Saturday, August 10, 2013

Everybody wants to [destroy] the world, part 3


Roughly equivalent in tone, quality, action content, scientific fidelity, and thematic subtlety to the average late-run Gundam Wing episode, and slightly less good at framing, editing, and voice acting.

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp
With Matt Damon (Max), Jodie Foster (Delacourt), Sharlto Copley (Kruger), Alice Braga (Frey), William Fichtner (Carlyle), Wagner Moura (Spider)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Part 3 of 3 in a look back at 2013's films of the cursed Earth; Part 1: Oblivion and Part 2: After Earth here and there respectively.


The rich have fled the Earth and headed to the space habitat Elysium, but our hero Max is a poor ex-con factory worker left behind on our ruined planet, which means, amongst other things, that it is simply impossible for him to clean his room.

Factory work is usually divided into pec, ab, and arm shifts.

Elysium is, as you might imagine, an annoyingly insistent fable about the increasingly apocalyptic maldistribution of wealth on this planet today.  It lacks in nuance, by suggesting that the poor are denied a clean environment, food, medical care, and jobs, out of deliberate spite by the rich; almost paradoxically, it lacks in power, because Max is just a politically semi-conscious schlub in a robot suit whose heroic actions are either selfish, entirely accidental, or both.

The film opens extremely promisingly; the premise is hardly novel, but it seems like it's been a while since an American production has explored the high frontier.  A mirage of genuine futurism beckons, with dizzying visions of solar power satellites, lunar resource extraction, and physically plausible space colonies.

It's not often we see such on film, and we don't see such in Elysium either.  Blomkamp is content—complacent—to merely appropriate the iconic image of the Stanford Torus (so much more aesthetically pleasing than the cylindrical O'Neill Island Three, don't you agree?) and to terrifyingly misinterpret what it would actually need to look and be like.  It's actually more like a Bishop ring, though it isn't nearly as large enough to do what it does.  And it's not even at a Goddamned Lagrange point.  I think it's in a geosynchronous orbit, given the distances quoted in the film.

Though this hard SF cocktease bothers me (and likely me alone), it doesn't matter.  The rich could live in a skyscraper and, a find-and-replace later, the script would probably be more coherent.  The real driving idea behind Elysium is not the physical separation of the rich spacers from the earthling scum, but a miraculous medical technology, a rejuvenation bed called (ingeniously) a "medical center," that permits Elysian citizens to live forever and to heal virtually any illness or injury within moments.  It seems incapable only of speech therapy.

It is for this that those shut out of the sky forever dream of reaching Elysium.  That's fair enough, but apparently by the year A.C. 195 space travel is so cheap and prevalent that even the most unwashed of the masses can just fly whole tour groups full of poors there, with little more expense, preparation and logistical train than Caribbean boat people require to reach the U.S.  Sure, building a raft to go sixty miles, overcoming Earth's gravity well, it's all basically the same.

"Do you think it's cheap to go to Elysium?  It costs at least $300."

Elysium's gated community in the sky is guarded by its Minister of Defense, the hard-nosed, dirty-pool, build-a-wall fascist Delacourt.  Jodie Foster basically reprises her character from Inside Man, except instead of any ethical shading or a sense of fun, or even professionalism, she has a space accent.  That worked out so well in our last part.

Despite the slightly more liberal oversight of her political bosses, Delacourt does not hesitate to shoot intruders out of the sky.  I was perturbed by this when she did.  Not because it's cruel, but because it's a bit short-sighted to blow up a spaceship heading directly toward your space colony.  If you think interning and deporting/executing a few unwanted immigrants when they arrive in your docking bay is a headache, try dealing with ten thousand shards of metal that are still traveling at you at 10km/sec.

Did I say docking bay?  Never mind!  One of the ships does avoid being exploded and just touches right down on Elysium's inner surface.  Like I said, Bishop ring, though I daresay not a very well designed one.

Artist's rendering of a Stanford torus.  Note: roof.

