Wednesday, August 28, 2013

'Elysium' (2013) directed by Neill Blomkamp

Finally a genuinely lefty action flick!  Elysium is an unapologetically blunt political allegory, designed from the ground up to showcase inequality, cruelty and economic enslavement.  But the politics are just the jam stuffed deep inside a delicious cinematic doughnut.  The dough surrounding this tasty socialist jam is a visceral science fiction survival story with astonishing special effects, cool as hell future technology and several great performances.

The world of Elysium literalises the gap between the rich and poor.  By 2154 the Earth is irreparably fucked up: a blasted dust bowl crammed with makeshift shanty-town housing as far as the eye can see.  Everything is slightly busted and makeshift, everyone is dirty and run down and ruthless robot police officers patrol the streets dishing out bone-breaking violence at random.  And overhead, tantalisingly hanging in the sky is Elysium.  

Elysium is space station as gated community: the ultimate playground of the elite.  It's a world of white mansions, impeccably maintained lawns and palm trees.  The citizens live in peace, security and have every comfort attended to.  Every citizen has access to 'Med-Pods', devices that can not only cure almost any disease or injury, they seem to render the user effectively immortal by eliminating all effects of aging.

Seize the means of production Max!  Rip off that counter-revolutionary robot's head!
Our hero in this world divided is Max (Matt Damon).  We meet him as a blue collar worker eking out his days in an industrial factory.  A malfunction on his production line causes his boss to order him, against his protestations, into a chamber where he's blasted with a lethal dose of radiation.  He'll be dead in five days and no-one cares.  Max, desperate to stay alive at all costs, signs up for what sounds like a suicide mission, getting a clunky robotic exoskeleton bolted directly into his bones and nervous system.  His reward is to be smuggled onto Elysium, where he can try to get access to a Med-Pod to cure his radiation poisoning.

Pitted against him are innumerable obstacles, the most notable being the mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley).  Like Max, Kruger has been augmented a robotic exoskeleton.  Unlike Max, Kruger is utterly insane, sadistic and almost impossible to kill.  Pulling his strings is the Defence Minister for Elysium, Delacourt (Jodie Foster).  She's a twisted science fiction Thatcher analogue; politically manipulative, fuelled by xenophobia and prepared to commit atrocities for what she feels is the greater good.

Space Thatcher is about as much fun as Real Thatcher.  Though with a bit more of a satisfying end.
Blomkamp's style, high octane gory action mixed with socially conscious political commentary, makes him pretty unique as a modern action director.  Mainstream movies tend to be consciously apolitical, a decision that generally results in unconsciously conservatively minded entertainment.  To see someone pushing back against this and unashamedly telling what amounts to a parable with an intended reading is refreshing and gives credence to my theory that Blomkamp is the thematic and stylistic heir to Paul Verhoeven.

What he understands perfectly is that it takes striking imagery and ideas to jolt an audience out of its comfortable view of the world.  If District 9 had been about human refugees, nobody would have given a shit.  Make them aliens and before we know it we're placed in a thought experiment, the irresistible narrative conclusion being that humanity has behaved monstrously towards the desperate, the scared and the victimised.  Blomkamp isn't exactly subtle about his messaging, but that's not a bad thing.  Sometimes you need to beat an audience over the head with a blatant message just to ensure that everyone gets it.

Elysium's world divided invites us to take sides, specifically the side of the scrappy underdogs of earth.  Our heroes are from the squalid remains of the planet, and our refugee murdering quasi fascist capitalist baddies live up on Elysium - and if you're sympathising with them then there's probably no reaching you.  We feel immediately linked to the downtrodden Earthlings throughout the film, yet you only have to think for a moment about the situation to realise that in reality, living in a developed West, we are the pampered residents of Elysium.

Sharlto Copley as the bonkers Kruger.  Best villain in a while.
Much drama in the film relates to access to healthcare.  Elysium has its Med-Pods, while those on Earth have to struggle with underfunded, chaotic healthcare that can only treat symptoms rather than causes.  Many of the Earth-based characters are desperate to use these Med-Pods to cure diseases and injuries in their children, and the Elysians seem impossibly cold-hearted by refusing to share the technology.  On a surface reading this makes the Elysians seem callous and cold-hearted in refusing to share their technology - a factor critics of the film cite as a reason they can't buy into this world.

But on with a bit more consideration, what Elysium shows us is a near perfect reflection of what is happening right now in the real world.  I began thinking of Elysium in relation to the excellent documentary Fire in the Blood (review).   Fire in the Blood is about the supply of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) to African countries.  In a nutshell: these ARVs cost pennies to produce, yet are under patent, so drug companies can set the prices.  In order to maintain profits in lucrative Western markets, the drug companies sell them at prices unrealistic for an African AIDS sufferer to afford.  So, people die off for no reason.  The technology is there, yet the use of it is restricted only to the rich.

The wrinkle here is that this places us in the rather uncomfortable position of identifying with the residents of Elysium, coldly staring down at the huddled masses.  The earth scenes borrow the aesthetics of Africa, the Middle East and Central America - real-life areas replete with slums, with miserable people desperate for access to healthcare and with industry devoted to exploiting local workers labour and safety to provide a cosseted experience for those at the top.  In Elysium, we're the villains.

Get him Ma(r)x!
None of us feel like villains as we go about our day to day lives, yet every moment we tap away on an iPad or slip on some clothes from the GAP or Primark we're participating in the exact system of miserable exploitation that we instinctively condemn in Elysium.  It's important to understand that what Blomkamp excels at isn't showing human cruelty, but human apathy.  Elysium is a rewarding examination of how society allows cruelty and suffering when people who consider themselves 'normal' stop caring about the other people 'over there', be it in the real-life Third World or the fictional Elysium.

Elysium is a film confident in its politics, contains some very exciting action sequences and top notch production design.  Sharlto Copley stands out as a genuinely barmy and deranged counterpart to our hero, and Matt Damon, stoic, miserable and in constant pain makes for a fine hero against him.  Unfortunately, much at odds with the rest of the film, there's a terribly mawkish sick kid who provides much of impetus for our leads.  I don't mind a film being openly manipulative, but frankly there are limits.  This character, coupled with some repetitive and artless flashback sequences are the only flies in the ointment of a film that is simultaneously uplifting and depressing.  

Uplifting because it proves that modern, mainstream cinema can have a social conscience and make confident political statements without feeling neutered.  Depressing because the screwed world of Elysium, initially so high concept and far-fetched, is a skewed yet painfully accurate reflection of our own.

Elysium is on general release now

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