Three years ago, I would have told you Neill Blomkamp understood a thing or two about good science fiction. Like true scientific study, good science fiction is a process of inquiry, of probing the social, political or cultural present to speculate how the future might look and feel. Blomkamp’s break-out hit, District 9, plunged into the intractable problems of racism and immigration, and although a bit boisterous (read: “explodey”) at times, District 9 actually had something to say – a rare quality for a film in the age of Ultron, or whichever other copy-and-paste villain currently threatens humanity.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I first saw the trailer for Blomkamp’s latest movie, Elysium.
I was convinced this director would deliver a heady parable about class disparity, replete with spaceships and Jodie Foster’s NASA-approved haircut. I told myself this would be the last, and perhaps only, great film of the otherwise disappointing 2013 summer blockbuster season.
Sadly, sometimes we tell ourselves the greatest fictions.
The film, set in 2154, presents the future earth as a rotting, dystopian, urban sprawl. Luckily, all the rich white people have traded in their Land Rovers for Lunar Rovers and now send their brats to private colleges on the idyllic, eponymous Elysium space station. Back on Earth, however, the thronging masses of vaguely ethnic, brownish people live in abject poverty and suffer from all kinds of terminal illnesses that the people on Elysium clearly have the technology to cure in their magic, cancer-curing medbays. This is all established within the opening 10 minutes of the film. But, 10 minutes is all it takes to realize that Blomkamp has no patience for the nuance of class disparity, and instead prefers to deliver class warfare.
The film’s aforementioned demographics are the first hint to Elysium’s cynical oversimplification of complicated social issues: the indifferent, wealthy residents of Elysium are almost all white and everyone on Earth is not, save for Matt Damon. I have no doubt that a similar imbalance truly exists in America and abroad, but Elysium’s stubborn, monochromatic lens treats any actual economic injustice with the sincerity of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Of course, the film’s characters do little to alleviate the cartoonishness. Matt Damon tries to bring his specialty – easy charm mixed with bewildered desperation – to protagonist Max De Costa, but he’s simply been brought in to play Hollywood’s requisite white savior, rescuing the feckless, undifferentiated ethnic groups from their own impotence.
For a writer/director whose last film served as a warning against stereotyping, Blomkamp certainly relies on a lot of lazy stereotypes in Elysium: Alice Braga, continuing to be underappreciated by screenwriters and directors, plays the damsel in distress. Sharlto Copely plays an unhinged paramilitary agent because crazy seems easier than giving the character actual motivations. Jodie Foster, as Defense Secretary Delacourt, plays some version of Hillary Clinton from a Republican nightmare: all pant suit, treachery, and distracting French accent. Each actor attacks the script with admirable gusto and professionalism, but the script clearly lacks the raw material to transmute into memorable characters.
Rather, Blomkamp invests his efforts in making sure his film matches the sound and fury signifying nothing that has attenuated nearly every other blockbuster this summer. After two feature-length films, I think we can put any “visionary director” superlatives on hold, unless that “vision” refers to exploding bodies and the futuristic super weapons that cause those bodies to burst. Even more so than District 9, Elysium appears to be Blomkamp’s excuse to explore the fragility of the human body. If good science fiction probes the tenuousness of reality, Elysium’s (and in retrospect, District 9’s) science fiction wishes instead to probe the tenuousness of corporeality. Blomkamp luxuriates in dissolving bodies and erupting gore with fetishistic glee.
True, Elysium’s body count does not rival the average slasher film, but few of those films celebrate wanton mortality as deliberately as Elysium.
At its best, science fiction plucks the strings of reality and reveals new perspectives in the resulting vibrations. At its worst, science fiction pretends that bigger guns and louder explosions are imaginative. Indeed, if Blomkamp’s violence had been delivered as a symptom of Elysium’s social sickness, I’m not sure I’d object to his film as much as I did. Instead, like every other major studio film this summer, violence becomes the tonic. Bad alien? Punch him harder. Mean drug dealer? Shoot him deader. Widening wage imbalance and decreasing standard of living? Turn Matt Damon into a crusading Darth Vader so he can pull the heads off more evil robots.
If you’re confused as to how that helps endemic socioeconomic imbalance, you’re in good company: so is Elysium.