Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Elysium

It is easy to like Matt Damon. It is not easy to like Elysium. At least not for me. It is however easy to exemplify what I dislike about the film. With regular intervals there are shots in slow motion of children laughing and running from the camera, while glancing back towards it. This is a sentimental trick that I have always found cheap and cheesy and the fact that Elysium is filled with these shots is a sign of the big problem I had with it. Nothing in it felt sincere or genuine, but like somebody had used a computer program to construct a science fiction film, and then left it to the software to direct it. It showed desperately little evidence of craft and artistry. At one point during a fight sequence there was an overhead shot, showing the ground from a high altitude, that was so short that it was not possible to see what it was meant to show, and neither was in sync with the general editing patterns of that sequence, when the heroes attack the villain Carlyle after they have shot down his space craft. It was just completely random and pointless, like so many other shots and ideas in the film.

Towards the end of Elysium Matt Damon's character Max, his childhood friend Frey, her daughter and three evil men are all in a space craft together flying to Elysium (a "paradise" in space) to which they all want to go, albeit for different reasons. Just as they are about to land they all start to fight, a hand grenade goes off and they violently crash (although nobody is killed). What was the purpose of this? Nobody in the space craft had anything to gain from such a fight or from a crash, so why would they start this fight? And what narrative purpose did it serve? It had no effect on the story. The most evil of the men, Krüger, had his face completely disfigured, well, destroyed, but he was soon resurrected by the healing machines that are common on Elysium. It is not a question of "plot holes" but of bad filmmaking, or laziness, an example of the sense of drift and randomness to the film. This is particularly a problem in a film like Elysium, that clearly aims to be political and serious and consequently should be made with more care. It matters less in a film like Pacific Rim, which is considerably more playful and fun and which I thought was more profound with its idea of "the drift", a wonderful version of love.

What about the ending of Elysium? The world in the film is polluted and filthy, and society has collapsed. Those with the means to do so have escaped to the man-made paradise called Elysium. The rest has to stay on the toxic earth. But in the end everybody is made a legal citizen of Elysium thanks to the heroism of Max. But how is this going to change anything? They cannot all live up there, and earth is still a filthy and unhealthy place to live on. If anything this end result will only make things worse because everybody will try to get to Elysium and it will be ruined too. So nobody is better off. Is that what the filmmakers intended or do they think that they have given the film a happy ending? Our world, here and now, have innumerable problems and conflicts and Elysium might have wanted to address them in a meaningful or nuanced way but it failed on that level too. Up in Elysium they all spoke French. Is that because Americans think the French are all elitist snobs, what with their wine-drinking, love-making and philosophing? Tell that to those who live in the banlieues. And what is one to make of the fact that the leaders in the dystopian future is a woman and a South Asian man and that the world can only be saved by a burly, all-American, white man? Is that what we call progress these days?

I would not mind these things so much if the film had been made with some wit, charm and visual panache. Alas, there was nothing of that. So no, I did not like Elysium, not at all.

This post is written as part of a focus on Elysium among a number of Swedish film bloggers. Here are links to the others. One is in English, The Velvet Café. The others are in Swedish Rörliga bilder och ord, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Fiffis filmtajm, Movies - Noir.


11 comments:

  1. I read your text and I understand your dislikes. If I hadn´t been soaked into the screen so fast I might have joined you in your opinions but I really liked the film, nearly loved it actually.

    I think you and I are the true opposites on this one. If you had grades, what would Elysium get? 1/5? ;)

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  2. Yes, I saw that you loved it! Would be pretty boring if we all felt alike. No, I wouldn't give it a 1, I'll settle for 2 out of 5.

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  3. Haha, " Nothing in it felt sincere or genuine, but like somebody had used a computer program to construct a science fiction film, and then left it to the software direct it. "

    I laughed out loud. Thanks for the vitamine injection to my work day.

    I liked the movie more than you but I strangely agree with you on most of your points. I also wonder what feeling the director expected or wanted the audience to have when the film was over. Did he see it as a "happy ending"? Due to the scenes with the nun and little Max the film got some heavy handed religious over tones. Did Max "save all" as predicted by the nun? Confusion of the wrong sort after this movie...

    And your conclusion is exactly mine: "I would not mind these things so much if the film had been made with some wit, charm and visual panache."

    To me this film is heavy as a ton of bricks, not charming or witty AT ALL.

    Please feel free to come over and read my review. There is an interesting discussion ongoing in the comments.

