really only serves to make your viscera hurt. If only he could refrain from video-game-izing his climaxes, he could avoid the fist-to-the-face bluntness of the overall package.
Blomkamp’s eventual thesis is simple. Overly so. There should be redistribution of wealth and resources. Healthcare should be for everyone. The rich should give back everything. Okay…how…? Isn’t the fact that earth is an urbanized hellhole in the future due to overpopulation and lack of resources? By opening the doors of Elysium at the end (SPOILERS, but, come on, you saw it coming) they only serve to create yet another rock floating in space fully depleted of its production ability. No matter how many MCGUFFIN health devices they have…where does its power come from? Its cure-all magic fluid? Surely it isn’t infinite. These are the questions that, unanswered, nullify the impact of the message. They aren’t thought through. While District 9 is that clever asshole sitting in back, probably wearing a beret and carrying Nietzsche, who quietly argues with you until, by the end, he’s tricked you into arguing in favor of Nazism, Elysium is that airheaded freshman who yells at the class “EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE FREE THINGS ALL THE TIME. POSSESSIONS ARE MEANINGLESS!” Sure. That would be awesome. But healthcare isn’t infinite. We don’t have magical cure-all cancer-killing machines. We have grueling six-month courses of chemo-therapy, along with surgery, and oncologists, and surgeons, and MRIs and CTs and X-Rays and…(seriously, I watch a LOT of House). The dream of free shit for everyone is nice. It’s cute. It’s simply impractical. The difference between the two boils down to emotional vs. political. District 9 convinces the audience that, if they can change their mind about these cockroach creatures after 90 minutes, they can shift their preconceived notions about people of other races. Elysium says: we should have health care and the rich shouldn’t hide from us. Sure. I agree…but that’s the problem. Everyone watching will either brush it aside as idiotic or laud it as “exactly what I was thinking”. It’s nature as a self-aggrandizing power fantasy reduces its effectiveness to zilch.
Blomkamp is a talented director. He needs a screenwriter. And he needs to avoid blowing things up for a little bit. You know…just for one movie. Just to see how it feels. Maybe then his fascinating ideas will actually break through rather than get stuck in the muck of explosive over-compensation and ultra-simplification.
Happy Birthday to me.