Student sets out to review everything in existence. Fails miserably.
Storytelling can be a difficult business. In science fiction, where the rules of the world are not necessarily the same as our own, this is doubly so; the director has to tell us everything we need to know quickly, compellingly and unobtrusively. However, there is one rule that’s hammered into you at any creative writing class that a good storyteller must abide by, and that rule is ‘show, don’t tell’. From the moment the text “Earth was diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated” appeared over a shot of a ramshackle skyscraper, I knew exactly what kind of film Elysium was going to be. Visually stunning, but as heavy handed as a punch in the face from a prototype exoskeleton.
In Elysium, being on Earth kind of sucks. From the derelict buildings to the masses living in poverty, everything on screen is screaming at you that this is a bad place to live. We didn’t need any opening text to tell us this; the set makes it readily apparent. So when Blomkamp insists on slapping it across the screen in giant letters, it comes across as rather preachy and unnecessary. It’s almost as if he doesn’t trust us to infer the information for ourselves; instead, he handholds us through every part of the storytelling. Coupled with a large number of very… Man of Steel-y flashbacks, in which young Matt Damon is told that he is ‘destined for something great’, and the tone of Elysium is very much set.
Elysium’s biggest problem is the way it handles its message. I’m guessing you know what that is, as there’s no way you could have sat through the entire movie without picking up on the whole ‘rich people are dicks to the poor’ thing that Blompkamp is running with. Yes, science fiction as a genre is particularly well-suited to challenging the problems in our society, but with Elysium, this message is front and centre the entire time. There’s no subtlety or tact in the way that Blomkamp handles the matter; every time we see a family of Elysian citizens they’re having a garden party on the lawn of their lavish country houses, whereas the poor back on Earth live in shacks in the middle of the desert. There’s one scene in which the secretary of defence literally has the poor shot out of the sky. It’s like trying to watch a film while a crowd of ‘occupy Wall Street’ protesters angrily campaign in every row in front of you.
As a result of this, there is not one single fully-developed character in the entire film. A major plot device Elysium uses is the medical technology belonging to the rich. These Med Bays can apparently cure any disease and heal any injury, and are clearly readily available and not particularly resource-consuming, as every family on board is shown to have one. However, there is no logical reason given as to why there are none of these down on Earth, where people are in desperate need of them. As a result the Elysians come across as one dimensional, uncaring characters. Are we really to believe that there are no, say, Bill Gates’s in this universe? Not a single person who would think to share this readily available technology with those who need it? Even if their society is purely driven by greed and profit, someone must have realised that they could make a fortune by charging the poor to use those things. The only reason they wouldn’t is because the plot and the message of the film requires that they don’t.
Not even the main characters are safe from this. Here’s a challenge; try to describe Matt Damon’s character without talking about what he looks like or what he does. Really think about it. With a well-developed character, this should be easy. However, in the case of Elysium, we are given next to no characterisation. Max isn’t some revolutionary figure disgusted with the social inequality that his world is so rife with, or a man with a personal vendetta against an Elysian who wronged him – the entire motivation for his actions is that he doesn’t want to die. That’s it, that’s all we’re given. Everything that we feel we should know about him, like who he is, or why Spider regards him as ‘the best there is’ is either glossed over in a childhood flashback or left out completely. Instead, he is loosely outfitted in the clothes of a ‘chosen one’ archetype and left to run around as the plot demands. His death at the end doesn’t happen for any logical reason – if you think about it, the security program on the data is rather ineffective if the data can still be read or accessed by another person. The only reason it’s in the film is so that Max can sacrifice himself for the good of humanity, because that’s what the heroes of these kinds of stories do.
If anything, this empty approach to characterisation is even more apparent with Kruger. Bless Sharlto Copley for trying, he gives the best performance of the film, but he clearly had very little to work with here. Kruger wants to get revenge on Secretary Delacourt because of… reasons? He was dismissed by the government but she was still employing him. This betrayal was there because the plot demanded it. Similarly, Kruger decides that he wants to take control of Elysium. Why exactly? Before that moment, there had been no indication that this would be something his character was interested in. What’s more, the film had a chance to do something interesting by killing him off early, but the fact that he is confusingly resurrected (how exactly do you blow off someone’s face without damaging their brain?) negates this decision entirely. It’s almost as if the filmmakers had gone “right, we need a generic fight scene at the end, so let’s bring him back. And give him a bigger robot suit than Matt Damon”. The result is a cookie cutter villain, a shape that has been pressed into the film by necessity rather than story. He is not a character. He’s a plot device with a South African accent and a beard.
As a spectacle, Elysium is worth watching. The effects are fantastic and the action sequences are entertaining. However, as an example of storytelling it is very poor indeed. Characters lack motivation so the audience cannot invest in anything they do. Events feel forced, happening as the plot demands rather than as a logical progression from their decisions. All of this comes as a result of Blomkamp trying to force-feed us a social metaphor that he really could have handled much more delicately. So yes, go and see it. You’ll probably enjoy it. Just bear in mind that if you fall asleep, you won’t miss too much.