What Kind of Film is Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium
Mordecai Wiczyk of Media Rights Capital thinks that Elysium has an insurance policy to help boost ticket sales despite its disadvantages (including an R rating, no 3D version, etcetera). That potential upside is the relatability of the film’s politics which pits poor, working class heroes who can’t afford health care against super rich oligarchs who have retreated to a giant halo shaped space station orbiting the earth.
But while Wiczyk thinks this will be a boon to the film, Alyssa Rosenberg thinks the movie will be a test case for deciding if in fact a deeply political blockbuster can still succeed at the box office,
What he doesn’t say, though, and what makes Elysium an anxiety-inducing prospect as well as an exciting one, is that Wiczyk is setting up the movie as a test case for whether politics will get audiences to movie theaters. It’s become extremely fashionable to have a patina of politics in action movies, whether Bane and Catwoman are nodding at economic inequality in The Dark Knight Rises, or Star Trek, Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel are getting their quota of drone politics in. But that’s very different from having a political issue like inequality or health care access be the main driver of your story, or frankly, from having a story with a distinct and coherent point of view.
Rosenberg concludes that she can “very easily see a failure by Elysium at the box office discrediting the kind of political science fiction that would really invigorate our action movie environment.”
Unfortunately, I think that would be the exact wrong message to take-away from an Elysium flop. Indeed, Rosenberg brings up Blomkamp’s debut film, District 9, a deeply political story that is nevertheless effectively couched in sci-fi conventions so as to leave the film feeling politically salient without being overly forceful about it’s commentary.
That movie went on to gross over $200 million worldwide at the box office, a whopping six times what it cost to actually make it. In which case, hasn’t the test Rosenberg sets up for Elysium already been passed by its predecessor?
Part of why I worry about placing too many expectations on a movie like Elysium is that I just don’t think it will be very good, and it would be a shame to confuse its failure as a movie for a failure of its political aspirations.
Rosenberg tries to distinguish Elysium from the overall trend toward more overtly political blockbusters (Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Dark Knight Rises) by distinguishing between films that are based around a political question from ones that simply appropriate contemporary political conflicts. The breakdown of the social contract is an important issue, but it’s real use in TDKR is to provide a rationale for handing control of Gotham over to Bane et al.
On the other hand though, I worry about a science fiction movie whose premise and appearance are merely a means for addressing a more fundamental, and in many ways banal, question about inequality and social unrest. It’s impossible to judge the movie before it’s been released, but based on the trailers thus far, audiences have little reason to believe that Elysium will do much to actually explore the origins of inequality, or the justifications for it that creep into our public discourse and keep the masses from ever doing anything about it.
Thus far, the magical ring in the sky where rich people can live in complete peace, health, and material comfort, seems to exist merely so that Matt Damon can break into it and help audiences to live out the power fantasies they will never be able to fulfill in their own lives.
When the movie does come out then, and whether it succeeds financially or not, it’ll be important to look at whether that’s due to its political message or just because fails/succeeds as a science fiction story. After all, no one’s looking at the failure of In Time and deducing from it that audiences are necessarily unwilling to grace political commentaries dressed up in sci-fi tropes with the hundreds of millions in box office receipts that have become the norm for riskless crowd pleasers like Marvel’s Avengers.