Take a look around the geekiest parts of the internet this year and you could be mistaken for thinking Hollywood is in crisis. Apparently this has been a terrible summer, with most of the season’s much-anticipated science fiction blockbusters turning out to be critical under-performers. First off Star Trek: Into Darkness put everyone into panic mode by suggesting that the man they’ve put in charge of Star Wars’ future might just not have much grasp of filmmaking beyond mashing together identifiable, nostalgia sparking tropes, and then Man Of Steel came along and horrified the fundamentalist comic book congregation by portraying their Christ figure as someone that would resort to murder and the leveling of entire cities.
But the real killer blow came via Pacific Rim, a movie so hyped for so long by the film nerd hierarchy that they couldn’t bring themselves to see how utterly dismal it really was, perhaps because the only way to observe the true atrocities of it’s script and performances while not experiencing physical embarrassment was to peer at it through the gaps in your fingers. “Yeah, it was dumb,” its defenders say, “but at least it knew it was dumb.” Trust me, after nearly 40 years of unsuccessfully trying this same defense on parents, teachers, lovers, bosses, law enforcement officials and editors I’m really not convinced.
Of course, all of the above is little more than angry bluster and social network background static. There is no Hollywood disaster—all the movies mentioned above will not just break even but, based on global box office and home video sales, will go on to make profits measured in the hundreds of millions. What there is instead is a disaster for “geek culture,” if such a thing exists or can be easily defined—as it watches itself transformed from an outsider movement into the dominant force in mainstream entertainment, and flails around in a panic as it watches everything it holds dear and precious being fed into the hungry mouths of the unwashed masses.
It’s a disaster confounded by the fact that, inexplicably, the same community often seems blissfully unaware of how Hollywood does business—for example, few seem to recognize that the reason the last few years have seen so many high budget SF movies are being made isn’t because studio bosses suddenly got in touch with their inner Comic Store Guy, but because of the unprecedented success of Avatar—a movie most geeks take huge pride in smugly, vocally despising, but that rest of the world seemed to quite enjoy. It’s almost as though—whisper the words, for they are blasphemy—it might be possible to enjoy science fiction and fantasy without obnoxiously self-identifying as a geek.
While 2009 was dominated by Avatar, another film came along that year and made an interesting, unexpected impact. District 9 famously mixed SF violence and political allegory to spin a $210m profit out of a $30m budget, and even earned first time director Neill Blomkamp a Best Picture Oscar nomination. One question was poised almost as soon as the bloggers had left the theatre, the nacho grease and popcorn dust smearing across touchscreens in their eagerness to ask “what will Blomkamp do next?”
The answer is simple, it seems. You give the studio—in this case Sony pictures—what they really want—a more Hollywood friendly District 9. This is, fundamentally, what Elysium is. The set up is incredibly simple—it’s the middle of the 22nd century and a small band of wealthy survivors have fled a disaster-shattered Earth to live on Elysium, a huge pristine, utopian space habitat where technology is quite literally so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. Jodie Foster’s Head of Homeland Security Jessica Delacourt—a character who, despite having very limited screen-time, has apparently caused hilarity amongst the US critics blissfully unfamiliar with the accents and mannerisms of European conservative politicians such as Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Zombie Thatcher (or maybe just Europeans in general), protects Elysium using an army of robots, drones and remotely operated weaponry—along with Gattaca style genetic tagging—to ensure none of the undesirables down below can get inside. It is—to quote a real life 1970s NASA concept document on space habitats—“the ultimate gated community.”
Down on Earth, things are not quite so great. We are shown a predominately Spanish-speaking Los Angeles, reduced to shanty towns by poverty, environmental breakdown and (presumably) that long overdue earthquake—the details aren’t vital; it’s the standard collapse scenario, but it is clear that it all happened fairly soon in our timeline—while Elysium’s survivors have progressed to 2150 levels of technology, Earth seems stuck a century behind. Enter Max, played by A-lister Matt Damon, a reformed car thief struggling with faceless parole computers and trying to hold down a job making the security robots that violently harass him on a daily basis. An accident at work leaves Max fatally ill with radiation sickness and with only a few days to live. Out of desperation he turns to Spyder, an old gangland associate, who offers to help him sneak into Elysium so he can use their advanced medical technology to cure himself. Cue the rest of the movie turning into a gory, violent race against time, where along the way Max uncovers a way of hacking open Elysium security to allow access for all while having to face down twisted South African mercenary Kruger, played with suitable psychotic glee by District 9’s Sharlto Copley.
