Saturday, August 24, 2013


Alternate Title:  Sociology 101:  The White Man as Satan

One sentence synopsis:    A blue-collar worker dying from an industrial accident must find a way onto the exclusive orbital habitat of Elysium to access the life-saving technology there.

Things Havoc liked:  I've never been the biggest fan of Matt Damon, despite the good movies I keep seeing him in. Simply put, he always seems to play Matt Damon, regardless of the circumstance or role, and while there are times his witty-loser schtick works (Adjustment Bureau comes to mind), it doesn't exactly provide new and refreshing ideas week in and week out. Still, I'm willing to give Damon a shot, as he has an even chance of being good in anything he does, and several of his films have been pleasant surprises in this experiment of mine (once more, I cite Adjustment Bureau). In Elysium, Damon plays Max Da Costa, a former car thief and factory worker who, through a series of plot reasons, finds he needs to access the miraculous healing facilities available on the offworld enclave of Elysium, an obvious stand-in for the first world relative to the third. Damon doesn't do a vast amount with his character beyond brooding monotone, but his performance never dips below adequate. He is not the problem with this movie.

Neill Blomkamp, the South African director of District Nine, clearly has an obsession with the immigration debate. But ignoring that, his preferred visual style, that of rusted, lived-in supertechnology, is a welcome one in a world where Michael Bay and his clones dominate the surface of Hollywood. His Cinema Verite style is an acquired taste, but if nothing else it lends a wonderful continuity to the rusty, dirty, overcrowded world that he is attempting to portray here. Shot on location in one of the poorest slums in Mexico, the movie certainly feels real, even when flying cars are passing overhead or futuristic weapons and shields are being employed. The super-technology available to our poor heroes looks cobbled-together out of recognizable spare parts, in some cases literally duct-taped to one another. Following movie after movie in which supertech is considered so ubiquitous as to require no explanation, it's actually kind of refreshing to see our futuristic hero desperately trying to blow the dust off his vintage laptop, while his buddy covers him with what appears to be an AK-47 taped to a grenade launcher, all without consciously going for a post-apocalyptic vibe. The style is not the problem with this movie.

Things Havoc disliked:  No, the problem with this movie is every other goddamn thing.

Elysium is a stupefyingly bad film, a film so terrible that it flies right past outrage and into wonder and awe at the sheer achievement of having created such an atrocity. Following the surprise success of District 9, a film I enjoyed, Blomkamp had what amounted to carte blanche to pick his next project, and this movie, like so many other epochal disasters (Heaven's Gate, Connie & Carla) proves just why that practice, while inevitable, is rarely a good idea. Nothing works in this movie, not the acting, not the cinematography, not the premise, not the plot, not the ham-fisted political commentary, not the racist color-coding, not a goddamn thing at all. And having written, produced, and directed the film (not to mention run his mouth about its virtues at length), Blomkamp has left us with absolutely nobody else to blame.

One scarcely knows where to begin with a disaster of this magnitude, and so let us fly directly to the crux of the matter. Elysium is intended (Blomkamp has made that explicitly clear) as a parable for the immigration debate in the United States, in that it pits the overwhelmingly Hispanic inhabitants of Earth against the overwhelmingly White inhabitants of Elysium, and then frames their relationship as one of exploited and exploiter. I have no problem with this concept in theory. Science fiction has been used as parable for the debates of the day since as far back as Jack London and HG Wells, and there is plenty to criticize about American immigration policy. What I object to is how thunderously the film jackhammers its message home. It is not enough for the residents of Elysium to be uncaring about the plight of those left behind on Earth, they must demand that Earther-dwellers stop breathing in their presence and callously slaughter them with missiles when they attempt to break into Elysium. It is not enough for Elysium security to tase, shoot, and beat people as they try desperately to reach Elysium, they must throw children into livestock cages and engage in summary executions on people's lawns as a matter of policy. It is not enough for Elysium to have life-saving medical technology unavailable on Earth, the movie must go out of its way to show that this technology is unlimited and free of use, that dispensaries for it sit by the hundreds in warehouses on Elysium, unused, and that there is literally no reason why this technology is denied to the sick on Earth other than the fact that all white people are evil.

