Saturday, 24 August 2013

Elysium Dreams Unrealised

Quick Review

The story was straight forward, vanilla but never unbearably dull. Exactly as advertised on the tin; the trailer can be taken as complete crib notes. The special reserve was Sharlto Copley's maniacal "Kruger", also the only enjoyable character, demanding stage presence.

It felt horribly under-ambitious, especially compared to the inspired District 9. I think Neil Blomkamp was aiming for the kind of perfectly well rounded movie that translates very well into international sales. Blomkamp openly admits that this film was supposed to be his great big Hollywood blockbuster, like he's collecting a set. I guess that's a little like Stross's tendency toward a different pastiche for each book, particularly in styling his Laundry novel's. In the process Blomkamp has shaved so many edges smooth that the kernel of all his ideas barely remained...
  • There were zero laughs, perhaps occasional snorts of acknowledgement. The most amusing part, for me, was that the Elysium leadership seemed to be named after Harry Potter characters: (Fleur) Delacourt, (Padma and Parvati) Patil/Patel.
  • It was not nearly as bloody/gory/ugly as expected; virtually sterile, even for a 15 certificate, certainly compared to some of the gut wrenching, watching-between-fingers, type scenes in which Copley previously stared. I guess I just take exploding people for granted...
  • No full-on action-gasm; no pig gun equivalent. There was a bit of an OooOOoh, here we go! moment in the middle, during the (abduction) action sequence, but it felt like a bit of an aborted fumble in comparison.
  • Totally non-sexual, unless you count the CGI porn of the perfectly manicured orbital habitat. Which is fine; interesting purely for *not* ticking that box. The romantic connection was underplayed too, though. Perhaps it was just a little too unsubtle. That does fit with the earthy, realistic aesthetic though; not at all the quick fling, fantasy Hollywood romance.
  • The film does do pretty well (for an American blockbuster) at including an international flavour, with a Brazilian love interest, strong hispanic (Mexican) presence, and French, South African (and British?) villains. Bechdel test was "squarely fail[ed]", however, but then it wasn't exactly a very talky movie.
  • Emotionally un-engaging, with no real personal journey for Max, played by Matt Damon, who I've decided I like, but here he felt like a laminated cardboard cut-out.
As Wired reported: "...Blomkamp is a longtime [Michael] Bay fanboy..." due to his "inspiring" action composition. Despite deriding contemporary sci-fi's "...exploding and spaceships and stuff", he also claims "Elysium doesn’t have a message either,". This is more that he personally has no political agenda; supposedly he just genuinely revels in the dystopian slums of present day Johannesburg and LA. They hold an enthusiastic fascination for him. Certainly it's best for sales to avoid shoving political/humanitarian agendas at potential customers, but a brutally neutral take on these topics is also going to be the best way to bypass people's mental defences and get them actually thinking about our world's flaws.

Orbital Speed?
Discussion of Topics Raised and Avoided

The Elysium space habitat seems to exist in a total vacuum, in more than the literal sense; the setting is starkly prosaic, with a straight up, straight down world. Deliberately so, I think, going for symbolism. 'Elysium' (the Greek/Roman afterlife for the relatives and friends of gods and the most virtuous) perched there above the clouds, so those below (in Hades) can look up at it's glowing halo, as one might do in prayer today. Witness, too, the religious orphanage the protagonist grows up in, etc.

My point is also that the film very carefully avoids mention of anywhere else on earth besides the LA sprawl, which seems more a quaint, contemporary, shanty-town in comparison to the Neuromancer (1984) style sprawl (seen breifly in the opening exposition: right).

The implication, by omission, is that Elysium is holey unique. A son-of, son-of, ISS. But maybe the 'President' is not ruler of the world, merely the future USA, or some EU/North American combine. Maybe there are other, unmentioned, orbitals spawed from different superpower nations. Or maybe the Chinese had their own private singularity and failed to invite the stinky Yanks. Perhaps this is a post-singularity Earth, where the means of technological advance has departed, leaving a truly zero-sum existence behind, to slowly crumble.

Food/eating was avoided altogether. I'd imagine, that in such a setting that those in the endless squats, sprawling Earth's entire surface (?), would be surviving on some kind of cheap, ultra-processed slop. Solid food from traditional agriculture would require growing space; our subsistence farmer would look like landed gentry in comparison. Something like Soylent, with all the promising possibilities unrealised; a new, futuristic product that actually turns out to actually be a cheaper option. In the same way that devices/furniture have been increasingly made out of plastics, while metal and old fashions heavy wooden finishes have risen out of reach for most. Civilisational advance giveth and taketh away: “When I was young I never expected to be so poor that I could not afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car” - Agatha Christie (via Freeman Dyson).

The deeply flawed society shown in the film can barely be considered to be satire of real life, let alone extrapolation out to 140 years. We already have:
  • Warrior cops, over militarised and too poorly humoured to safely deal with policing civilians.
  • Overly automated service systems that make it conveniently impossible to explain subtleties.
  • Super-wealthy with their own private islands, yachts, etc.
  • A black president, apparently, cowed by military civil servants.
  • Continuing downward pressure on employment rights, with hiring/firing trivially easy in many quarters.
The graffiti covered face of many a telephone 'help' line, or the (deliberately) flawed organisation of the likes of ATOS?
The healing machines were just too alien in their instant magic. I know that they had to be miraculous enough to hang the plot on, but again, some kind of back-story there please? I mean, are they really supposed to be cheap enough to manufacture that they are just laying about in people's houses like tanning beds? Why not have them in somewhat limited supply, due to constraints of exotic matter, or the expertise to build them no-longer existing.