So we have a science fiction standard—the political allegory—with the targets for attack being the denial of universal healthcare, dystopian immigration policies and the ever-growing gap between the rich and poor. It’s too simple, the critics say. It’s too heavy-handed. And they’re right, it is both of those things—in the way political science fiction movies have been for decades—it lacks a lot of the ambiguity, nuance and most importantly dark satire that made District 9 so interesting, instead feeling more like the B-movie polemics of the last century—Rollerball, Logan’s Run, Escape from New York, Robocop, and in particular They Live! Some of us have very fond memories of those movies, they were formative experiences in shaping our outlook not just on politics but what science fiction is capable of doing while still having pulpy fun, and if you’re one of those people you’ll likely just smile and go along with the ride. If you’re a more modern geek, perhaps you won’t.
As Neal Stephenson once pointed out, geeks distrust politics in their entertainment. Perhaps that’s a result of general western political apathy, or maybe they just don’t like someone trying to make a point while they’re relishing in escapism. Either way—while it might be an understandable reaction, it also seems a painfully naive one. It’s a struggle to think of a tent pole geek blockbuster in the last decade that wasn’t burdened with heavy handed political thought, and particularly impossible to name a superhero flick that wasn’t supporting what Rajan Khanna calls “the narrative of war”—our caped heroes coming to terms with their own destructive powers and doubting their own roles, even, but never coming to any conclusion apart from that defeating the enemy must be done at any cost, even if that is in the form of massive collateral computer generated damage. And, in the case of The Avengers, that it’s fine to demolish as many New York skyscrapers as you like as long as there’s someone on your team that is literally cosplaying as the American flag.
As heavy handed and simplistic as Elysium is, it’s also—to the best of my knowledge—the first high-budget blockbuster action movie to deal with the US administration’s use of military drones. Elysium isn’t just an isolationist, paranoid, and fortress state—it’s also one that maintains its position through remote weaponry and lethal robots, that monitors its enemies relentlessly using surveillance satellites and aerial drones, that eavesdrops on their electronic communications. This theme—although never addressed directly by the characters—is subtly yet relentlessly maintained by Blomkamp throughout the film; we are frequently shown the action through drone-eyes, instantly reminiscent of released (or leaked) drone strike footage, and we are shown humans coldly muttering kill orders to distant, compliant hardware. This commentary on real world policy is not only clearly intentional but also understandably angry, and the movie’s greatest achievement.
But elsewhere this is, we must always remember, very much a Hollywood movie. It seems the deal Blomkamp accepted for being allowed to make these points and create such a visually stunning movie (which it is; bringing design legend Syd Mead out of movie retirement was a masterstroke, with his touch visible in every frame) was that he had to bow to some movie conventions. For a start there’s the inevitable and depressing whitewashing of Max himself—it’s hard to imagine that in original drafts the character wasn’t Hispanic, him being apparently the only white guy in his neighborhood, and even harder to avoid is the large portion of mainstream audience-pleasing sentimentality that has been served up. Most of this comes in the form of flashback scenes to Max’s childhood, that are even more heavy handed than the politics, and involve his unrequited love interest Freya—one of the movies other great failings, an interesting and headstrong female character that somehow ends up playing a disappointing damsel-in-distress role. However, as awkward as their scenes are—they don’t even feel like they are from the same film, or directed by Blomkamp—one of my favorite moments occurs within a flashback. Near the movie’s opening we see Max and Freya as little kids, reading a children’s book about Elysium, and dreaming of one day living there.
I had, at the same age as Max, the same book. Ok, obviously it wasn’t the very same book. It was called The Usborne Book of The Future, and it wasn’t about Elysium—but it was about space habitats, and filled with beautiful, utopian NASA concept art. Like young Max I dreamed of living there, of escaping my boring life down here on Earth. And like Max (and presumably Blomkamp), I got to be an adult without it happening. For me it was because it was an infantile, escapist fantasy that would never come true—for Max it was because it is a fantasy that could only come true for the wealthy; I don’t know about Max’s book, but mine never addressed the issue of who would get to live up there, and as child I never asked. It’s a subtle, heartfelt personal touch to Elysium, a cynical glance at our nostalgic memories of abandoned futures.
Elysium is far from perfect, and falls short of reaching the heights that District 9 grasped. But it’s also not the disaster that some commentators will have you believe. It’s a Hollywood popcorn movie that attempts to be a little more and fails in some ways while it excels and excites in others. In many ways it’s the opposite of Pacific Rim; it’s a big dumb movie that occasionally forgets to be dumb.
When he’s not writing for Tor.com, Tim Maughan writes science fiction—his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. So you should probably go buy it already.