Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Politics Of: Elysium

The Future Is AWESOME!
This Is Your Piece Of It ...
Herein The Omnivore reviews the 2013 film Elysium (relatively--but not completely non-spolierific) and then does the politics (definitely spolierific).

Exactly why they got Matt Damon for this ought to be a mystery: He's totally wrong for the role. Unfortunately, it isn't (see the politics section). The story, as told by District 9's Neil Blokamp, brings us to a "future" (he says it's "today!"--surprise!) where the world is an industrial favela filled dump and the wealthy elite live on an idyllic space station orbiting high above. The people are poor, dirty, ethnic (except for Matt Damon), and sick. The people above are pretty, icy, and rich.

People jump into shuttles to gate-crash Elysium in order to take advantage of their total-body-rebuilding medical care (which is denied to everyone else). They get shot down (to the distaste of the extra-global-elites--but there's some tacit agreement there). Damon is a bad-boy gone straight with an unresolved love-affair in his past and when he gets irradiated at the robot-building factory he, desperate to get medical care ... uh ... what?

Why's he working at the robot building factory? Don't robots build things anymore? Oh, hell, never mind: Elysium goes from an opening politicized statement about refugees, haves, and have-nots (As well as something muddled about universal health care), to what starts as a potentially interesting heist movie ... and becomes a dull action-adventure chase film.

It gets less and less interesting as time goes by and more and more predictable.

Blokamp is a director gifted with (a) a great eye for visual effects (which is what he started as) and (b) a non-American sensibility as he comes from South Africa which knows a thing or two about racism oppression ... so I hear. He infuses his film with both a super-real gritty look and a  non-US-isan sensibility (the bad guys are South African cyber-mercenaries) that he's able to do without having to explain it ("Look--see, these guys aren't American. I know your mind was just blown--but let totally explain this--" No, he just throws them in and it's fine. Thank God).

The problem is that the movie goes from "Woah--what a concept!" to "Wait, what!?" To "Oh--shoot'em Matt!." Damon is charismatic, of course (which you might think is why they cast him--but it isn't) and the film looks and moves well. Unfortunately it moves too fast, makes too little sense, and takes it for granted that you'll care about its sympathetic characters even as you're sitting back going "But--wait, what about Damon's buddy--and ... oh, he's dead ..."

In short, it stuffs an action-movie into a conceptual space that doesn't fit it.

The result is simultaneously kinetic but boring. It'd like to say the movie is smart--but fails to capitalize on its concept. Certainly political science fiction does get something of a pass: we understand that this is all allegorical and that humans work in the robot factory because we need to show oppressed laborers. That, alone, isn't the issue. The problem comes in when we can clearly see how this all needs to end and the movie is just taking its time getting us there so it can have some more explosions and gun battles.

I can't really recommend it, even if it starts out strong.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics Of: Elysium
A lot of people talked about the politics of this movie for once and that was one reason I didn't jump on it: the space was pretty full. Surprisingly, has the good line-up of quotes about its political fumble:
  • It isn't daring enough (totally true)
  • It's kind of retro-preachy (kinda true)
  • It's Star Trek level of preachyness (totally true)
  • It's muddled--it needs its own super-healing-tech to fix the screenplay (totally true)
  • It's grim and leaden (true)
  • It doesn't give us a look at its 1%'s (true--and a gaping flaw)
What I didn't see was the analysis that Elysium manages to be both naive and patronizing: a deadly combination.

Elysium Is Naive
Here's the setup:
  • The 99% do a bunch of labor (the 1% have robots for all service-oriented jobs with no human servants). These robots are very human-like even providing a no-reason beat-down when Damon mouths off to them.
  • The world is a smorgasbord of liberal apocalypse: Global Warming, mass extinction, no heath-care, extreme income inequality, racism (probably), and no unions. 
  • Of this huge mess of stuff, the focus is on health care where only citizens can get access to the super-healing chambers. So if you want to get healed (of anything, including head-exploding) you must get a citizenship stamp (fake or real) and then hop in a machine for 10 seconds. This is where the focus is.
  • So the entire story is wrapped around trying to get to Elysium in order to get health care.
In the end, Damon makes everyone a citizen and the station dispatches a flotilla of hospital ships world-wide to HEAL ALL THE PEOPLE.

