Every year, without failure, I find myself reading a slew of think-pieces about how the most recent summer movie season was “the most disappointing ever.” As is usually the case when people talk about things going to hell in a handbasket, this attitude seems to be informed by a sort of short-term memory loss. Pretty much every summer has a similar hit-to-miss ratio as far as I can tell, but the past successes tend to stand out in most people’s memory and they forget about all the vapid nonsense that they had to watch in-between the good ones. When you’re in the middle of the season though, you’re well aware of how much crap gets churned out and it makes you angry. For example, the summer of 2009 is fairly well remembered today: we had J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek, we had the original The Hangover, we had Up, and we had The Hurt Locker. Sounds good, but in-between all that you “had” to watch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator: Salvation, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, so there were just as many “worst summer ever” think pieces as ever.
It was in that environment that a film called District 9 came out and was received as the savior of Hollywood. It was an original I.P., it was made by an unknown young filmmaker, it was set in an exotic foreign county, and it had a political allegory at its center. To many it was like a breath of fresh air and proof positive that summer blockbusters could still be smart. It got rave reviews and even managed to snag a surprise Oscar nomination, albeit one that was surely the result of an expanded Best Picture field that year. However, my response to District 9 was relatively lukewarm. I respected that it was doing something different and enjoyed it for the most part, but I thought the main character was completely unlikable (which would have been fine if the film didn’t try to turn him into an action hero) and I was disappointed to see it turn into a sort of Jerry Bruckheimer-esque action movie at the end. Still, it was a promising debut and I’ve been looking forward to director Neil Blomkamp’s follow-up film Elysium.
This new film is set about a hundred and fifty years in the future, and in that timespan earth has become polluted and over-populated and even cities like Las Angeles now looks like gigantic favelas. Everyone who can afford to has abandoned the planet and set up mansions on an orbiting space habitat called Elysium, which looks sort of like a cross between a Halo ring and the space station from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film focuses on an earth-born ex-convict named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), who becomes irradiated in an industrial accident early in the film and is told he has only a week to live. Desperate, Da Costa decides that his one option is to find a way aboard Elysium so that he can make use of their extremely advanced healing devices. In order to accomplish this he makes a bargain with a smuggler named Spider (Wagner Moura) to take part in a data heist in exchange for passage to Elysium, but in doing so he stumbles upon information that would implicate Elysium’s defense secretary (Jodie Foster) in a coup attempt. As such he quickly finds himself being chased down by a grizzled mercenary named C.M. Kruger (Sharlto Copley), and must find some way to escape before his time runs out.
The film’s message is not subtle; it’s a direct statement about wealth inequality, unequal allocations of healthcare, and illegal immigration among other contemporary issues. In many ways this is the most openly left-wing Hollywood action movie since V for Vendetta and its making statements that are a lot more relevant than District 9’s attempts to make statements about apartheid twenty years after the fact. I suspect that many people will fault the film for being too “on the nose,” I would suggest that they remember that science fiction allegories are almost never subtle and that obvious messages are sort of par for the course in this genre. The social messages in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, for example, were every bit as overt as what Blomkamp is trying to do with Elysium. What’s more, when you’re making a big action movie like this and you really want audiences to engage with a political message subtlety probably isn’t your friend. It’s way too easy for people to ignore what you’re trying to say amidst all the rest of the chaos on screen and sometimes you’ve got to shout if you really want to be heard.
For what it’s worth though, political messages are by no means the only reason to go to Elysium this weekend, Blomkamp has packed his movie with all kinds of other cool things to sweeten the medicine he’s feeding the audience. For one thing, he employs some really cool world building both in terms of turning Los Angeles into a third-world wasteland and in creating Elysium itself as a sort of ultimate gated community in space. The film also has a lot of interesting action scenes, in part because the world of the film has a lot of interesting futuristic weapons in it, each one of them bringing fantastical gory injuries when they are employed. Some of the action is perhaps marred by some questionable use of “shaky-cam,” but at the very least one can say that these are more inventive action sequences than one is likely to see in most of the other summer action films this year.
Elysium is hardly a perfect movie. I’m pretty sure Matt Damon was cast more for his star power than because he was an exact fit for his role for one thing (though he does a pretty good job just the same) and the film also employs a fairly convenient MacGuffin both to get things going and also to bring things to a conclusion that is perhaps overly cozy. Also, as much as I like Sharlto Copley as the film’s villain (you’d hardly believe that this is the same actor who played District 9’s nerdy protagonist), I’m not exactly sure what the character is trying to accomplish towards the film’s end when he goes completely nuts. Despite all that, I can’t help but respect Elysium. All too often I’ve seen people let films like Pacific Rim which wear their stupidity on their sleeves get away with anything and everything while blockbusters that show even a little bit of effort to be something more are torn down immediately for having the gall to try to play with the big boys. To me, this attitude serves no purpose except to punish ambition and reward mediocrity. Elysium is exactly the kind of politically mindful action film that critics seem to be asking for whenever they complain about the vacuous sequel-driven machine that Hollywood’s summer slate has become, and as such I’m willing to cut it quite a bit of slack.
***1/2 out of Four