Sunday, September 8, 2013

Elysium: Action movie, not a call to action

Elysium is not a subtle movie. Neill Blomkamp doesn't do subtle. District 9 was an impressive science fiction action movie which stopped just short of holding up flash cards to remind the audience that apartheid was a thing which had been completely real within the lifetime of every single person watching the movie. Elysium throws a boat-load of action at the screen, but this time Blomkamp is taking a swing at something which is going on right the hell now and probably not going to be solved within the lifetime of anyone who sees the movie. Sadly, it's not that likely that a big action movie is going to drive any kind of big action in the real world.

Elysium is about the gap between the haves and have-nots; the haves are up in a luxurious space station, and the have-nots are stuck down on earth, which is one great big slum. Turns out, in Elysium-world, the poor aren't always with you. You can keep them at arms' length while you live forever in orbit, thanks to medical boxes which can just make anything go away (leukaemia or having your whole face blown off are both sorted out within a matter of seconds). Elysium, the space station, is a paradise; earth; well to get the look right, they did principal photography in a rubbish dump in Mexico City.

Matt Damon's Max is stuck down in Los Angeles, working on a production line as he tries to get to the other side of his probation for a youth spent stealing cars and doing other naughty things. Then he gets irradiated in an industrial accident, and with literally nothing to lose, gets himself bolted into a robot exoskeleton so that he can pull off a big job and get himself a shot at being illegally smuggled into Elysium to get himself de-irradiated. And that turns into a crusade, as these things do in big action movies; it's never enough to save yourself, you always have to be saving the whole world. Not that the whole world doesn't need a whole mess of saving, but I always wind a bit when it turns out that only one guy can do it, having backed into the solution completely by accident.

It's more interesting to think of some of the bigger questions in Blomkamp's future. It's our own present turned up to eleven, of course; a one-per-cent floating invulnerably above the rest of us in impervious luxury while everything else goes to hell in a handbasket. Conspicuously missing is any kind of middle class; you're either up there in comfort, or down here in squalor. We see exactly one middle manager down on earth; he seems kind of hassled, as well he might, trying to manage hundreds of employees in a factory which - turning experience on its head - is using human labour to build robots (John Stuart Mill would be puzzled to see that in the future, each worker is making his own robots, almost like no-one really understands any more how mass production works). I'll come back to that missing middle class in a minute; I just want to touch on a couple of other things first.

Elysium's economy doesn't make much sense; it's not clear how it could be self-sustaining up there in orbit with all its greenery devoted to manicured gardens instead of crops, so there ought to be a non-stop parade of shuttles moving produce up there to feed the wealthy. We do see shuttles, and they're impressively efficient by today's standards; single stage to orbit vehicles in all kinds of sizes, including a Bugatti for the very finest flying experiences. Right now getting cargo to orbit requires you to burn tonnes of propellant for every kilo you want up there; if they're got the energy requirement for that beaten, there's really no excuse for poverty anywhere on earth. Not that I am stupid enough to believe for a second that just because humanity figured out effectively free energy, the people in charge would share it out fairly; the fact that Elysium's economy concentrates all the resources in the hands of a tiny minority, even though it could easily be shared around, rings all too uncomfortably true.

It's slightly harder to figure out why they're keeping all the medical equipment to themselves, since the magic boxes can diagnose and cure anything in seconds with no apparent need to load them up with drugs or anything else. On the face of it, they should be dotted around like phone boxes all over the planet, keeping everyone fit and ready to work (and if you were feeling sinisterly inclined, quietly aborting most pregnancies to keep the population under control, a very necessary piece of housekeeping if everyone's going to live almost forever).

What's supposed to be keeping you distracted from all of this is the action and the whizzbang guns and robots. Blomkamp is very good at the look of the near future; hard-worn equipment looks believably hard worn and scuffed, and the technology always looks and feels like the kind of thing people would be using in the not too distant future (though I wondered why all the state of the art displays in Elysium defaulted to orange fuzzes, and everyone's file photographs looked like they'd been scanned through a gym sock). The fights are a bit of a mess, since Blomkamp has bought into the jitter-cam heresy, and shows us all the fights as though they were taking place on a merry-go-round during an earthquake. (it's a long time sinceI went running around playing laser-tag, but in my memory it did not feel at any time as though I were having an epileptic fit, even when they were firing off strobe lights and pumping smoke into the room ).

Continuing his hate affair with the South African Defence Force, Blomkamp makes the sharp end of his villainy take the form of white South African mercenaries, who even use the same logo as his horrible MNU mercenaries in District 9. Sharlto Copley, who was queasily wonderful as the much put-upon anti-hero of District 9, gets to be the baddie in Elysium, and makes a nine-course tasting menu out of it. When he gets a grenade in the face, your basic reaction is to wish there'd been two, and later on, it's almost as though Blomkamp thought the same thing.

Anyhow, there's much blowing of things up and then good prevails, and a moppet in peril is made all better before the whole world live happily ever after. Sadly, all of this strikes me as a very bad thing. The problem with Elysium is that it does a little bit to make the audience think about the shocking inequality of the world, and then gives us lots of ways to think that there's really nothing to worry about. The happy ending is part of that, but the really sneaky bit is that missing middle class I threatened to come back to.

Elysium has got goodies and baddies. The goodies are the poor teeming multitudes in the rubbish dump in Mexico City, and the baddies are the ridiculously well off rich folk in orbit. Now, clearly almost no-one in today's world lives in that kind of Olympian comfort, so audiences are not going to watch those pricks with any kind of shock of self-recognition. They're not going to see themselves as part of the problem; they're not going to appreciate that just by having the money and leisure to go and see a big budget movie in the comfort of an air conditioned cinema, they're already better off than half the population of this real world we're living in right now. More than that, they're going to think "Well, at least we don't have it that bad, so maybe our real world rich people aren't so bad as they could be." In short, Elysium is the kind of movie which looks subversive, but really does nothing to challenge the status quo. It's an action movie, when we need a call to action.
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