Tue
Aug 27 2013 2:00pm
On Elysium, SF Summer Blockbusters, and Geek Outrage Run Amok

Elysium Matt Damon

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.

25 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
The technical implausibilities of the habitat itself really threw me for a loop, hard.
w3c
2. w3c
I find your views on Pacific Rim a little harsh; Del Toro proved, in my opinion, that he could blend together some American themes with a heavy nippon culture. And in that he succeeded. I had a great pleasure viewing the movie, and found myself enthralled by the action, while recognizing some clear references to both American and Japanese movies.
Of course the love story was overly treated, and a few moments were over the top or badly directed (the dialogue between son and father before the last attack on the fault is a very good example). The music was regularly over-emotional, sometimes even disturbing or even threatening to break the suspension of disbelief.

Overall I agree with your position on Elysium: on the one hand, the scenario is half-baked, the directing (particularly on the battle or action sequences, which is a good part of the movie) wrong on so many levels, complete with shaky camera and all, and let's not talk about the flashbacks of Max and Frey's childhood (yes, it's Frey, by the way, not Freya). On the other hand, Syd Mead and the team behind made a really beautiful and engaging scenery.

Another movie that keeps popping every now and then is Dune. I mention this because it was a nerd-aduled movie that was precisely about politics. So maybe nerds really like movies tackling politics, when it's done well. I mean, politics in the Star-Wars-that-can't-be-named were the level zero of this. And I can't think of any good sci-fi movie of these past years treating the subject in a cleverly manner.
w3c
3. Kessler
I think main issue is that we like to make fun of stuff on the internet and criticize things. Nothing makes you closer to your social peers and gives you a warmer feeling inside, then saying movie X is so dumb because of Y. A lot of online critics on the internet fill that need. I watch the videos or read the articles about the movies I consider bad, but I simply ignore the same critic’s work about movies I like. It’s mostly about taste and personal enjoyment in the end.

P.S. I found Pacific Rim to be consistantly fun, which generally makes me ignore any flaws in the movie. My friends were more vocal about stuff like sword being used as last resort instead first and other stuff, but they liked it as well.
w3c
4. vampiredoctor
Elysium is a dumb movie masquerading as a smart one which makes it a pretentious failure. It's political overtones were childish, preachy, and heavy handed. Pacific Rim is no dumber than any other genre movie. What exactly makes movies like Star Trek, Man of Steel, or Elysium "smarter" than it? The filmmakers were content to present it as a fun adventure story and they were wildly succesful at accomplishing that.
Pirmin Schanne
5. Torvald Nom
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)
Could you elaborate on that (or provide appropriate links)? Being from Europe, I'm curious about that.
Alan Brown
6. AlanBrown
Pacific Rim, without being pretentious, or aspiring to be much more than a fun adventure, also gave us a positive message that if all of us, regardless of sex, color, creed or national origin, work together as a team, we can save the world. That's a good enough message for me.
Allana Schneidmuller
7. blutnocheinmal
Glad I'm not the only one who felt the need to rise to the defense of the gloriously fun Pacific Rim. I take real umbrage at it being called "utterly dismal". That was Transformers 2.

Getting beat over the head with the general opinion of internet geekdom made it really hard to continue reading the article. I don't see that knee-capping the other summer fare really improves the view of Elysium.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
I totally disagree with this idea that internet geekdom is negative. I mean, what a load of crap. Who is this guy, anyhow? What does he know?
;-)
Lee Anderson
9. DSNiner
You don't have to be a "comic book fundamentalist" to notice that Clark Kent is much better at saving people while doing his best David Banner impression (i.e. wandering the earth anonymously) than when he dons the blue suit and red cape, thus dimming his chances of representing the heroic ideal that Superman has traditionally fulfilled in his previous cinematic incarnations.

Also, the conventional internet wisdom that "Pacific Rim is fail" just doesn't have any traction. True, it didn't meet Hollywood expectations at the box office, but it was the most fun I've had at the movies this year (pre-The World's End). I'd much prefer to see more movies like Pacific Rim than the bumbling vapidity of Star Trek Into Darkness (look Ma, no colon) or relentlessly grim slogs like Man of Steel. But that's just me.
James Hogan
11. Sonofthunder
Everyone has different tastes - I loved Pacific Rim!! Like so many others have said, it was so much fun!

And I agree on the topic at hand - to be honest, I'm getting a bit sick of the hyper-critical attitude that seems to prevail online. Once a backlash against a movie is established, everyone jumps on and...it's all over. I enjoyed John Carter as well, but once that movie had been declared a "flop", everyone took to deriding it, deciding it wasn't worth watching.

As for Elysium, I had almost decided not to go see it due to the bad reviews, but went this past weekend and much enjoyed. Did it have obvious modern-day parallels? Yes. But the story worked - I was totally drawn in and enthralled.

Honestly - I don't see why so many of us feel the need to tear down anything and everything online(and this isn't just geek culture - you see it on sports messageboards, cnn.com, etc, etc). Some movies are quite terrible. But others, just because they don't meet our ideal vision of what the movie should have been, don't deserve to be tarred and feathered as they are.
Tim Maughan
12. TimMaughan
@1 - I had no issue with the science of Elysium itself, in fact I think it was necessary to portray their tech levels as almost unobtainable, indistinguishable from magic as Clarke famously said. It was vital that we saw it's inhabitants as post-human, post-singularity - almost alien. Without that the stakes weren't high enough. It's 22nd technology vs 21st, and it needed illustrating. Nobody makes similar complaints against Star Trek tech, and their artificial gravity is no less ludicrous than Elysium's artificial atmosphere, and the teleporter and med bay are basically the same tech.