Oh you think I'm joking? This movie is so color-coded, at one point I thought we'd slipped into Birth of a Nation. There are a good thirty or forty characters in this film, counting the bit parts, and without exception, every single white character, be they Earther or Elysiumite, is an evil, murderous, psychotic killer who not only oppress everyone else but actively go out of their way to do so in the most horrific fashion possible. Meanwhile every character who is not white, including violent gang leaders, criminals, and organized crime bosses, are kind-hearted altruists desperately trying to do right whatever the cost, sacrificing themselves on the slimmest of hopes to bring salvation to their poor, benighted brethren. After a hundred plus reviews, I believe I am on safe ground when I say that I have no problem with either evil, slimy corporate types, nor with gangsters with hearts of gold, but the racial profiling of this film is so blatant as to bring to mind some inverted version of those Stormfront recruitment films that portray minorities as an evil, collective tide of mongrolism out to defile virtuous white womanhood. And lest someone retort that Matt Damon, who is white, does not conform to this categorization, I'll simply mention that the movie takes great pains to ensure we know he was orphaned at a young age and raised by Hispanic nuns at a Hispanic orphanage, and that therefore his evil "whiteness" has been purged from him.

But even if we leave aside all of the polemic and all of the ham-fisted politics that are packed into this film, the movie is simply incompetently made on the most basic levels. Action sequences are slow and plodding, and rely on heavy usage of the dreaded shakey-cam, predictably ensuring that the audience can actually see none of the elaborate action and special effects that the filmmakers presumably spent so much time and money producing. The plot, taken on its own, makes no goddamn sense, relying as it does on a series of coincidences so absurd as to beggar belief. Our heroes just happen to select as their primary agent a man who just happens to have it out for a specific CEO who just happens to be involved in a society-shattering conspiracy with the evil defense minister of Elysium, the vital information for which he just happens to be carrying at the exact moment the heroes put their plan into action. Meanwhile, the robotic exoskeleton that Matt Damon is screwed (literally) into, the one that the trailers made such a big deal about, is such an afterthought in the film that I literally could not tell what the point of it was in the first place. Yes, Damon uses it a few times to perform feats of abnormal strength, but the vast majority of the combat takes place via gun or sword, neither of which the exoskeleton assists with, and Damon's body is so ravaged by radiation and injury that he never gets the signature "cool" moments that we were assured would attend such a momentous thing. The obligatory love interest (Alice Braga) plays no role in the film except to be menaced by the psychotic madman and saved by the virtuous hero, while her sick daughter (Emma Tremblay) manages to actually stand out as the worst child-performance I've seen in years, and I remember The Odd Life of Timothy Green just as vividly as I ever did. Her spontaneous decision to recite a children's tale laced with (say it with me) deep meaning to Damon will live on in my memory as a particular example of terrible execution of a terrible idea.

Final thoughts:   At the end of this movie (spoiler alert), when our heroes have reprogrammed Elysium's central mainframe to recognize all of Earth's denizens as citizens of the enclave, a mighty fleet of magic healing-tech-equipped ambulance shuttles disembarks from Elysium under automated control, and descends upon the earth, bearing hundreds and thousands of healing machines to cure the world of its ills. What the filmmaker seems to have forgotten, however, is that this means the people of Elysium constructed a vast fleet of magic ambulances capable of curing all illness and injury upon the planet, a fleet for which they themselves had no conceivable use (every home in Elysium has one of these magic healing beds in the front parlor), and then placed them, unused, in garages and kept them from the needy people of Earth for no reason except evil. Blomkamp has gone on record as declaring that his film is not science fiction, but "Today. Now." Accordingly, I am left with the conclusion that according to Blomkamp, the immigration debate consists of a handful of psychopathic evil white people who deny life-giving resources that exist in unlimited quantities to the virtuous and deserving people of the rest of the world for no reason. I'm no fan of US immigration policy, but permit me the indulgence of suggesting that the actual debate is a little more nuanced than that.

Yes, parable is a thing. Yes, exaggerating a problem so as to draw attention to it has a long and rich history. But there is a massive difference between exaggerating an existing problem and distorting it beyond all recognition while simplifying the causes and solutions of it down to "if only the white people weren't all so evil". Of course, Blomkamp's pedigree and the politically-correct target he chooses to demonize have earned him a free pass from most of the mainstream critics I consulted prior to writing this review, as the consensus seems to be that the "rightness" of Blomkamp's cause excuse all of the lies, vilifications, and general incompetence of the film itself. They can do as they would, but it has never been my policy to give films free passes for merely having taken my side on a contentious issue. Elysium is an unmitigated disaster on nearly every level, one which, were the group being targeted anyone else, would certainly destroy the career of the man responsible. And Blomkamp's earnestness does not excuse either his incompetence nor his manifest ignorance of a subject he has the unabashed gall to presume he has "addressed" in some holistic manner.

I complained to a friend of mine recently that this year's crop of movies were a dull and mediocre lot compared to last year's, having offered neither spectacular films of staggering genius, nor truly epochal disasters of cataclysmic proportions. So much for that.

Final Score:  2.5/10

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