“In a future in which the privileged reside on an Earth-orbiting space station named Elysium and the less fortunate live on the surface of the blighted, overpopulated planet below, one man dares to defy the strict anti-immigration laws that separate the two disparate worlds in order to save all of mankind in this visceral sci-fi action thriller from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. The year is 2154, and the division between social classes has grown wider than ever before. As the rich enjoy a life of luxury and access to cutting-edge medical technology on Elysium, the rest of the human race contend with poverty, crime, and disease on the surface of planet Earth. Meanwhile, hard-line immigration laws ensure that only those who have been explicitly approved will ever set foot on the elusive paradise in the stars. 36-year-old Max (Matt Damon) lives in an L.A. shantytown and earns his living by working on an Armadyne assembly line. He’s had a rough past, but he’s struggling to stay on the right side of the law when he realizes that his only hope for survival after being exposed to deadly radiation is to reach Elysium. Should Max succeed, he will strike a major blow for equality in the eyes of his fellow surface dwellers; should he fail, it will mean certain death. In his quest to become the hero who can restore the balance between the rich and the poor, however, Max must first do battle with Elysium’s hawkish Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who has devoted her entire career to maintaining that division, and whose key enforcer Kruger (Sharlto Copley) is notorious for his brutal tactics in driving out illegals. With the fates of millions hanging in the balance, Max sets his sights on Elysium and never looks back. Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, and Faran Tahir co-star.” ~ Rovi’s AllMovie Guide
Back in April of 1927, the New York Times published a review of Fritz Lang’s newly released film Metropolis written by none other than famed science fiction author H. G. Wells himself. To say that “The Man Who Invented Tomorrow” was no fan of Lang’s own unique take on the future of humanity would be the epitome of understatement. Wells despised the film. Now sitting here 86 years after the fact, that may strike some people as a bit odd. After all, while no movie ever receives universal acclaim, Lang’s Metropolis is one of those that comes pretty darn close (a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is about as near to a perfect score as a film can hope for). Many adore it and rank it among cinema’s finest achievements, while most of those who don’t still admit to the film’s artistry and recognize Metropolis’ influence on every movie that followed. But not Wells, he hated it with a passion.
Why? Well, in his article, Mr. Wells wrote that Metropolis, “gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own… The ‘sons of the rich’ are seen disporting themselves, with underclad ladies in a sort of joy conservatory, rather like the ‘winter garden’ of an enterprising 1890 hotel during an orgy. The rest of the population is in a state of abject slavery, working in ‘shifts’ of ten hours in some mysteriously divided twenty-four hours, and with no money to spend or property or freedom. The machines make wealth. How, is not stated… There is some rather good swishing about in water, after the best film traditions, some violent and unconvincing machine-breaking and rioting and wreckage, and then, rather confusedly, one gathers that Masterman has learnt a lesson, and that workers and employers are now to be reconciled by ‘Love… Now far away in the dear old 1897 it may have been excusable to symbolize social relations in this way, but that was thirty years ago, and a lot of thinking and some experience intervene.”
So, yeah, Wells didn’t have many nice things to say about Metropolis. Apparently the movie so offended his political and scientific worldview that Wells could hardly tolerate its existence. But was the movie really at fault, or was it Wells himself who was the problem? As G. K. Chesterton once wrote of his friend (and frequent debate opponent), one of H. G. Wells’ shortcomings was his seeming inability to free himself from “the narrower scientific outlook to see that there are some things which actually ought not to be scientific. He is still slightly affected with the great scientific fallacy; I mean the habit of beginning not with the human soul, which is the first thing a man learns about, but with some such thing as protoplasm, which is about the last.” In short, having rejected religion and philosophy, Wells tended to filter everything through science and politics. And the reason that was a problem in this instance is because Metropolis doesn’t really operate on those levels. With its heavily stylized expressionistic art design, its almost fairytale like setting, and its characters who function more as metaphors than they do as real people, Metropolis is all about philosophy, not day to day politics. The ultimate solution to the dystopia presented in Metropolis is not to change laws, but to change people’s hearts. That being the case, it’s no wonder Wells’ predilections towards scientism kept him from finding anything worthwhile in the film.