Now, I suppose this is trying to make some kind of statement about ... universal heath care creating tragedies when people die due to preventable medical illnesses? How about immigration reform where people have to "cross the boarder" (on shuttles aiming for the station) in order to take advantage of what natural-born citizens get "for free"?

The problem, of course, is that this all falls apart under any kind of examination.

For example: Today heath care is not evenly distributed because it is costly and in at least somewhat limited supply. If health care in Elysium was expensive or limited what Matt Damon would have done is given the first 100 people healings and then it would run out for everyone for ever. Yay, Matt!

What Blokamp actually gives us, though, is a situation where the wealthy must have just been hoarding health care for no good reason. This is echoed by the robots being assholes: when they beat down Damon I was left wondering if they were, in fact, drones with human operators behind the helm.

It turns out, no: they're robots (they can be reprogrammed for revolution). They're just built to act like evil storm-troopers. If this is part of the design it's making a far stronger statement than we see from the Elysium elite (who at least pretend they don't like shooting down immigrants). In reality, it's Blokamp making the movie set in "today" (cops are jerks) with special effects and can't be arsed to think any more deeply about it.

This is the same with the 'happy ending'--what really changed? Someone can just go in and re-program the computers and shut down super-health care. The world is still ruined. There are still robot armies and whatever. We're told it's a happy ending but no one looking closely at it should buy it.

That's not the biggest problem, though. The real problem is that ...

Elysium is Patronizing
Teju Cole writes about the "White Savior Industrial Complex."
Read the whole article. The article is about Kony 2012 and how young, mostly white, American college kids thought they could change things by posting to Facebook. I'm not prepared to validate his whole thesis here (I'll note I never subscribed to anything Kony 2012 for reasons very similar, though) but I'd say he's on to something.

That's why Damon was cast in the movie. I'm sure the studios demanded it (more or less)--but yet another "white guy saves all the brown people" story-line should be treated as a product of a messaging machine that thinks you're too insecure to swallow anything else.

I don't subscribe to the belief that Hollywood, populated by Jews, uh, let's make that liberals,  is working actively to destroy conservative causes by making them seem evil. Conservative messaging makes itself seem evil more efficiently than Hollywood ever could*. When I start seeing branding coming out of the GOP that isn't self-destructive I'll start looking in Hollywood's speck-filled eyes.

On the other hand, the kind of mashed-potatoes glomp of liberal pain-points Elysium tries to lump together smells of pandering. Specifically that you, the young, white audience who thinks they ought to think more about these causes, is supposed to get a charge out this movie. I think the intent is that you'll watch it and feel you saw a film making some kind of 'important statement' about 'important things' and you'll, well, get your validation out of that (Yes, I think Avatar did this too, unfortunately).

To see this in action in another context, look here: XOJane publishes an article where a self-described skinny white yoga girl sees a fat black girl come into her studio (her 'beloved donation-based studio,' she lets us know) and she feels uncomfortable. Not because the girl is there--no, because there aren't more black girls there--or maybe more 'heavy' girls--or because the new black woman is having a hard time with the poses or ... something.

Anyway, she goes home, cries about it (that's in the article), talks to an XOJane editor who tells her to write up the first-hand experience ... and then everyone gets Internet Hate-Machine for it (her for being a privileged white girl with the temerity to open her mouth and the editor for running it).

The point is not that the white girl was wrong (she was, uhm, pretty naive in her approach to things, yes) or that her concern was misplaced (maybe it was? maybe not--but the Internet Hate Machine is almost always wrong--and even if it finds a deserving target once in a while it's still a random self-congratulatory masturbatory asshole-fest). The problem is this: Elysium is playing to exactly the kind of naivete that the skinny-white-girl exhibited in her article.

I have no idea if she saw it and thought it was an awesome and deep movie--but she's definitely in the zone where that's supposed to happen. Elysium thinks you're right there too. That's the problem.

* Captain America gets beautiful social-conservative credibility in The Avengers as a character who unreservedly believes in God. Imagine him going on to quip about illegal aliens or the keeping pre-existing conditions in the health-care system? Yeah ...

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