The Conversation

Class-war fables from the five-star-hotel jet set

I'm reluctant to weigh in too heavily on a movie I haven't seen yet, especially when its release is only a week away, but John Nolte's takedown of "Elysium" is brutally on the mark.  I loved "District 9" and had high hopes for Neill Blomkamp's follow-up.  I was dismayed by the dopey class-war fable he seemed intent on making, but his debut left me with enough residual appreciation for his storytelling abilities to hope that he'd do something interesting with the idea.  The early reviews aren't encouraging.

I'd offer one hopeful defense of Blomkamp against John's critique: he seems clever enough to appreciate that he's basically making an "allegory" that perfectly reflects the current relationship between Hollywood and Los Angeles.  I doubt Matt Damon would appreciate the irony, but this might be a joke Blomkamp didn't let him in on.

The sheer absurdity of millionaire actors and directors spending over $100 million to produce a class-war fantasy and sell it to the besieged middle class of Barack Obama's no-growth America for $15 a head is better post-modern entertainment than the movie itself is likely to be.  Speaking of health care for the elite, it's just too damn perfect that "Elysium" is coming out right after His Majesty King Barack I issued a royal decree exempting the bloated staff of the imperial Congress from his train-wreck health-care boondoggle.  We all know that the power elite will never have to stand before the death panels; even when hardcore rationing of health care sets in, the aristocracy will get special treatment.  But now their loyal courtiers will be exempted from the high out-of-pocket costs and poor quality that Obama has inflicted on the American workforce.  We've got people like Anthony Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, raking in gigantic salaries and receiving praise for their marvelous accomplishments without actually doing anything.  Abedin actually got to draw a six-figure State Dept. paycheck while taking another job to alleviate her do-nothing boredom.  The political class is living higher and higher on the hog while jobless America transitions to a part-time service-industry workforce, with a staggering percentage of the population now depending on some form of federal assistance to buy food.  Obama's off on yet another luxury vacation.  Elysium lives on Capitol Hill, as well as the Hollywood hills. 

Science fiction (and really, even outright epic fantasy) has to make a certain degree of sense for the story to work.  How could it possibly make sense to construct an orbital habitat the size of Elysium in less than 140 years?  If the super-rich wanted a secure playground away from the huddled masses, there had to be easier ways to construct and defend one on Earth.  And if they've really got technology that can quickly and effortlessly cure cancer, as the trailers show us, then completely withholding it from the poor folks on Earth is pointless.  There's no reason, short of sheer sadistic cruelty, to keep every single one of the cancer-curing booths locked away in orbit.  The whole allegory completely misses the point of how such feats of engineering become possible in the first place.  And if the gates to Elysium are opened wide to a gigantic earthbound population, Elysium will cease to exist - it would be overrun and destroyed.  It would cease to be anything special.  (Maybe that's how the movie ends.  If so, perhaps Blomkamp is playing a sharper game than the Hollywood Reporter critic gives him credit for.)

I'll offer one serious quibble with that Hollywood Reporter write-up: I didn't think the third act of "District 9" was particularly weak.  The whole thing avoided being a ham-fisted allegory for apartheid.  That's what it looked like on the surface, but it was far more complex once the story began rolling, especially because Blomkamp made the savvy decision not to deify or idealize the aliens.  They were understandably difficult to get along with; some of them were very nasty customers; they were arguably responsible for a great deal of their condition (with their more intelligent leadership in hiding, rather than stepping forward to help them out); and it's anyone's guess what the true ending of the story will be, when the aliens return to Earth (or fail to do so.)  One human and one alien managed to form a tenuous bond of friendship, but there was no simplistic, politically-correct ending in which their friendship conquered all.


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