Building back Copley's face was a cool plot twist; reviving him when the audience genuinely thinks he's dead. But again, the machine just worked a bit too quick and painless - "re-atomising" FTW! One presumes such a process requires use of extremely limited feed-stock/energy, otherwise why not atomise your armies of robots into existence (make them brutishly sturdy clones if you like)?

Secretary of Defence, Jodie Foster, is supposedly 108 years old (though that detail was superfluous to the final cut). This would have hinted at possible problem with longevity; intensifying inequality still further, when one doesn't even need to pass wealth down to offspring. Political power may well be consolidated too, with reputation able to grow without limit, there might be less room for disruption of the norm.

Nit Picking [SPOILER heavy]

I don't think the radiation exposure incident itself would have caused him to pass out quickly - it would have been more sickeningly claustrophobic and drawn, perhaps succumbing to overheating eventually. At any rate, that dose, enough to kill him in (exactly!) 5 days, would have meant an horrendously slow death of appalling messy deterioration:

Since the epithelial cells of the gut are so delicate, one of the most distinctive symptoms of the 8-30 gray dose (i.e. 2 days-2 weeks life expectancy bracket) is "Severe diarrhea". This isn't some IBS, it's irreparable membrane damage, liquids an vital electrolytes can no-longer be absorbed and blood (and tissue) are now leaking out. He shouldn't have had to admit to "shitting himself": his mate would have been well aware. The shock and CNS disturbances were depicted, initially, but he seemed to somehow get over them as the story progressed, despite barely taking any of the semi-magic pills. Iain M Banks gave a shockingly believable rendition of exactly this kind of death, in a brutal twist towards the conclusion of Matter.

Before bolting the exo-suit to skeleton, they say it'll hurt like hell, then they knock him out with a general anaesthetic. When he wakes he shows no sign of pain, well concealed or otherwise, or even skin irritation. In honesty, I don't know that a throw-away line about the neural chip having some pain blockading functionality would have made it better. Techno-babble is old hat I suppose. They could have given him partial numbness around the incisions, or some kind of hint, though.

Presumably too gory for the desired certificate (from
What made the cut was more like a brief Pimp My Ride montage.
His blood cells and the immune system would have been fried in the robot cooker too, with infection then being a massive problem. So, traumatic, back street surgery would have totally done him in. I guess that, at least immune rejection wouldn't have been an issue, but he would have been unable to heal at all. His nurse friend could have healed him overnight from a deep stab wound too... even if she was running an unlicensed clinic with her daughter's leukaemia as a cover.

Max is ridiculously unbloodied by the end scenes, given all the traumas his body's been put through. Not least of all the many big hits he takes to his head and abdomen, which are totally exposed for the most part, with the metal suit mostly just holding him up from behind. It's very much a computer game trope: even the skimpiest of armour designs providing an overall +9 damage resistance, or whatever. Parts of him should have been pulped several times.

'Chappie' taking cover,
in a 2003 Blomkamp Short.
Carlyle's transport is ridiculously easy to shoot down (on a whim), given that he's CEO of the military contractor that builds all the robots and Elysium itself.

Then his personal military droids were horrendously inefficient: Having been given instructions/authorisation to kill, and with clear line of sight target locks shown in their first person perspective, the robot chose to fire a grenade. Then, only after Max is safely hidden in cover does it let loose the bullets. I know it can't be allowed to kill our protagonist, but c'mon, give us something: wing one of the minor characters, or give a more obvious nod to lucky circumstance.

I don't understand why the robots didn't immediately work as a pair either (I didn't notice Carlyle panic and hold one back),  or why they didn't take cover, flank, advance more... I guess Armadyne boss man was underpaying his AI programmers too. (BTW, William Fichtner had an eerily familiar voice, not surprising, given the scope of his acting career, I guess his GTA roles were the tickle for me.)

Elysium was sitting on a stockpile of flying, automated hospitals this whole time?! They would have been a nearly pointless emergency contingency on the space station itself. But I guess the paranoid politics of the 1% could easily lead to those kind of idiosyncrasies. Still they could have been using one or two of them as diversionary targets for the desperate health refugees to shoot for instead.
And it all ended happily ever after! (Trailer at 3:05)
No. He can't.
This ending would generally be interpreted as saying that much of the imbalances had now been redressed... But trying to bootstrap society like this would be pissing in the sea: too little, too late. The damage has already been done to civilisation, in building such a slender pinnacle of privilege off the backs of the poor: a zero-sum extrusion of contemporary civilisation, rather than an exponentially scaling curve.

Servicing Elysium must take the entire combined efforts and GDP of those below. Even if the resources of that slender preserve are used to breaking point (and break they will; their 3 med-ships won't have been engineered for heavy use), it will achieve nothing beyond a final toppling of order.


  1. Great post/summary of Elysium. I was thinking a lot of the same things: It's basically a fun romp if you don't overthink it.

    The surface-to-space missile launch was amazing, the exo-skeleton knife fight and even all the robot CGI was also great. Again, these are all action highlights.

    1. Thank you. Actually, I did quite like those shoulder launched missiles too. I was puzzled about what this ground based asset was going to do; surely he it was too late, even if he took out the ground control base. But then yeah, actually it made sense: the military hardware would be the easy part, but using it to kill a load of people in a plausibly deniable way, that's far trickier. Thinking about it now reminds me of "A Gift from the Culture" (in "State of the Art" by Iain M Banks). That was supposed to be adapted for the big screen sometime soon: