[NOTE: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.]
I admit it: I am a sucker for a good Hollywood blockbuster. No nuanced scab-picking at emotional scars or English subtitles for me: I am in the movie market strictly for the same exhilaration I find on an inverted steel rollercoaster, the kind where as soon as the ride is over I cannot wait to get back on again. Admittedly, most Hollywood blockbusters are drivel. Sure, the special effects and rippling muscles make for enjoyable viewing, but the plots are often painfully predictable celebrations of toxic masculinity myths, redemptive violence and war—typically peppered with racism, American exceptionalism, sexism and homophobia for good measure. It's like being stuck on an old-fashioned wooden coaster that rides around a flat track in endless circles.
These are not the droids we're looking for.
No, we're in it for the brain candy at least as much as for the eye candy. We seek that rare and elusive delicacy that delivers a philosophical punch, a genuinely surprising turn of events and, perhaps, a powerful and intelligent message. If we are truly fortunate, that message will be one that sends the right-wing media into spittle-flecked fits of incoherent rage (think: James Cameron's Avatar, with its environmentalist and anti-imperialist themes; or Pixar's WALL-e, an animated anti-consumerist manifesto—ironically brought to you by Disney, of all distributors).
For my money, nobody does it better than writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose latest film Elysium delivers all goodies. Fans of the 33-year old South African's first feature film, the superb 2009 indie sci-fi action/thriller District 9, will easily recognize his handiwork, even behind the big-budget optics and megawatt star power. Set in the year 2154, the story unfolds simultaneously on the surface of a polluted, impoverished and overpopulated Earth, and upon the elegant space habitat Elysium, orbiting above. Here, the privileged citizens enjoy a long life of ease in splendor, while the hardscrabble Earthbound barely get by.
Good sci-fi necessarily trades in metaphor: it must remain tethered to our own reality if we are to have any chance of meaningfully engaging with it. In Elysium, the parallels to the 1%-vs.-99% paradigm are impossible to miss. In fact, what we are seeing isn't really a metaphor at all: Blomkamp et al. shot much of the Earth-based footage in a dump in the poor Iztapalapa district on the outskirts of Mexico City, while scenes on Elysium were shot in the same city's wealthy Huixquilucan-Interlomas suburbs. It is not a subtle political statement, nor is it meant to be. On the rounds promoting the film Blomkamp has said, "This isn't science fiction. This is today. This is now."
But of course it's science fiction—at least, enough to wow us with the imagined wonders of advanced technology. While Elysium seamlessly spins a story that slashes mercilessly at the modern plagues of worker exploitation, militarized police states, corporate greed, social and economic inequality, government surveillance, immigration and political corruption, it leans heavily on hi-tech—or its glaring absence—in order to tell it. Nothing is more central to the plot than the "Med-Bay", a scanning device that diagnoses and instantly cures any ailment at the atomic level, from advanced cancer to broken bones. That Med-Bays are available only on Elysium drives the characters as much as it does the action, as desperately sick Earthlings make risky attempts to breach the space habitat for momentary access to one. Yes, as strange as it sounds, more than anything else this is a movie about...universal health care?
Matt Damon serves quite nicely as Max Da Costa, our affable protagonist. Damon brings a welcome depth to a character whose story arc is gripping enough not to require it; there are light comedic touches and an endearing emotional vulnerability we never get to see in the Bourne franchise. The actor reportedly worked out four hours a day for the toned and tattooed torso we glimpse from time to time—which, lemme tell ya, is worth the price of admission on its own. It seems unthinkable now, but Damon was actually Blomkamp's third choice for the role of Max: it was first offered to the South African rapper Ninja, a huge fan of District 9 (the d00d had "D9" tattooed on his inner lip) who for whatever reason turned it down. The part was then offered to American rapper Eminem, who lost it after insisting that the film be shot in Detroit. Blomkamp ultimately settled for Damon. (<—I cannot believe I just typed that sentence.)
Nearly unrecognizable in the film is Blomkamp's long-time collaborator Sharlto Copley, whose riveting performance as the hapless, mild-mannered bureaucrat of District 9 can barely be reconciled with Elysium's Kruger, a role that has him reveling gleefully in unrestrained violent impulses and sadistic brutality. Copley serves up an unrepentant, black-hearted villain caricature—a required staple of the action genre—with terrifying flair: an off-the-grid agent of Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Kruger is as menacing as he is mesmerizing to watch. Meanwhile, Foster is glorious as Delacourt, a luminous, tightly-wound dynamo, coolly channeling the sociopathic right-wing id, in all of its seething, barely contained contempt for humanity, just beneath her impeccable facade: Delacourt is Dick Cheney in drag.
Her counterpoint is the other female lead, Frey Santiago (Alice Braga), once a childhood friend of Max and now an unrequited love interest. If I have any gripe with the film, it is with these women's roles. Not with the actors' performances, but with the characters as written, which they both certainly make the most of. Frey is the tired, standard-issue Nobly Self-Sacrificing Mother, whose selfless compassion and remarkable beauty are precisely the "flaws" that get her into the precarious predicament necessary to set up our Manly Max as Savior. Blech. Similarly, Foster's Delacourt is the latest incarnation of the one-note, one-dimensional Arch-Villainess, an archetype with a long tradition of Overly-Ambitious Machiavellas, Wicked Queens, Scheming Stepmothers and Mean Girls. Naturally, such female characters can never be rehabilitated or redeemed, and must necessarily meet their ultimate comeuppance by the film's end (usually in the form of a gruesome and untimely death). YES HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER PEOPLE, WE GET IT: women must never dare strive for power, dominance or status as men do. They are treacherous creatures who must be punished severely should they stray outside their designated roles as devoted mothers, chaste objects of desire and/or incompetent martyrs in perpetual need of rescue. It's downright Christian—and not in a good way.
Then again, perhaps this isn't fair to lay on Blomkamp, at least not entirely. Stock characters can make for handy foils and easy plot pivots in service to a larger story, and he certainly had his hands full with this one. As a storyteller, Blomkamp resides in the Venn diagram territory where comic book, ancient Greek tragedy and smart political thriller overlap, so it should hardly be surprising that he would make considerable use of characters whose essence distills down to Pure Good or Pure Evil. After all, he does have to hit all the right notes required by a studio that gave him a $115 million budget and an August release date.
Perhaps what is most slyly subversive about Elysium is the very fact that it's packaged and sold as a summer Hollywood blockbuster, complete with stunning special effects, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, Academy Award® winning box office draws (Damon and Foster) and of course the requisite amount of cartoonish gore. That such a film turns out to be not only a wildly entertaining romp, but an unexpectedly moving epic with a knockout political punch just may be the hallmark of Pure Genius.
I've seen it twice now. And I cannot wait to get back on that ride again.