Thoughts on Elysium

I’d been interested in seeing the new film from Neill Blomkamp as soon as I heard about it, having seen and thoroughly enjoyed his first feature District 9.  So I managed to convince my wife to come see it with me. We, like, actually went and saw it in an actual movie theatre. And actually, I wasn’t disappointed.

The ‘have v. have-not’ theme that drives the story is by no means a brand-new thing in science-fiction in general or sci-fi cinema in particular (going back at least as far as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, just to cite one example off the top of my head), but unfortunately neither is it a brand-new thing in society. It’s become almost a truism these days to point out that ‘good science-fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present’.

The freshness that Elysium brings to this trope comes from the world-building and visual texture of the film. The CGI effects of the ‘torus’-style space station Elysium hit just the right note between verisimilitude and impossibility to give it the feel of an actual Paradise. Meanwhile, the grit and dirt of 22nd century L.A. is believable, such that even the more far-fetched details (the smiling plastic dummy with built-in speaker that acts as Matt Damon’s parole officer) seem plausible.

The film touches on a variety social issues: health care, precarious and unsafe working conditions, terror, digital security, immigration. It’s this last one, however, that gets the most attention. The film dramatizes the plight of illegal immigrants–whether it’s Mexicans trying to cross the US-Mexico border or sub-Saharan Africans setting out in tiny boats to paddle across the Mediterranean into southern Europe–in the science-fictional form of hastily-organized shuttles sent into orbit (SPOILER!) only to be blown to bits by the security apparatus of the space station.

This focus on immigration and the quandary that it supposes in a globalized economy points up what I see as a slight problem with the film: the question of casting.

Certainly, Jodie Foster is well-chosen as the WASPy right-wing Defense secretary (though she’s saddled with the flattest of the characters here) and Sharlto Copley as the psychopathic Afrikaaner mercenary (better, though the character’s ostensibly ‘clever’ bad-guy banter gets tiresome after a while). And on the other side, down in L.A., there’s a bevy of talented Latino actors in secondary roles.

The hero, though? The one with the unambiguously ‘Latin’ surname Da Costa?

Yeah. Matt Damon. (Who, by the way, seems to have fully consummated his transformation into WWE professional wrestler John Cena for this role. All that was missing was a ‘U Can’t See Me’ t-shirt.)

I doubt this point went unnoticed in the planning stages of the project. I can’t imagine Blomkamp et al having a blind-spot that big, racial-sensitivity-wise. Witness, for example, the subtle subversion of action-film cliché in the fact that the black guy sidekick (SPOILER) doesn’t get gunned down in the assault on the Armadyne exec’s spacecraft; in fact, he survives to the end of the film. Though I haven’t seen a lot of action movies in the last few years, maybe that’s not a thing anymore…?

I mean, Matt Damon does a good job, don’t get me wrong. His Spanish isn’t even that bad. But something rings less than entirely true, if not categorically false, for this character to be a blue-eyed Anglo dude.

It just seems like a case of the studios being like, ‘nah, we gotta get a white guy’. Or who knows–this is just speculation on my part–maybe they offered it to Bardem and he turned it down? Such are the whims and exigencies of the Hollywood behemoth…

There were other aspects of the film I wasn’t one-hundred percent on board for, either–the magic, ‘hand-wavium’ aspect of the health-scanner thingies, for example, or the incidental music (heavy-handed in spots) and the fight scenes (some of which were actually a bit lengthy and plodding for my taste).

All that having been said, it’s just really nice to see a block-buster science-fiction film with some kind of content, some kind of commentary besides just, ‘Oh, hey, look, Star Trek! Oh, hey, look Star Wars! Hey, Marvel and/or DC reboot!’.

On the whole I’m Just kind of glad that films like Elysium exist, perfect or not.


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