What is it about the science fiction genre that inspires filmmakers to explore social issues?
Is because of how keenly the genre is based on our history? Or our cultures? Does the genre allow its filmmakers the tools that empower their imaginations? Are filmmakers able to paint their metaphors more broadly with science fiction? Who knows, all I know is that some of the best movies ever made that something to say about social issues tend to be sci/fi films. I can't begin to tell you why they register in that way, or why certain other genres do not show their commentary as broadly as science fiction does.
Neil Blomkamp is a very good filmmaker and will probably the next big face of science fiction filmmaking. I remember a few years back that he was the front-runner for a live-action "Halo" movie, and when production on that movie fell flat, Blomkamp got frustrated. That frustration turned into "District 9," arguably one of the best science fiction movies in years. Not only is "District 9" great sci/fi, but it really taps into Blomkamp's own personal experience in South Africa, and what he took away from it. Blomkamp had something very specific to say about class struggle and apartheid, and it is represented beautifully in his film debut.
I feel as if "Elysium," Blomkamp's new film, is his own personal experience living in Los Angeles. Blomkamp got a much bigger budget for this second movie, so there are many more recognizable faces. The special effects are prettier to look at and the movie also features more social commentary than you would want to throw a stick at. Does any of that make the movie better? Well, let's go ahead and get into that.
In the year 2154, the entire 1% will move to the stars to a space station called Elysium. Elysium is a perfect Utopia, where there is no disease, no war, nothing negative whatsoever. While the rich and privileged live it up in Elysium, the 99% is left in the crumbling Earth. We follow Max (Matt Damon), a former criminal who works in a factory, building police robots that watch over Earth's inhabitants. After a bad day at work, Max gets radiation sickness, and is told he has five days left to live. Desperate, he enlists the help of an old business partner Spider (Wagner Moura) to get to Elysium. But he has to get passed Elysium's unapologetic government minister Jessica Delacourt (Jodi Foster), who is willing to do everything to keep the poor out of Elysium.
I will say this about the movie, it's a big, aggressively told, action-packed, science fiction film. Blomkamp has a real talent for creating iconic, Dystopian landscapes. The Earth in this movie is sweaty, nasty and disgusting looking and the costumes, robots other sci/fi eye candy is instantly memorable. The music by Ryan Amon matches each scene almost perfectly, and really fleshes out the mood and atmosphere of each scene. Blomkamp is working with several geeky fetishes which makes "Elysium" more fun to watch. I don't know how you folks feel about Matt Damon, but he came to work during this production schedule. We knew he could be an action hero due to the "Bourne" series, but he brings a certain charm to Max that I did not know existed. Sharlto Copley (who you will remember as Wikus from "District 9") plays Kruger, a vicious bulldog of a mercenary who works for Delacourt. Copley once again nearly steals the show, creating a disturbing, malicious figure.
However, "Elysium" is in such a big hurry that we barely understand Kruger as a character. As cool as Kruger is with his awesome laser-shield or how well he swings his samurai sword (see what I mean by geeky fetishes?), his character is so all-over-the-place that it's almost baffling. If the film took the time to flesh him out more, the sudden character changes could have really made sense. Yet there are a couple instances that we begin to scratch our heads at some of Kruger's decisions and motivations. Alice Braga, a very good actress, plays Fey. Fey is Max's childhood friend and a nurse on Earth. Fey has a daughter with leukemia, so her need to get to Elysium is very demanding as well. Sadly, how she gets pushed into Max's story-line is rather distracting. An editor could take out her character entirely and the movie would have still ended the exact same way. She is more of a plot convenience than anything else.
The rest of the performances range of good to okay. Jodi Foster is very much on the "okay" side of things. She creates a very strange accent for her character and sometimes, it is hilariously distracting, a very odd touch I'd say. William Fichtner shows up John Carlyle, an Elysium resident who owns the company Max works for. He spends the entire movie talking like a robot, is his character a robot? It is never explained, but it felt very bizarre. Wagner Moura's Spider is an interesting character, and I think Moura does a splendid job bringing the character to life.
The best science fiction movies are very subtle about their social commentary. That is what makes most of them so interesting to watch. I would say Blomkamp's "District 9" was mildly subtle, but "Elysium" has lost that subtlety completely. It also doesn't help that Blomkamp has shoehorned a comment on about every current, hot, political topic. Class warfare is a glaring example, Elysium is in outer space and belongs to the rich, while Earth belongs to the poor. So the rich tower over the poor just like in real life (get it!). Blomkamp also apparently has illegal immigration on his mind. As many poor people jam themselves into spacecrafts to make a run to Elysium, Delacourt shoots those spacecrafts right out of the sky. She also can't help but refer to them as illegals! He-he! There are also not one but TWO cute children with horrible illnesses, which I guess are there so Blomkamp can help us think about our current healthcare crisis. There is absolutely nothing subtle about any of this, nor does it seem like Blomkamp has anything to say about any of these issues. What the best science fiction films also do is give the audience something to debate and think about. All "Elysium" does it take its issues and knock them over the audience's head. There is nothing to really discuss when the issues are not only highlighted, but circled and underlined twice in red, with no weight or influence on the movie's story. They seem to just exist in the movie simply to exist.
Despite the messy script, a couple strange character choices, and a hyperactive pacing issue, "Elysium" is still a pretty good movie. It just hurts because I expected this to blow my nuts off. Damon and Copley are both very good, and the imagery, action sequences and cinematography are all top-notch. I just wish Blomkamp was not in such a rush for the movie to end, and I wish he actually had something to say about the social issues he brings up, rather than treating them like footnotes. I hope Blomkamp can work from this experience, and that his next movie flattens all of us. I surely hope he does not become a corporate Hollywood tool and begins making franchise garbage. Let's keep our hands off of Blomkamp, I am sure with patience he will make another memorable hit.
FINAL GRADE: B