But why, you’re probably asking by now, am I bothering to bring all this stuff up about H. G. Wells and Metropolis when I’m supposed to be reviewing Elysium? Well, given the reasons Wells stated for despising the earlier film, it would be interesting to see how he would have responded to this latest one, because despite the fact that the setup is the same (the rich party above while the poor toil below), Elysium is no Metropolis. Now that’s not because the film is poorly made, it’s quite the opposite in fact. With Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp proves that his previous effort, the critically acclaimed District 9, was no fluke. It’s nowhere near as stylized as Metropolis, of course, but Elysium still looks great, from the titular orbiting paradise to the perfectly realized wasteland of future Los Angeles. I don’t know how much time Blomkamp has actually spent walking around the ghettos of his home country of South Africa, but man, nobody films realistic looking blight as well as he does. And as for how he handles all of the sci-fi stuff (space ships, armored suits, exoskeletons, healing machines even more magical than a vial of Khan’s blood), I would have to imagine that after viewing Elysium, gamers around the world will be wailing and gnashing their teeth that Blomkamp gave up on his plans to make that Halo movie.
On top of that, the movie is well acted… for the most part. Make all the Matt Damon/Team America jokes you want to (please do, cause that still cracks me up), but when the man is on, he’s really on. And Damon’s pretty good here as Max, a basically selfish ex-con forced by circumstances into being a reluctant savior to the oppressed masses. Also on hand is Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s leading man from District 9, whose bizarre bounty hunter Kruger pretty much steals every scene he’s in. And it’s always nice to have William Fichtner show up to play an utter creep (hey, everybody’s good at something, right). Surprisingly, the only actor off their game a bit is the usually reliable Jodie Foster who doesn’t quite manage to pull off whatever accent it is she’s trying to use. You would have thought that after Nell she would have learned her lesson about trying to talk funny, but alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Still, overall, the acting is fine.
So it’s not really an issue of quality that separates Elysium from Metropolis. Rather, it’s a matter of vision. You see, as it turns out, Elysium does exactly what Wells claimed he wanted from Lang’s film. That is, right from the start, Elysium abandons philosophy in favor of straight ahead politics. It begins with onscreen captions explaining how after the Earth became over-polluted and overpopulated, all of the wealthy folks took their toys and left for Elysium. Now the environmental angle is a common staple in sci-fi, one we’ve already seen pop up a couple of times this year in movies like After Earth and Oblivion, so it’s no big deal. After all, nobody wants a dirty Earth. But the choice to include overpopulation as a cause for the planet turning into a hell-hole is an overtly political decision on the part of the screenwriters, one that sets the tone for the rest of the movie which follows. I don’t want to get into the whole overpopulation debate here (though I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that those with teaching authority in the Church believe the whole theory to be junk science at best and unmitigated evil at worst.), I’m just pointing out that Elysium sets up Earth’s problems as primarily political ones, with the film going out of its way to take a number of thinly-veiled potshots at one particular political party’s current stands on welfare, immigration, and healthcare.
Now let’s be clear, as a Catholic, I‘ve got axes to grind with both major parties mucking things up in my country, so I could care less that the movie picks a side in a political debate. Heck, movies like They Live wouldn’t be half as much fun without all the political subtext. The problem is that Elysium seems to think politics is the ultimate solution to everything that ails the planet, including poverty. This flies in the face of the Catechism which tells us that “in its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.” In short, the drive to aid the impoverished must start in the hearts of individuals and their willingness to see the face of Jesus in the poor. Free their hearts, and their wallets will follow.
That’s not what happens in this movie. At the film’s conclusion (which I’m not going to spoil in depth, don’t worry) not one single person who lives in Elysium has had a change of heart towards the poor on Earth, they simply have to go along with the outcome because it’s been forced on them by the political coup carried out by Max and his pals. So even if the film’s denouement made economic sense (and once you see it, you’ll probably have serious doubts about that), it’s hard to believe charity by coercion would really be a long term sustainable solution. As much as it might disgust H. G. Wells, what Lang’s film “served up with a sauce of sentimentality” was fundamentally correct, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”, not the ballot box. And that simple truth is why Elysium, as well made and enjoyable as it is, will never find itself sitting atop the lists of classics next to Metropolis.
To be fair to Elysium, this year’s Man of Steel also used overpopulation as one of the reasons the planet Krypton was in trouble. But that was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of thing, not as integral to the plot as it is in Blomkamp’s film. In fact, given Clark and Lois’ liplock in what was left of downtown Metropolis (DC’s version, not Lang’s) at the end of Man of Steel, I would imagine adding to the world’s population was very much on Kal-El’s mind.