“Elysium” and the Continuing Quest for a Liberal Blockbuster

The prevailing storyline about the summer movies of 2013 has revolved around the seemingly endless series of high-profile flops. After Earth, White House Down, and The Lone Ranger were all certified failures, while Pacific Rim, Oblivion, and Pain and Gain also significantly underperformed. But the other consistent and somewhat surprising feature of this summer’s multiplex movies were their attempts to insert a higher degree of politically liberal commentary than we are used to seeing. Usually, summer movies avoid overt political content because they need to cater to the widest possible audiences. Not this year. Several of them depicted the military-industrial complex as the sole cause of war (White House Down, The Lone Ranger); others pushed a subtle environmental message by setting their action on planets that have been drained of their natural resources (After Earth, Oblivion, Man of Steel). And they all seemed to feature drones.

None of these films coalesced into a cogent political argument, but Elysium seemed poised to break the trend. Director Neill Blomkamp’s first film, the Oscar-nominated District 9, offered a provocative and compelling immigration allegory with a little action thrown in, presumably to get butts in the seats. Working with a much higher budget and a bonafide liberal movie star, Elysium promised to take Blomkamp’s message to the mainstream, and many on the left seemed excited about the potential of a liberal blockbuster.

Unfortunately, it ended up neither liberal nor a blockbuster. Elysium won the weekend, but with a somewhat disappointing $30 million haul. And while it certainly has the sheen of Blomkamp’s liberal politics, the film undercuts its core message in its slam-bang, action packed second half. The fact that it has succeeded at all is an accomplishment, but it also illuminates the challenges of working within the studio system on a project that puts social issues at the forefront.

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The dystopian universe depicted in the film has enough political layers to fill a 24-hours news cycle. With the Earth’s resources used up, the rich have moved to a massive space station, where they live off the labor of the poor souls still on Earth. It’s sort of a catchall for progressive political issues. That supporters of immigration reform, economic justice, sentencing reform, and environmental action will all find something to like here speaks to the power of this simple metaphor. Better still, the film casts true lefty Matt Damon as its lead. Unlike his friend George Clooney, Damon has been deeply critical of President Obama, even telling an interviewer last week that the president “broke up” with him.

Damon plays Max, an ex-con who dreams of getting to Elysium but who struggles to even pay his bills living as a virtual slave on Earth. He has a factory job building the weapons that the rich use to keep people like him away from Elysium, and it keeps him afloat until disaster strikes. After being forced by his supervisor under threat of dismissal to complete a dangerous task, he takes a fatal dose of radiation. He will die in five days, and his only chance to be saved is to break into Elysium, where all illnesses can be cured with the click of a button.

Trying to make a liberal action blockbuster might be a noble endeavor, but Blomkamp clearly loses his nerve midway through the film. The ninety-nine-percenters out there will easily jump on this journey with Max, but as the second half of the film devolves into a series of bloody fight scenes and action sequences, there is a noticeable disconnect between the film’s function and its form. After all, violence is the language of the oppressor; real change, we believe, happens at the ballot box. I won’t deny that the action is well-staged and exciting, but the onscreen violence is of the popcorn variety, and very little of is deeply felt. Elysium seems to enjoy its bloodshed too much, instead of depicting it as a necessary evil.

 

If we were being generous towards Blomkamp, we could assume that the violence is not a sell-out but part of the intended political message. Maybe he is arguing that violent revolution, not democracy, is the only thing that can lift us from our corporate oppression. The facts do align in his favor. In the era of Citizens United, it’s hard to imagine ending the flow of corporate money into our system through voting alone. Still, violence in film is most effective when used sparingly, and Elysium instead bludgeons the viewer into submission. That’s hardly a recipe for inspiring change.

But this is the trade-off Blomkamp has made. If you want to make a movie that opens in 4,000 theaters and wins the weekend, you’re going to have to satisfy the masses, and studio executives are still convinced that killing is the only sure way to the hearts of most Americans. Although it was the superior film, District 9 struggled with this issue, too. The third act featured an extended action sequence that detracted from the energy of its original, provocative story. But Elysium expands its action until it comprises half the film, and its politics get lost in the lights.

The dual failure of Elysium as a blockbuster action movie and a cogent political allegory serves to remind us of the oppression of commercial art. Can a movie that panders to the most base desires of its audience ever really provoke serious political thought? Although I hope they keep trying, it’s hard to imagine what a liberal blockbuster would look like. Instead, we get movies like Elysium, which has a revolutionary idea at its core but is ultimately deeply conservative. The film sadly provides little value, outside of a couple of good hours spent inside on a hot summer day, leaving the problems of the world at the door. Still, I’m pretty sure that’s not what the filmmakers intended.

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