Sunday, August 11, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. 2013.


I entered the theater late. I'm sorry, but it happens every so often. In the opening scene, a rock band performs in a stadium as a riot rages outside. As partiers revel inside, a young boy witnesses a mounted policeman lynch one of the protestors and, enraged, pelts the officer who chases after him. Perhaps it is because I was late and not yet settled, but I was taken aback at the sight. I felt perhaps that the heedless rock and rollers mimicked me as I watched the movie. Was I ignorant of or indifferent to some terrible crime on my doorstep?

Alas, dear reader, this is not the plot of Elysium. (And I did not arrive late.) What I watched and have just described the trailer to the new Metallica album which preceded the feature. What I watched and described is also and in every single way, superior to Elysium, which is the 68th and most catastrophically derailed movie I've reviewed.

Elysium's most notable feature is its tedium. In fact, my mind stretches simply to recall what happened. The tedium is the result of several factors. First, we know the story is going to end up on the space station, and as such the script needed to do everything possible to make us forget that up until the characters actually got there. At a minimum it needed to build a cast of interesting characters whom we could like or dislike, it needed to seed tension between them, and it needed interim goals for which they could strive. Second, the script needed to paint a world of rules, not just situations. Third, the plot details needed to make sense. Let's look at these problems in turn.

I. Characters

Matt Damon is a convincing everyman. Here he's fine and good as Max, a cleaned up ex-con who suffers an accident at work which gives him a few days to live. But even if I assent to the idea that he has the right to trespass on Elysium and utilize their private resources, how am I supposed to wade through all of these the half-baked considerations and identify with the character:

Up until the last moments, Max is only trying to save himself. At the end, though, and without any words or indications of any kind, he decides not only to try and save others but to sacrifice himself. Why did he try and save the girl? Moreover, why did he change his mind about saving her, having formerly led the authorities to her house just to save himself? As far as saving others goes, was he trying to save everyone else too and did he think he did? If so, why? Concerning himself, even if he healed himself on Elysium, what did he think was going to happen when he landed on a space station where the people in charge clearly had no qualms about killing intruders? Even if he would go to jail, he had said he never wanted to go back to jail.

The only other main character who receives any, well, characterization is Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who seems to be in charge of defending Elysium against the immigrants who try to fly in. She reveals her only motivation when, questioned by an inquisitorial board for torpedoing several incoming vessels of immigrants, she replies that she wants to preserve it for the children. That's it? Is this a joke? She then wants to orchestrate a coup to gain control over the board, which she deems too soft on immigration, by some chicanery with Elysium's computer systems. I guess everyone on Elysium wouldn't know, or wouldn't care? Does the computer decide who is president or was there an election imminent? Is the office of president permanent? What is Elysium's actual immigration policy and government? Delacourt was rebuked by the board, so she's apparently at odds with someone.

Are we supposed to infer ideological tension from two people with completely incomprehensible motivations?

II. Tension

Even though their ideologies don't compete as one might expect, perhaps there could have been some situational tension between them. Unfortunately, they never meet in the movie. So yeah. . . Instead, Max's nemesis is a psychotic agent whom Delacourt illegally used to hunt him down. Before continuing, though, isn't it well known that it's very hard to control psychotic people? Delacourt knows the guy's record and uses him anyway, so I guess she thought he'd listen, a fact of which she was so convinced that she, unwisely, walked up behind and started badgering him. Smart move! Anyway, the guy's nuts so he doesn't have any relevant motives. (Hence his absence in Part I above.) As a result, he's not so much a source of tension as the annoying guy in the way whom we know will get defeated. Thus, there's no tension.

Is there tension between Max and the guy carrying the data Max needs? No, that guy has almost no lines. How about between Max and the woman he inexplicably loves? Nope. She asks him to save her daughter, and he says no and leaves. Then he changes his mind later, maybe. Between Max and his partner? No. Between Max and the black market kingpin who hires him for the data heist? Nope. That guy never kills Max because Max has the data, and then he inexplicably decides to give the data away at the end anyway.

Are you starting to sense how these problems pile up into a big mess?

III. Interim Goals

There is simply not enough diverse activity leading up to the finale. Max's injury sets up a countdown of five days, after which he'll die. The script needed a bunch of small steps for Max leading up to arriving on Elysium. Instead, he gets the data and is captured and brought there in several short sequential scenes which just sort of list into one another, making the film both long and uneventful. This is not illogical, but it is dreadfully unsatisfying.

IV. Rules, not Situations

I'm struggling to find out just what's caused Earth's woes in this movie. The prologue tells us the planet is polluted and overcrowded. Somehow that has thrust everyone into poverty. Is there also an economic depression? Where's the connection? What happened? Why aren't there just tens of thousands of skyscrapers, or people living on the sea? Does the writer not realize how preposterous the notion is that the entire planet is out of room? Wouldn't anyone think to pool land and try to improve it? There are clearly police and there's no apparent disorder, so it's feasible. Perhaps there is no property? Are the people actually slaves or do they get paid? Somebody's getting paid because the factory owner says he's losing money, which means he's paying someone for labor or material. Can't the people buy things? Wouldn't that make an economy? Or do they import things from Elysium? Those planet-side clearly have skills. Can't they use their skills to benefit themselves in some way? They can evidently build spaceships.

On the Elysium side, who built this thing? The people on the planet? Again, did they get paid? Who makes all of their stuff? Where do they get their resources? Doesn't anyone work for the people on Elysium? Wouldn't that make a class system on Elysium too?

Are we really just supposed to put all of these questions aside?

And for what would we put them aside, anyway? A guy with radiation poisoning, battling a sword-wielding psychopath by means of a pneumatic exoskeleton? For completely incomprehensible and impossible uses of technology, especially the obviously-misunderstood process of encryption? For Jodie Foster's continuously changing accent, and occasionally moving upper lip? For somebody shooting down an orbiting spaceship with a shoulder-mounted rocket?

For a farcical ending in which a computer program simply "makes everyone a citizen of Elysium," a preposterous solution which ends with flights of robotic doctors heading down to the planet? Even if Elysium had the resources to heal the whole planet, what about the overpopulation? What about the apparent economic collapse? Let's just pretend Elysium didn't exist and all of its people were back on the planet: what would that solve?

We also ought to note the peculiar lack of dialogue in this movie, which as one might imagine makes it quite difficult to know what they're thinking. So we don't. In fact, it's completely incomprehensible that anyone had the audacity to film a script so inept at establishing character, tone, tension, and context that its product is offensively tedious to the moviegoer. The only noteworthy question Elysium provokes is whether the yawning gulfs in comprehensibility originate in the writer-director's conception of reality or execution of fantasy.

Read our follow-up: Elysium Revisited

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