Elysium [2013]

As always, spoilers spoilers spoilers.

Elysium is the story of down-and-outer Max. He is a criminal gone straight, trying to turn his life around. Of course, its clear from the expository text at the film’s start that this is not a realistic option. The world, we’re assured in unambiguous terms, be fucked. The alternative to living on Earth is to live in the space habitat, Elysium. Max has always desired to go there, but when he gets an accidental fatal dose of radiation at the plant, he realizes he absolutely must go there. One deal with a shady immigrator and one botched heist of an Elysium bigwig later, and Max is in a world of trouble – but on his way to Elysium as a prisoner. En route, he had time to catch up with his childhood sweetheart and learn of her dying daughter. Some explosions and grandstanding later, and voila – Elysium’s mainframe has been rebooted and their vast fleet of medical ships is en route to Earth to solve all its woes.

Elysium is a melange of well-worn Science Fiction tropes. We have the dystopic vision of a world destroyed by pollution and overpopulation – but not too destroyed, as the environment looks a good deal less toxic and polluted than, say the Los Angeles of Bladerunner. It has the idea of neutral/inaccessible data stored in the brain, but this is no “Johnny Mnemonic” – it’s not interested in this technology’s uses, or the kinds of risks inherent in using the human brain as a storage device. The immigrants’ plan generally seems to be to take quick advantage of advanced medicine, knowing they’ll be instantly deported afterwards – but there’s no further exploration of how this affects the patient, such as being deported to the opposite side of the world from their starting destination. The day to day running of society appears to be mechanised – but there’s no sense, as there was in Metropolis [1927] of humans acting essentially as fuel for a machine. There was a comprehensive surveillance state in play, with accurate identification for every single person caught on camera – but the main adversaries still had trouble tracking down the hero, and there was nothing like the satelite-evasion techniques from Enemy of the State [1998]. I could go on.

It is very much as if the writer grabbed every “cool” idea he’d seen in other (better) films and books, and tried to just cram as many as possible into his film. However I turn it and look at any given scene, it does something that clashes with another scene. For example, we have the scene where Kruger is making plans with his friends about how he’s going to change things when he uses the codes in Max’s head to reboot… next to the scene where he’s clearly trying to kill Max before having gotten anything out of his head. It makes little to no sense, and few, if any, of the things that happen appear to have been thought out in consequential terms. Worst, most egregious of all, was the fleet of medical ships docked in Elysium and ready to go. They serve absolutely no function in the story other than to enable the happy ending, and that’s unforgivably lazy.

Which is a storytelling strategy that can work if you have a compelling human story. We can navigate the absurdist reality of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead [1990] because we can believe in their emotional journey of confusion and arbitrary peril. Try unpicking the logic of a film like Time Bandits [1981] or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen [1988]! Yet, they work as narratives because they have an emotional continuity.

Here too, I felt Elysium left me wanting more. After opening with a poignant scene of two childhood sweethearts dreaming of the stars… the hopeful aspect is simply dropped. When the two meet again, they have the chemistry of a couple who had a bad first date, with the boy wanting a second try. The whole emotional resonance of the encounter was wrong. Similarly, we have the power-grabbing Secretary of Defence illegally destroying some immigrating ships… and the confrontation with the President and Cabinet is completely flat. They more-or-less just warn her off, and she pouts. There’s no spark – I didn’t get the sense of any genuine emotion on either side. Given the actors involved in the film, I’m guessing these (and other uncited scenes) were directorial decisions, strange ones; culminating in the performance of Sharlto Copley. I got the sense he was supposed to be a menacing an unstable presence; a force for creepiness… but I just kept wanting to laugh at him. He was endearingly and pathetically comic in District 9, and suitably madcap in The A-Team, but dangerous sociopath was just too far out of his range.

For me, this film didn’t work on any of the levels I’ve discussed, from characters, to the story they’re in, to the world they inhabit. But, I hear you ask, was it at least pretty – the concession I’ve made all too frequently recently about films that didn’t impress me. Alas, here too, I can find little to like.

The colour pallette was clean and generally there was a sharp focus. In other words, the cinematographer was not trying anything too edgy, and this film looks unremarkable, until you get to the camera work. Every moving shot was filmed on steady-cam (rather than, say, using dollies), a steady-cam which is none-too-steady at best. As soon as an action sequence breaks out, so does the properly-shaky-cam, alternating with slow-motion. You go from seeing little to seeing way too much, giving the sequences a schizophrenic feel, exacerbated by the occasional crash-zoom and the general disorientation of a fast moving point-of-view. This resulted in virtually every shot of this film irritating me to some or other degree.

All in all, this was a disaster of a movie. The best I can say about it is that I didn’t leave the cinema angry. It wasn’t offensive, it was just crap. Which leads me to my favourite game – how to fix this film in the minimum number of steps.

The main thing they needed to do was own their own premise. The premise is about a desperate man, prepared to do whatever it takes to get to Paradise. In the film they work very hard to try and back-door all of the necessary actions, when simpler explanations exist all down the line. He eventually commits to the crazy plan to go to Elysium because he receives a fatal dose of radiation at work – why not skip that entire misadventure and have him desperate to save his cancer-riddled daughter, a daughter he had with his childhood sweetheart. You’d need to change one line of dialogue while he’s on his way to work, and cut the 2 scenes of him being irradiated in the factory. Similarly, he insists on targetting the employer whose shoddy practices doomed him to radiation poisoning – coincidentally, the same man writing the code to allow the Defence Secretary to manage her coup d’etat. That too requires a small handful of dialogue changes in the scene where he meets with the Defence Secretary. Why not just committ to the villainy, and have them know about the arrangement, targetting him in order for them to start out with the goal they develop?

Simply put – this film just needs to double-down on its basic plot, rather than cack-handedly trying to backdoor all the necessary events, actions and motivations.

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