The problem with the new film Elysium is very simple: it doesn’t tell any story worth hearing. It’s written like a child’s paint-by-numbers set. And though it bears some superficial resemblance to District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s much more complex first feature, it’s the kind of thing that could just as easily have been directed by Michael Bay or McG or, for that matter, Chris Columbus. The person at the helm is irrelevant; the parameters were predetermined. In fact, if you listen real hard, you can almost still see the suits in the background saying to the screenwriters: “Hey, can we involve a cute child with cancer, somehow? That’s big on the Internet.”
Though Blomkamp recently told Entertainment Weekly that Elysium is about “now,” I assume he can only mean it is about the way we make movies now, which is to say we prefer to remove all politics in favor of woo-y philosophizing about “the triumph of the human spirit.” Which means that it misses the entire point of Blomkamp’s prior success. District 9 was a sleeper hit because it was an intelligent, interesting movie that took its cues from real-world politics. Sequestering “extraterrestrials” and moving them from one internment camp to another in the name of public safety is a direct allegory both to the War on Terror and to apartheid. The title itself is a reference to a famous relocation incident in South Africa in the 1970s in “District 6.” The film raises fairly specific and obvious questions about racism and xenophobia. It was, in short, anything but a deliberate crowd-pleaser; it was not pure escapism. Still, it made more than seven times its original budget of $30 million, and Hollywood swiftly snapped up the director for a “real” movie deal, and here we are with this clunker of a Matt Damon vehicle.
I mean, sure, there’s some kind of narrative arc that involves Matt Damon taking his ex-girlfriend to use a magical healing machine ripped off from Prometheus in a sort of gated community in the sky, chiefly to heal her very cute little girl of cancer. (Everyone hates cancer!) I suppose you could say that’s some kind of statement in support of universal health care. And sure, there are vague implications that the people still on earth are the 99 percent. They speak Spanish, after all, and live in shacks in Los Angeles, which is obviously what many poor people do now. And a vaguely Aryan-and-French, I’m-just-here-paying-the-mortgage Jodie Foster shoots them out of the sky with the bored resolve of an established star paying the mortgage, which I guess is supposed to be some kind of allusion to the border militias in Texas. Add to that a radiation-soaked manufacturing facility run by a notoriously creepy character actor whose mere presence on the screen screams “you in danger, girl” and we’re off to the half-assed political races, no?
This sort of thing is becoming a near epidemic in Hollywood: highly digested versions of ripped-from-the-headlines issues that not only don’t literally refer back to the politics they’re inspired by, but warp and corrupt them. There are legitimate, even great arguments for why all of these issues should be addressed in pop culture, but the way Hollywood barfs them back out at us borders on appalling. The reason to have universal health care is not that cute children will be saved by it; the reason is because everyone on the planet is a human being deserving of adequate medical services. The reason immigrants are shot at the border is racism, a point Elysium rather undermines when it turns out that all you need to do to cure this murderous xenophobia is reprogram a frickin’ computer. And the reason enlisting secret, off-the-public-record black-ops forces is bad that it undermines democracy, not that the people hired are always lunatics with a rape fetish. (Though sometimes they are.)
Making all of this stuff “palatable” for audiences is one thing; no one is asking that these films become policy hours hosted by a tag-teaming Al Gore and Gwen Ifill. But every time I am sitting watching the kind of eye-roll-inducing, “My Heart Will Go On”-inspired conclusion of a film like Elysium, I feel a sudden stab of solidarity with the conservative pundits who want to know whether America really wants to be ruled by Hollywood. Yeah, I think to myself, I don’t want these guys with their finger over the red button either. Dumb politics, as it turns out, can be both right and left.