After giving us aliens as metaphor for apartheid in the dystopian District 9 (2009), Neil Blomkamp again jumps on the allegory race horse with Elysium, a dazzling and succinct piece that is as flawed as it is brilliant.
For me, the first great aspect of Elysium has nothing to do with the film’s content, but rather the studios that financed it, Sony Pictures and MRC (Media Rights Capital). Between them they have dumped an estimated $115M into something that is not a remake or a reboot – this is original material, a spec script sale, something Hollywood movie investors have become terrified of during the last half decade. Okay, so it came from Neil Blomkamp, writer and director of District 9, but studios are still extremely wary of investing in one-shot writer/directors. Could this be the start of a turning point back to the days when the spec script was king of Hollywood? Let’s hope so.
Elysium is set in 2154, and is a world divided between a governing wealthy elite and a beggared underclass, a classic allegorical theme that literature has been recycled for centuries and is very popular within the science fiction genre (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, The Matrix trilogy, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four et al).
The wealthy live on Elysium, a giant 2001-like space station visible from Earth’s surface as a hazy mirage. On Elysium, people live in sprawling mansions and own Gucci med-bays that cure all illnesses, even old age. Immortality. The perfect life. The rest of humanity live on Earth, in its irradiated atmosphere, fighting against famine and Elysium’s regime of robo-cops.
A prologue introduces a young boy called Max (a sequence the audience will know off-by-heart by the end of the film), who’s been cared for by nuns, along with his best friend, Freya. Max wants nothing more than to travel to Elysium, but only the rich can go there, and Max is just a poor orphan. He promises Freya that one day he’ll take her there.
Jump ahead some years to Max as an adult (Damon), and he’s still not rich. He’s a reformed criminal struggling to go straight and earn an honest wage, Elysium a constant moon in the blue sky, a tantalising reminder of his goal. His job is to build the police droids that Elysium’s government uses to control the masses on Earth (a nice touch of irony – see the screenwriting lesson below). Soon enough Max has an accident at work that sees him take a lethal dose of radiation. With only five days to live, his only hope is to get to Elysium.
|Jodie Foster as the strangely voiced Delacourt. She really needs to change those frosty knickers.|
But Delacourt (Jodie Foster) makes that impossible. She’s the Homeland Security chief tasked with upholding Elysium’s hardline anti-immigration policy, which she does without a flinch of emotion in an earlier sequence when she orders the destruction of three spaceships carrying dozens of women and children. She accomplishes this not with an array of weaponry on board Elysium, but with a single sleeper agent on Earth – Kruger (Sharlto Copley) – who uses an over-the-shoulder rocket launcher to shoot down the ships. This raises the question of why Elysium lacks any kind of defense system, but the film never answers it. The first of many illogical flaws in the script’s narrative.
|Sharlto Copley as the sadistic Kruger.|
|Elysium’s only defence… Mmmm…|
Foster’s performance also raised eyebrows. She played the part with a strange accent and peculiar mannerisms that drag you out of the story and make you question exactly what it is she’s trying to do. That’s hard to work out and, even in death, her character just doesn’t ring true.
One of Elysium’s stand-out aspects is its CGI effects, which are seamless and a huge step up from those of District 9 (that’s no sleight on D9’s CGI effects, which were really good). The police droids move with fluid, human-like agility (360 degree motion capture apparently), and in one sequence, Max takes one out with explosive ordnance, shattering its metal frame in beautiful slow motion (see video below, courtesy of www.fxguide.com):
Again, as in District 9, Blomkamp satisfies his fetish for exploding bodies. After only two films, is it too early to coin the term Blomkampian body gore? In a shocking scene half-way through the movie, a character has his face blown off by a grenade, only to have it reconstructed in a med-bay soon after. This unflinching attention to realist violence permeates the film, just as it did in District 9, and makes a refreshing change after the sanitary tones of Oblivion, Pacific Rim and After Earth.
However, excellent CGI and make-up effects cannot solely create a great movie. If anything, they are simply the wrapping, and once you tear through all of that you arrive at the gift itself, the object that you are anticipating more than anything, and in a movie that object is it’s narrative, its story. Unfortunately, this is where Elysium shackles itself.
The fist warning is the film’s cyclic replaying of dialogue and imagery from the opening prologue – constantly reminding us of Max’s goal. This signals the insecurities Blomkamp has in his narrative, and in the intelligence of his audience. And quite rightly, too. The narrative is absurdly simplistic – Max must highjack a computer program, download it to his brain, and install it into Elysium’s central computer core in order to force a reboot and make everybody on Earth a citizen of Elysium. The science fiction genre is overflowing with ‘computer cores’ that must be reprogrammed in order to save humanity – I, Robot, Eagle Eye, War Games, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Demon Seed, Westworld… enough! You get what I’m saying.