I was also questioning why no one has ever just loaded up a few of these shuttles with explosives and created a swarm of highly effective and powerful ASAT missiles, given that Elysium is apparently totally defenseless (the missiles that took down the refugee shuttles actually came from Earth, because hey-what-the-fuck).  There's kind of a reason that today we strictly control spaceflight, and the Koch Brothers, Bill Gates and the cancer guy from Contact aren't even living there yet.  But again, space does not matter in this movie about a space colony.

Max needs to get to Elysium soon.  Darwinian capitalism has run rampant and an easily avoidable industrial accident leaves him striped with ionizing radiation that will kill him within five days.  Take the movie's word for this, as the predicted "organ failure" is more like a time bomb, and as long as he takes painkillers and latches an exoskeleton onto his frame, the degenerative and debilitating illness that radiation poisoning actually is will not become apparent until, I suppose, his face melts off Raiders-style

In any event, Max agrees to work with the Virgin Galactic Gang in exchange for passage to Elysium and a fake citizenship brand (they have machines that can replicate and repair DNA throughout the body, perfectly and in an instant, but rely on Mark of the Beast cattle brands to ascertain identity, because hey-what-the-fuck).

Max' job is a simple one as far as science fiction goes: he is tasked to kidnap a space billionaire, the always-good-to-see William Fichtner, who is visiting Earth (because the space Internet was out I guess, or possibly hey-what-the-fuck) and steal his data.  They nab him, then ghost dive his cyberbrain to retrieve his credit card number.  What they actually get is even more precious: a secret coup d'├ętat program he's developed for Delacourt that can grant control over all Elysium's systems, including the armed robots that make up the bulk of its police force (bad idea in any universe), to her—or, rather, to whomever controls the code.

Obviously, then, intrigue ensues, and Max is chased from Earth to space for the data in his head, by the hoodlums, by Delacourt, and by her totally trustworthy attack dog, the needlessly slimy Kruger (hey, I recognized Sharlto Copley this time!).

It may seem that I've focused on piddly science and engineering errors here.  I focus on them because they are piddly: if you can't get fifth-grade shit like an enclosed habitat right, how likely are you to get the big stuff right, when it requires so much more deftness to handle?  I'm not saying Blomkamp needed a world that was a reasonable extrapolation from ours.  In the broadest strokes, Elysium's world is scarily reasonable.

But it didn't even have to be anything like reasonable; Oblivion's premise does not make much sense (the Tet can't figure out what the ID4 aliens already knew, that the Earth is round and thick, and use a ring of comm satellites to maintain constant contact with its ground crew?), yet it's a fine film.  There are many, many, many sci-fi movies that do not hold up to extreme scrutiny, yet are good.

It did need to be immersive, and that takes either strict attention to technical detail, ala 2001, or indeed any given Clarke novel though his characters were far more interesting than he's generally given credit for, or it takes truly compelling circumstances, ala Moon, Oblivion, Inception, The Prestige, Soylent Green, etc.  A steady fucking camera helps too.

Andrew Niccol, in his competent days, wrote some fine left-leaning speculative fiction with serious problems inherent to his speculation, like a corporation adopting a child to work for them for no money (the science fiction in The Truman Show is not a giant dome with cameras in it, but that there is no Thirteenth Amendment), or like DNA having nothing to with intelligence (how can a genuine rocket scientist like Vincent Freeman be in any sense "Invalid" in Gattaca?).  But Elysium could have been written by a latterday Niccol; the movie has a lot more in common with his rather bad film In Time than it does his other dystopias.

Elysium also uses eternal life as a metaphor for the ongoing class war, and it was a metaphor with legs in both films, but it ultimately failed there, and here it is only scarcely better-conceived.  Like with In Time, the minute you can shut out one doubt you have about this fictional world, another two are raised.  The entire edifice begins to fall apart rapidly and nothing about the characters or the story is interesting enough to hold it together

It's often a good thing that a science fiction film makes you ask questions about how its universe works, but it is rather a pretty bad sign when you start asking those questions while the movie's running. To further my theme, in not so brief:

