Frenetic and Frayed: Elysium (2013)

By Chad Betz · Sep 19, 2013
Spoiler Warning!

Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of significant plot details.

Is there a bigger conversation-staller than diving into a supposedly controversial topic that turns out to be a relative non-issue? Because pre-release Elysium had the buzzing hum of love-it-or-hate-it polarization but post-release Elysium is drumming up about as much talk as what I had for lunch yesterday. I think that’s because people went into this movie expecting to come out the other end heatedly debating politics, Hollywood hypocrisy, the plight of the 99%, health care and immigration reform, DEEP THOUGHTS, etc., and instead Elysium leaves the right wing feeling talked down to while the left wing feels talked down for. And so everyone dismisses it rather than bother to spend any time talking about how Elysium is pretty much just a cutting-edge throwback to the ballsy-yet-handsomely executed sci-fi action of early Cameron (specifically Aliens and the first two Terminators) and Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall). Sociopolitical aspects are inherent to a world built on a literalized class divide but, I mean, this is totally in line with the sensationalism of ‘70s pulp science fiction literature and film. So, as an heir apparent to those concepts and also that tone—that intoxicating clash of radical, overriding cynicism with out-of-nowhere bursts of humanistic naivete—and to the tropes of R-rated sci-fi ‘80s genre work, verily, this movie is a worthy successor.

Taken within those traditions, Elysium works and works well. Outside of those traditions and taken within different contexts, I suppose I can see why Elysium has inspired dislike or indifference in many. For those looking for a well-rounded think-piece, sorry, a bird gets flipped the same time a car does and Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt may need a lip wax before she grows a villain’s stache to twirl. For those attuned to the rhythm and color of the modern blockbuster, there is no Marvel charm, no Nolan-esque plot-pretzeling, no CG orgy finale, no 3D, no bloated run-time to indulge a fanbase, and very little humor that isn’t absurdly dark thanks to a manic turn from Sharlto Copley as black ops agent Kruger. Meanwhile, rusty exo-skeletons get grafted onto bodies in gory close-up detail, faces get blown off and regenerated, and there’s even the ol’ mirror shard stab-to-the-neck. It is a prescient idea, yes, the rich and powerful removing themselves from a world increasingly over-polluted and populated, but the story is a simple one, told within the confines of wanting to be a certain type of movie that delivers a certain type of hard-edged, visceral pleasure but with a lot of technical aplomb (so many fans of the sharp genre-hybridization in District 9 are also left wanting). There are as many real-world elements as there are computer-generated ones in Elysium, a refreshing change from its big-budget contemporaries which are more and more becoming just actors standing in front of green screens, and the integration of the effects into the oft-handheld footage is nearly flawless. This, along with Phil Ivey’s stellar, Syd Mead-jonesin’ production design—plus lots of location shooting in Mexico City—gives the film an incredibly tangible texture. Contrast with a film like Oblivion, slickly produced and sleekly designed, but also cold, sterile, PG-13 and dead-on-arrival; Elysium breathes.

That sometimes shaky handheld footage seems to greatly bother some who might otherwise appreciate the film, the style classicists or the lovers of early Cameron and Verhoeven who want more measured, more storyboarded cinematography…but, as with District 9, there is something vital about how director Neill Blomkamp strains against the current restrictions put on action directors working in effects-heavy films, burdened by the demands of a horde of post-production gurus—animators, compositors, 3D technicians, and the like. Smooth shots, steady editing, yadda yadda yadda…the action in Elysium gets in your face, grabs the sides of your head, and shakes vigorously. I always found the geography of the action clear, the movement and flow intuitive and natural, even as Blomkamp’s throwing at you handheld, slow-motion, active viewpoints from within the scene, HUD displays, and quick motion-tracking shots that seemed inspired most by, uh, videogames. It’s a hyper-tense collage of modern and antiquated action technique, frenetic and frayed but also a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Which is an apt enough microcosm for the movie as a whole, too.