The lazy writing extends to the characters, too. Foster’s hyper active Delacourt, who wants nothing more than to uphold Elysium’s rule by overthrowing the current president, has no other people in her life to share other emotions such as love. Copley plays Kruger in his native Africaans accent and carries out Delacourt’s orders without question. His only ‘friends’ are two mercenaries who are perfect reflections of Kruger, so much so that it’s hard to tell them apart in the blur of action scenes they are all involved in. Freya (Alice Braga) is hardly in the first half of the movie, and then when she’s dragged into it during the second half, she’s nothing more than a victimised prisoner who, if not screaming, is either silently doing what she is told or is crying over her dying daughter (who is in the final stages of leukemia).
Even Max, who’s only human connection is Freya and her daughter (a connection devoid of any emotion, not even a single kiss), is so single-minded in his journey to achieve his goal that there is very little to like about him. In one scene, when Freya discovers Max is going to Elysium, she asks him to take her daughter (so she can be cured in a med-bay), but he refuses, explaining that he’s endangered her life too much already. I’ll leave you to work out the problems with that scene and the overall structure in general, shouldn’t take you long.
This lazy reliance on stereotypes renders all of these characters as one dimensional, soulless automatons similar to the police droids so lovingly brought to life on screen. A pity Blomkamp didn’t have that same work ethic for his narrative and characters.
VERDICT: Elysium’s CG effects are seamlessly stunning and, because of that, its set piece action sequences are truly engaging. Ultimately, though, Blomkamp’s ideas, so startlingly set up at the beginning, evaporate in the fast cuts and blood spatter of an action shoot-em-up. This would be fine if the characters had more at stake emotionally, but they don’t. More development with the flat characters and the script’s disappointing and simplistic narrative could have made Elysium a true great.
Show, Don’t Tell, Irony and Thematic Metaphor
Ask any professional writer to give one piece of advice that they believe will help a novice writer to improve their work and a high percentage of them will say “Show, don’t tell.” This ‘rule’ is tricky to come to terms with in the novel and short story forms, but in screenwriting it is a must.
Screenwriting is a visual medium. Screenwriters put words on the page that paint pictures. Unlike novelists, they can’t ‘tell’ their readers that their main character works in a bank or travels the world as an international jewel thief (and even novelists have to write visually if the action is integral to the plot). If it can’t be seen on screen then it shouldn’t be in the screenplay.
So how do you, as a screenwriter, show and not tell?
The basic way is to ensure that you reveal your characters through action. An audience wants to see your characters ‘doing’ things. This is the whole basis of drama. Yet, that’s quite simplistic and on a professional level, screenwriters want their scenes, their images, to portray a message to the audience, a meaning. One of the best techniques to do this is irony.
Elysium’s dystopian political theme (what it’s really about) is concerned with how the rich beat down and entrap the lower classes in order to get richer off their labour. It’s a classic allegory that, as mentioned earlier, literature has recycled for centuries.
As a screenwriter, Blomkamp constructs a sequence that not only introduces us to the main character, Max (Damon), it also introduces us to the theme of the narrative (just like the exoskeleton that’s bolted to Max’s body, the theme in a screenplay has to be bolted to the main character, but that’s a different lesson), and he uses irony to do it. Here’s how it plays out…
After we see Max as a young child and learn what his goal is – to get to Elysium – we see him as an adult navigating through a third world-like Los Angeles setting of crumbled buildings on his way to work. He trudges through children begging for money and people riding him because they think he’s working for nothing (which he isn’t; he’s working to save money to buy a ticket to Elysium). At the bus stop two droid police pull up his wrap sheet, realise he’s been a bad boy in the past, and question him about where he’s going and what he’s carrying. Max shows a little sarcasm, so the droids rough him up, breaking his arm.
|Somebody should warn Damon that, even in the 22nd Century, Robots still don’t understand sarcasm.|
After a quick stop at the hospital, where he runs into his childhood sweetheart, Max arrives at work, and what is Max’s job? He builds the police droids that beat him up. The droids that enforce the laws and rules laid down by the rich. He helps the rich to beat him down and keep him on out of Elysium (where he wants to go).
|Irony, nuff said.|
So not only has Blomkamp shown the audience Max’s situation, he’s also used irony to turn him into the thematic metaphor of the entire film. Max now symbolises the underclass and its problem.
Yet irony isn’t just limited to character, scenes or sequences. The premises of all the greatest films are forged using irony:
The Lord of the Rings – the fate of the world rests in the smallest, meekest of its creatures
Training Day – a decorated narcotics cop is the biggest criminal in the city
Titanic – two lovers meet and fall in love, but they’re from opposite ends of the social scale
There Will be Blood – a raving lunatic, self righteous and transparent man, has an irrational hatred for the character who is most like him
The King’s Speech – a King with a stammer must give a radio speech to his nation
Cast Away – Chuck is always on a tight schedule with not even a second to spare. Suddenly he’s marooned on an island with all the time in the world
The lesson then is to understand every type and element of irony and employ it in every aspect of your screenplay’s narrative, then sit back and watch the quality of your story grow.
Irony is king when you’re writing a screenplay.