  • How is it that robots can handle extremely open-ended functions like crowd control, or parole violations, or identifying sarcasm, but cannot perform routinized tasks, like building other robots, or at least loading pallets?
  • What kind of trade is supposed to be occurring between Elysium and Earth that amassing fortunes on Earth even matters?
  • Why can't the medical centers that can heal anything be mass-produced on Earth?  Wouldn't it be easier to figure out how they worked and build them, than it would be to inject refugees into orbit so they can run around and break into people's houses to use theirs?  Do the medical centers run on Space Magic?
  • If you don't want poor people to use your medical centers, why don't you password protect them? 
  • Seriously, the medical centers are cool to watch work, but they're kind of bullshit, aren't they?
  • If space travel is so easy why is Elysium the only colony?
  • If the massive energy required for space travel is so cheap doesn't that imply cheap energy for other purposes?
  • If Elysium has "suburban areas" does it have "urban areas," and what does that even mean in the context of a space colony?
  • Why does the MNU permit gangsters to live in District 9 and buy alien guns?  Oops!  Wrong movie!
  • So anyway, how big is Elysium again?

5km or so across?

Or 200km? It doesn't matter.

Sure, okay: the part with the robot parole officer is pretty darned funny.  It's about ten minutes in and it's about the last really good joke.  This is no comedy, but humor is one way to engage the audience with the characters, and Blomkamp kind of gives up very early on, and is too sparing with any comic relief thereafter.

Elysium could theoretically be enjoyed on a visceral level.  As a run-and-gun actioner, it has all the Unreal gunplay and enough of the ultraviolence you'd expect from Blomkamp, and it's entertaining enough to follow in that regard, if not shot much to my personal liking—your mileage may very well vary.

Remember how much everybody loved Whiplash in Iron Man 2?  It's about an hour of that, in shakycam.

As production design porn, of which I am on record as a fan, Elysium got me hard only occasionally.  Elysium itself, though a bit poorly conceived and preposterously composited, could nonetheless be pretty beautiful.  I liked the touch, early on, of the Elysian woman taking to her medical center—not for healing, but for cosmetic surgery, and coming out with an entirely different body.  It underlines another key flaw in the film, which is that the slums of 22nd century Aztlan, despite its ultra-passe but competently-achieved lived-in-Blade Runner-used-future-whatever aesthetic, are not really very visually or conceptually interesting compared to the look and culture of a damned space colony.  But where do we spend all our time?  Look, I certainly don't need to pay $10.50 to see a succession of crappy apartments.  I can do that for free.

Elysium is thus a mediocrity all-around as a science fiction film.  Its science is suspect, its speculation is undercooked, its audiovisual spectacle rarely too stimulating, its allegory so obvious and binary as to be meaningless, and it offers little compensation in the human dimension.  I can appreciate Elysium's parable.  But I cannot help but be bored by such lazy preaching to the choir.

Yet all that said, one vital thing I genuinely appreciate about Elysium is that it does not romanticize suffering and death, as does virtually every other damned movie that raises the specter of immortality.  Death is bad; if the problem is that only some live forever, the solution is not that no one should live forever.  You hear that, Andrew Niccol?  Get that weak shit off my track.

So if it ignores the question of what might happen if billions were allowed to live forever, dismissing it with distracting music swells and a sick widdle girl, well, it's a stupid movie, but at least it isn't perverse.

And, on a final note, bravo for going for an R rating.  I mean it.  It's almost worth recommending simply because, not very bright nor very good it may be, Elysium is still a big movie that didn't compromise itself to achieve a wussy PG-13.  It can let its characters say "fuck" every time it's appropriate instead of once or twice.  It can show blood.  It can show a man's face explode.  Which was radical.

So it's not the mess of an After Earth, but it's by a Clarke orbit or two only the second best crappy planet film to come out this year.  I really don't want to break anybody's heart, but if they ever do make that Halo movie, can we give it to Joe Kosinski instead?

Score: 4/10

P.S.: And they don't even try dropping the colony on Earth.  Talk about missing the slow pitch, Blomkamp.
P.P.S.: Or maybe it's a South African accent.  Well, good heavens, why?  Jodie Foster can sound plenty evil on her own.

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