Centrally a story about survival via transhumanism, an ode to technology but also to the Earth we live in and the children that we choose to birth into it, Matt Damon’s character (can we get a Damon Art with his head on top of a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot?) is first driven by his desperation to live, to cure himself of radiation poisoning, and that motivation leads him at various points in the story to looking pretty selfish. Make no mistake, there is nothing at all complicated about the character, but, by God, there is an actual character arc, it isn’t all heroic archetype as I’ve seen suggested elsewhere. He is the Everyman, sure, but the Everyman who is out for numero uno, and out of his survival instinct he agrees to become, basically, a cyborg. He becomes our action hero, then, but still pursuing only his own interests, to the extent that he’s even willing to barter with the bad guys once a plot point allows him to gain some serious leverage. But there’s a beat right before that when Damon meets the sick daughter of a childhood friend and the seeds of his messianic ascension are planted. It’s to be noted that the same music motif that plays when he meets Matilda is the one that’s blown up into epic mood-piece when he makes, as they say, the “ultimate sacrifice.” In his review for HitFix Drew McWeeny points out that the film has a recurring theme of “what would you do for your children?” It’s a paraphrase of a question that Foster’s Delacourt puts pretty pointedly to the more liberal President Patel earlier in the film, insinuating that as Secretary of Defense she does what must be done to protect the futures of the children, including her children, that live on Elysium—this shortly after an illegally invading mother heals her crippled daughter in an Elysian med-pod before the two are separated by those sweet-ass security droids. What Elysium does, subtly and nobly, is ask what happens if we can translate that question of what we’d do for our children into “what would you do for the children of someone else?”

I know, I know, do it for the children, but the way that sentiment is framed in this film, it actually regains some poignancy. Elysium is book-ended by flashbacks to Damon’s Max and his friend Frey, Matilda’s mother, as children living in the care of a Catholic orphanage, and while a nun delivers some overly fatalistic lines about Max’s destiny and whatnot, it’s fitting that the last spoken line in the film is the nun’s “My little Max,” the last shot Max as a child, running and happy, a repetition from earlier. Again, there’s that clash of tenors, the despair of entropy slowly turning Earth to ruin and how the film vividly portrays that, the nagging thought that the solution Max delivers at the film’s end is not a sustainable one, and yet the somewhat groundless faith in some kind of eternal recurrence of the kind act, the selfless one, and that investing in all of our children is the only thing we can do, regardless of the consequences or logistics, because who knows what they will do—how they might transcend our own limitations—when we believe in them, and we engender their self-belief, and we equip them to reward that belief. And if it’s a movie we’re talking about and shit blows up good along the way, so much the better.

So I find that I myself probably don’t like Elysium to the degree I should because, frankly, I probably like it more than I should. I am the niche market, this film’s one-percenter to the rest of the world’s ninety-nine; the guy who loves all those old reference points that I’ve already mentioned while also embracing the film’s guerilla-style approach to its recollection of that pulp; he who likes the clichés, contrivances, and cheese because for me it’s nostalgic charm; who nods approvingly at the violence and designs and accepts the thinly drawn characters, the simplistic politics, and even the sappy kid stuff (maybe because I’m recently a father); I’m the dude who’s mentally high-fiving Blomkamp just because William Fichtner’s in this thing. Again, it’s about that tradition. I grew up with it, that affection for the tattered old sci-fi paperbacks with the kitsch-deco artwork and kitschier dialogue, for those movies without complex characters or elaborately developed themes but the kernels of concept around which they built their rough, ragged, bold-hearted action, which in turn built a hardcore, gut-punch brand of sci-fi that’s been dead too long, District 9 and Dredd aside. A genre where societal flaws are further enabled and beget the shape of the future, decaying into grimy hopelessness (and aesthetic awesomeness), dying embers of goodness the last defense.

With Terminator Cameron asked, “What happens when technology turns against us?” There’s an element to that which is purely speculative. But, like Verhoeven was doing, Blomkamp extrapolates from the now with the question, “What happens as technology advances and we continue to use it against each other?” Some have taken issue with the film’s coda, an Elysium system reboot sending ships with those cure-all med-pods to Earth, like it’s too much to believe that such a beneficial thing would be withheld based on economics and class, even as we live in a world with countless (if less extreme) examples of that and already some political systems employing inhumane measures to counter the effects of over-population. And Blomkamp has a point to make about the potential of technology not just to serve our individual needs or exceed previous means but to unify rather than further the divide; there’s no twist at the end of Elysium, you knew halfway through that Damon would have to die and why, but that doesn’t rob the conclusion of its beauty in showing this dystopia’s script get flipped. To wit, any number of the flick’s other supposed logic gaps or “plot holes” (prevalent in just about any work with world-building) can be forgiven or easily explained away, should you choose to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. But why would you do that if you didn’t feel engaged by it in the first place? I certainly couldn’t blame anyone for that, even while I own up that this movie did engage me to the very core of my fandom for its genre. Which is why this is happening now, the last opinion standing, me still talking to myself about Elysium, writing probably the last article to be written about the damned thing, rambling off into obscurity; if that means what you’ve just read has been nothing but pure over-share, maybe at least you can take away a bit of solace knowing at least someone really dug it, even if it wasn’t you. Oh, by the way, I had a veggie sub for lunch yesterday. It was good, too.

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