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  4. While not disliking it as much as you did, I completely agree on the grenade-scene. Utterly pointless and unintelligible.

    But I have been thinking about that whole "saving mankind". It is a stretch but would it be possible that for Max, this became the only way to save what was most dear to the one that was most dear to himself? My point is that maybe he didn't give a flying fuck about being the new Jesus but only wanted to help Frey and her daughter. The atmosphere of the movie unfortunately contradicts this generous interpretation.

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  5. The main reason I liked the film, I think, was that I liked Matt Damons character. I was intrested in what was going to happen to him. If I wouldn't have been, the film would not have worked.

    I agree with most of what you're saying but somehow I just couldn't get annoyed at all the flaws even though I see them. One scene though, the one where they start a fight on the shuttle before landing on Elysium felt forced and strange but I think that was the only one.

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  6. Sofia, I agree about Max's motivation. He wanted to save Frey's daughter, who (I imagine him thinking) could've been his daughter. And in that respect the film ended well and his mission was accomplished. But the film seemed to not be satisfied with that. As if there were two script writers, one concerned with Max and one with the world at large, and in the end the two were unable to settle their accounts.

    Johan, I was never that interested in Max and I never felt anything for him. Whether he lived or died didn't matter to me, nor, apparently, to any one in the film.

    Actually, the more I think if the politics in the film the more annoyed I get. As I said over at Henke's blog the film is made as if the power relations in the world were the same as in the mid-1950s, 2154 is still 1954, only after climate changes. But the political and economic powers in the world are not controlled only by WASPs any more (think Qatar, China, Brazil, India, or Singapore with their investment company Temasek), and think of the growing political power of Latino in the US (L.A. has after all had a Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, for almost a decade until this year) but in the film it seems only whites have any real agency, either as villains or as heroes.

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  7. I completely agree with you about the aesthetic and political failures of ELYSIUM, but after getting into an argument with someone on Facebook about the casting of Damon, I think I should point out that his character is actually Latino. As a child, he's shown speaking Spanish and his last name is "de Costa." On Facebook, I mocked the idea of casting someone as WASPy-looking as Damon as a Latino, and then a Cuban-American acquaintance came along and said that he has many relatives who look as "white" as Damon. The problem may be that every single review I've read refers to Damon as white, even if that's not the script's intentions, and some, like you, have read racist overtones into his casting and the fact that his character saves a group of mostly poor people of color.

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  8. Thanks for that information! But the filmmakers do have a problem if hardly anybody understands that Max is Latino.

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  9. Yes, their inability to make this clear seems like a symbol of the film's general laziness.

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  10. I agree with Fredrik's comments; more generally, like the rather similar OBLIVION and WORLD WAR Z (also involving elderly boys as world saviors), ELYSIUM is an impersonal mashup of elderly science fiction tropes. (Including the Philip Dick-inspired plaster functionary, first seen on film in the first TOTAL RECALL, which appropriately was actually a Philip Dick adaptation.) I agree that the action scenes are particularly incoherent -- in addition to those Fredrik mentions, I would add the fight by the elevator, in which the death of the supervillain carries no weight whatsoever.

    Neill Blomkamp is supposed to be excused his cinematic sins due to his film's advocacy of (magic) free universal health care and a few other liberal gestures, but as Fredrik has pointed out the film can certainly be criticized on political grounds as well. What about how the criminal boss Spider suddenly turns from opportunist to revolutionary? (And is cast to look like Che?) Narrative chaos abounds. A great deal of time is spent setting up a coffee date between Damon and Frey, but there is no coffee date. A great deal of time is spent setting up William Fichtner as Damon's arch enemy on earth, but when they confront each other they don't acknowledge their shared back story. A great deal of time is spent establishing Jodie Foster as the puppetmaster of Elysium, but she and Damon never meet. A great deal of time is spent with Foster's mercenary supervillain lusting after Frey, but when he has her at his mercy he directs his sidekick to kill her.

    I would say that the film is less lazy than incompetent. And Damon's last name in the film is DaCosta, so he may be supposed to be Brazilian or Portugese or Italian. But once again I am driven to ask the same question I always ask when I see Matt Damon in trouble... in the midst of World War II (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) or in a futuristic hellhole (ELYSIUM), why are his teeth so damn white?

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  11. Gregg, thanks for expanding on the many mysteries in Elysium! Although I must confess I have never given any thoughts to Matt Damon's teeth. I fear that from now on this is all I will think about when I see him...

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