Elysium – Blockbuster or Catastrophe? (SPOILERS ALERT)

So What is a Blockbuster Anyway?

In my opinion the definition of a blockbuster has shifted a bit.  In the days of Jaws (arguably the first real blockbuster), we had spectacle, story, performance, and entertainment.  Now blockbusters seem to be an array of summer movies that all look and sound the same(Transformers comes to mind).  While I have to admit that as a digital artist the craftsmanship and level of quality in the post production on these projects are nothing short of incredible, I am still left wishing for a more complete, character driven, relevant and complex filmmaking experience from our modern day blockbusters.

Let me start this post under the disclaimer that Neill Blomkamp happens to be a personal hero of mine.  I feel as though he has accomplished what many VFX people want to do, which is to come from VFX and become a Hollywood director, while still making socially and politically relevant content.  (Like this awesome dude who put together this short for a future feature – NOON)  Blomkamp also did this astonishingly well with his short films, and then eventually with District 9.  If you like Sci-fi and haven’t seen District 9, I highly recommend it.

So naturally, being the huge Blomkamp fan that I am, I was very eager and excited for his new film Elysium. Especially after hearing about the premise of using a visual metaphor for the wealth disparity that exists across the globe.  Early on I suspected that this story would be very difficult to do right.  It is a big story, about a global issue, and creating something like this runs the risk of coming off extremely preachy, pretentious, or even miss-understood.  Unfortunately in my humble opinion, Elysium falls under all three.

Get Off Your Soapbox JJ

I don’t really classify myself as a socialist, nor do I pretend to know all there is to know about different philosophical ways of governing.  But I do consider myself politically active, and with the NSA surveillance leaks,  whistleblower persecution, unregulated drone warfare, NDAA indefinite detention, OWS, and a number of other newsworthy bits to come out in the last couple years, people are trusting the government and our elected officials less and less.  Elections are dog and pony shows.  Quelling dissent and filtering money to the upper 1% while the rest of the world becomes a slave to debt is not really a partisan issue.  People should be held accountable for their actions. Whether it is just the average joe who messed up, or the bigwig CEO of a huge multinational bank that aids in crippling the economy with bad investments and approving other crony capitalist measures. It is a human issue and although people differ on the hows, most people I’ve met certainly want many of the same things, despite the media’s best efforts to divide us.  So now that I’ve bored you to tears, and you probably aren’t reading anymore, back to Elysium, the biggest missed opportunity of the summer. A science fiction film with the potential to talk about some real issues.

Style Over Substance

There is a brazen reality that Blomkamp tends to put in his films.  They all tend to lean in a cinematic documentary kind of style.  We’ve all seen it before.  That Friday Night Lights, handheld, edgy look that if done poorly ends up as a cliché.  Many films emulate this style now, and using this kind of style with heavy VFX can really make it feel real, even if the VFX isn’t of the highest standards.  Coupling this visual style with the content of the film seems like a natural choice, and right from the get go the film really plays to it’s strengths.  It’s gritty.  It has a cool dystopian socio-political landscape.  It has all the makings of a very cool idea.  The cast was outstanding.  The production design was clearly looking great.  So what in the world went wrong?  Well for starters, here is a short list of things I think ultimately hurt this film:

•  Underusing/Miss-Using Performances.  I mean come on, you’ve got Jodie Foster and Matt Damon.  Give them something to work with here.

•  1 Dimensional Characters.  Whether this was due to the script or to the direction, the incredibly 1 sided cast creates an insanely naive view on the world and even on the wealthy.  I’d go so far to say that it shows socialism in a negative light, which runs contrary to the film’s agenda, to imply that everyone should have access to greater good services like health care.

• Practical Sci-fi physics that simply don’t make sense. Like a spinning torus in space that has an open atmosphere, or sound in space. The film Gravity, due to come out later this year, appears to be handling the reality of space in a much more realistic manner. Which adds a great deal of tension to the storytelling. I understand it’s a blockbuster, but I think I just expected more nuance from Blomkamp.

• Effectively nullifying Jodie Foster’s role completely by making Sharlto Copley the primary villain/obstacle. It transitioned from being a smart action flick to a mindless action flick. I can totally get behind a mindless action flick, but when the tone of a movie is set, consistency becomes very important. I love the idea of showing the kinds of technology we will have in the future, but story comes first.

• The entire plot hinges on the concept of a button push that would solve all the worlds problems. To think that all we have to do to get free health care is upload a virus that rewrites the “Administrator”. It seems like a completely ridiculous notion to me.

• The B-plot of the love story could have had a lot more weight, which could have connected Damon more with his character struggle, and even made the stakes much higher. The parallels to District 9 are quite revealing when you think of the two main characters. Unfortunately District 9 balanced the story, tension, and character much better than Elysium.

These are just a few things that really bothered me about the film. Elysium still looks and sounds great. It has some great action moments and has an interesting perspective on the world of the future with corporations run rampant. I personally think Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a much better job at presenting this, even if the ending isn’t without it’s own set problems. Ultimately Elysium ends up being exactly what I feared. A shallow Sci-fi picture book with very little heart, very little mind, and a whole lot of spirit.

If you got this far thanks for reading and as always these are merely my opinion of the film. I’ve got some other great links below for more commentary on Elysium. If you saw the movie, what did you think? Was it preachy? Was it dumbed down on purpose?


Some Great Articles on Elysium

The Dissolve – Elysium is Just a Bigger, Broader, Dumber District 9

Jacobin – Elysium: Just Flip The Switch

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