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Science-fiction, the Howard Zinn way – Elysium

August 9, 2013


Elysium is very much a tale of the future as told by those who keep a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States on their nightstand, in the spot where previous generations kept the Bible. Like that noted historian’s work, the film has good ideas, but its central conceit is derailed by a one-track Malthusian worldview that doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. (The oppressed against the oppressors dynamic, in an odd way, makes Elysium a counterweight to last years The Dark Knight Rises, which had a teeming underclass rising up to control Gotham City, and Batman swooping in to save the day, with fascist, anti-Occupy implications bubbling under the celluloid surface.)

None of this would matter if the movie was any good. But it isn’t. It isn’t an abomination on par with mindless drivel like, say, G.I. Joe: Retaliation. (I’ve recently seen commercials hawking that dud’s Blu-ray. You’d think they would have buried all copies next to the E.T. Atari 2600 cartridges.) People tried here. But Elysium is a disappointment, make no mistake.

Some observations:

  1. The eponymous Elysium is, as you know if you’ve seen the trailers, a giant wheel in the sky, an orbiting habitat for those wealthy enough to afford a priceless spot. Its residents, thanks to magical medical pods, are never sick, and never die (well, unless they bleed out). It’s quite glorious, though we never get much of a chance to explore its Olympian beauty. (It reminded me of things I’d see in books I’d borrow from my school’s library as a kid, picture books that had artistic renderings of what living in space would be like in the future. Space travel in hollowed out asteroids, commuting to work on moving sidewalks, that sort of thing. Elysium is, of course, reminiscent of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I prefer to think of it as a tribute to those old, imagination-stoking tomes.) All I could think when seeing it was: How bad can the people who built such an incredible place really be? (The also have the most lax security in the solar system, which is quite friendly of them. Earth-bound gated communities are harder to get into.)
  2. I have no beef with Matt Damon. His politics may rub some people the wrong way (he’s a loud disciple of Zinn and fellow travelers), but I could care less. He’s been in some good movies, and he’s been in some bad ones — whatever. He plays Max De Costa, an ex-con factory worker who gets royally screwed and suddenly needs to get into the hardest place to get into. Damon doesn’t have a whole lot to do here either physically (the action money-shots in the promotional material are pretty much all you get) or emotionally (his relationship with a childhood friend feels forced — mostly through gauzy flashbacks — and contrived). You hope things pick up when he gets cyborged for a mission to get his ass to Elysium, but they quickly bog down again.
  3. I confess: I used to have a thing for Jodie Foster. No, not to a John Hinckley level, and yes, I did realize that chances were that she didn’t really go for my gender. Still, there was a full-page promotional pic of her from Nell (remember that movie?) that I clipped from a magazine and kept taped to walls next to my bed all through college — one that I can’t find anywhere on the internet, or I’d post a link to it here. The passion has waned, but I still like her. She was the pretty girl with a whole hell of a lot of spirit, nice and smart, and she’s always put a professional effort into every movie of which she’s been a part. Now firmly ensconced in middle age, she’s tailor-made for the Defense Secretary villain role in Elysium, the corporate/lesbian/head bitch in charge/ice queen determined to keep the rough, smelly proletarian elements out of her orbital paradise. Yet she’s fairly useless in this — miscast even though she’s perfectly cast, if that makes any sense. Like Damon she doesn’t have much to do, except speak in an intermittent (French?) accent that sounds awful coming out of Clarice Starling’s mouth. (I have no clue, none, how a coup is supposed to be pulled off with a computer code. She does, though. Good for her.)
  4. Copley plays Kruger, the main physical antagonist to Damon, someone who also has physical implants to give him extra strength, as well as a goody bag of weapons. He speaks in exclamation marks. He suffers one of the more gruesome injuries you’ll see in a major motion picture this year. You are warned on both counts.
  5. As fun as the action in District 9 was, Elysium is just as much a chore. The man-to-man combat is always presented in the now ubiquitous shaky cam, rendering the few moments of excitement indecipherable messes. Fret not, though: slow-motion is also used, though not in a clarifying way. No, it’s deployed in the cheap “add more heft to this crappy little scene” manner. Granted, the CGI robots are neat, but they’re hardly around. If you want a futuristic thrill ride, you’d best look elsewhere.
  6. How dystopian can a dystopia be if there are still cartoons?
  7. The filmmakers try to tackle topics like the distribution of wealth, health care, immigration, and steroids in baseball — okay, maybe not the last one. They land no trenchant points concerning any. They seem to think this movie is a lot smarter than it is — a failing in many studio efforts.
  8. It’s good to see that Johnny Cab from Total Recall has found more work as a parole officer. Machines gotta eat.
  9. Was Damon one of the people in the anti-gun video that made the rounds after the Newtown school shooting? Because there are guns everywhere in this, guns blowing people’s faces off, guns piercing hearts, the works. (In fairness, people are also stabbed and blown to smithereens.) It’s good to know that all problems, even in a bleak future (but one with cartoons!), can be solved by a liberal (no pun intended) dose of firearms.
  10. I had one thought as the plot wound its way down: END!!! And it mercifully did.

Elysium is a bore, trite and quite laughable at times. Some of the effects work is nice, and there are no disastrous failings, but it just isn’t very good. It’s no District 9. It’s no paradise.

Two orbiting Stanford toruses (tori?) out of five.


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