Pushing an agenda without emotion, without connection, is like yelling at someone to change, instead of teaching by example. One leads to reaction, to anger. An affront has been made. You don’t know me. Why should I listen to you? The other leads to respect, a desire to learn more, a willingness to inspect our own thoughts and actions, and to, just maybe, find new ways of doing things that can better ourselves and the world around us.
In a movie, our connection is with the characters, with their stories, their hopes and dreams. If we do not believe they are real, or care about their motivations, it all becomes a meaningless parade of images. Sometimes it may be “cool,” filled with action and special effects, but in the end, we leave feeling empty. Why didn’t I care about this film? It looked so beautiful. It had a great concept and theme. It was loaded with great actors. But I just didn’t care. This is how I felt after watching Neill Blomkamp’s movie, Elysium. It was all agenda and action and little emotion.
Most of my complaints stem from the pacing of Elysium. It felt too compressed. This type of epic allegorical material feels more at home in a two and a half to three hour film, something the likes of a Lord of the Rings (2001) or Gladiator (2000). It sounds strange to complain that a movie I was disappointed in felt too short, but allowing the time to establish an epic new world, and giving the characters the breathing room to grow and become real, is what seemed to be lacking. It felt as if the story arch was all peaks and no valleys, all action and no emotional content. We go from cliche flashbacks, to establishing the main character, to establishing the setting, to showing the battle between the rich and the poor, to a power struggle between the leadership of Elysium, all in an extremely short period of time. We are never given the time to learn who these people really are. I don’t “care” that there is a struggle if I don’t “know” the people who are struggling.
In the establishing flashbacks, we see our lead, Max (Matt Damon) and his love interest, Frey (Alice Braga) befriend each other, and dream of one day going to Elysium. Yet we never really get to know who they are. Flash forward to the present, when Max and Frey meet again in the hospital. This reuniting is so brief and so anti-climactic that it barely creates a context for an emotional relationship to develop. Max eventually sets up a date, but when the time comes to go on said date, Max is already well on his way to death. Frey discovers Max outside of her hospital and takes him back to her house. This could have been a great opportunity to build their connection. Instead, Max is mostly incoherent and he quickly passes out on her bed.
The next morning, Frey’s dying little girl attempts to make a connection with Max. She tells the fable of the hippo and the meerkat as a plea for help, but Max decides it is too dangerous to take her to Elysium, so he rushes out the door. In fact, he never makes a decision to try and help. The decision to help is made for Max, when Kruger (Sharlto Copley) and his clan capture Frey and her daughter, and they all end up prisoners on the same ship. By rushing all of the scenes where emotional connections could have been made, Blomkamp loses his audiences participation in the story.
For all of its failings, this is a movie I will probably watch again. I really do appreciate what Blomkamp is trying to do in Elysium, and there is a lot to love about the world he creates. I’m a sucker for futuristic dystopias. This movie has the perfect combination of cold clunky technology, gritty grimy alleys and futuristic military weapons. It brings back my love for the film worlds of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).
There is so much visual and story potential built into the world of Elysium. Blomkamp’s mistake was focusing so much on the setting, on creating great action scenes, and on the thematic material, that he forgot to develop the characters into living breathing humans that we could fall in love with. Without a strong emotional connection to the characters, we are left with what becomes heavy-handed social commentary and a hollow shell of pretty action.
But this is about making art. And art is about taking risks. I am happy with where Neill Blomkamp is going. He is pushing his art and trying to make something that will evoke change in the world. I hope he keeps pushing. I hope this is just the beginning.