@5 hit up youtube vids for Theresa May and even Thatcher. I've only seen the movie once (so far) but that's what Foster's accent and delivery reminded me of on first viewing. She's hardly on screen though.

@everyone else - sorry people, I just really didn't like Pacific Rim. I found myself physically cringing throughout. I thought the script and especially some of the performances were terrible. Had Perlman just wandered on to set on his lunch break? What was the deal with the 'comedy' mad scientists? The whole thing, throughout, just reminded me of Independence Day in terms of quality and tone, and I'm really not a fan.

I will, however, agree @6 that at least it didn't try to tackle some either patriotic or pro-war message.
Iain Cupples
13. NumberNone
As a review, this is all over the place: as a commentary on geekdom and modern Hollywood, the same. OK, you didn't like Pacific Rim. How does that mesh with the fact that other people liked it, but didn't like Man of Steel?

The argument here appears to be that the positive reception of PR and the negative reception of MoS amongst the 'geek community' somehow cohere into a single identifiable trend. Since that's plainly nonsense, the writer has to insert his own dislike of the former in an attempt to make the argument actually work. That attempt fails: it's still a rubbish argument.

Also, I don't care if Neal Stephenson said it: the argument that geeks distrust politics in their sci-fi is also clearly nonsense. SF is chock-full of politics, and the writer himself provides numerous examples of previous SF films that were not mainstream, were very political, and are regarded as genre classics. The evidence of this article is that geeks do like politics in their sci-fi. Not coincidentally, that's my experience as a fan, too.

So what is the point being made here? That Elysium is pretty good, even if some other people don't like it? That some of the things they don't like are an inevitable consequence of the film being a big Hollywood blockbuster? Fair enough, but those points are weakened by the poor attempts to construct a context above.
w3c
14. a1ay
the argument that geeks distrust politics in their sci-fi is also clearly nonsense

Agreed. Seriously? So, even ignoring the examples given, geeks didn't like Foundation or The Forever War or Starship Troopers or, for heaven's sake, Cryptonomicon or Quicksilver or Snow Crash?

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.

Nope. Eagle Eye, 2008. Zero Dark Thirty, 2012. (Homeland; but that was a TV series.)
Tim Maughan
15. TimMaughan
@14 - so appraently the best of my knowledge doesnt include Eagle Eye which I've never heard of. Zero Dark Thirty is a blockbuster action movie? Maybe at the end, I guess. Couldn't watch much of Homeland as its illogical belief in brainwashing was unpaleteable fearmongering.
w3c
16. Nix
Don't forget that Iron Man 3 came out this summer! I don't know why we don't want to talk about that one, because unlike Star Trek or MoS, it was actually rather successful and extremely well written and directed. As far as I'm concerned, if we had to point to one film of this season and declare it the winner of nerd movies for summer 2013, it would be on Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr.
w3c
17. bbcng
Some of the plot of Elysium reminded me of Phantom of the Paradise but without the funky tunes. The ending bothered me in that there were enough medical robots and ships on the station to help the entire planet but they just wanted to be mean and not share? It's one thing if they had limited resources but it's another thing to behave like a 3 year old.
Tim Maughan
18. TimMaughan
@17 Isn't that basically how healthcare works in the US though...? :P
w3c
19. Jdogg
@18 No, that is not how healthcare works because healthcare is a limited resource despite everybody's warped view of reality.
Alan Brown
20. AlanBrown
Now there is a way to win an argument. Accuse everybody else of having a warped view of reality. ;-)
w3c
21. Paul Graham Raven
... the argument that geeks distrust politics in their sci-fi is also clearly nonsense

Indeed; the correct statement would be "geeks distrust any politics *other than their own* in their sci-fi". As evidence, I humbly cite the comment thread above.
w3c
22. marty cohen
My wife and I both enjoyed Pacific Rim. Sure, there were problems, but they did not dimish our enjoyment.
Janice Dawley
23. therem
My biggest problem with Elysium was that it didn't have ENOUGH politics in it. I saw it with a friend who told me that she read a bunch of background material about the movie that explained how the poverty-stricken masses on Earth were providing the cheap labor that enabled Elysium and its high-tech luxury to exist, but... that was nowhere evident in the movie itself. The only potential economic connection we saw was between Jodie Foster's character and the military contracting company, and that seemed to be pretty limited.

The fact that no residents of Elysium -- apart from Foster's character and the council's inner circle -- were depicted for more than a few seconds in the movie also undercut any deeper message about "the haves and the have nots". If the director thought that the medical cure-all machines were enough of a symbol to make the movie resonate, he was wrong. I just couldn't stop wondering, "Why did they bother to put DNA scanners in these machines when Elysium is IN SPACE and they shoot down anyone who tries to get to it illegally? No tech person would waste time with this!"

And once we get into the unbelievable stupidities of the film, the list can go on and on. My favorite: the fact that Matt Damon's exoskeleton is bolted to his bones through his clothes. Because of course his modesty matters more than basic surgical sterility or being able to take a dump.

Re: action movies that depict drones -- they played a pretty big role in the early going of "The Bourne Legacy".
Juan Pazos
24. seanamber
I'm sorry, Tim Maughn, but NO. The plot holes alone would have made Elysium a mess. A somewhat entertaining mess, but that doesn't change anything. There are so many examples.... therem in comment 23 gave some. I will only add one: Delacourt is reprimanded for not having dealt with the immigrants "diplomatically" in one scene and 20 minutes later, when she's closing air traffick over L.A. and effectively staging a (not very covert) coup every government official seems to ne totally oblivious. This made it harder to suspend disbelief than giant monsters from other dimensions, honestly. My opinion in a nutshell is that Blomkamp is a great director but desperately needs one of these things: either write a different kind of movie next time, or hire a good writer.
Tim Maughan
25. TimMaughan
@24 Blomkamop is a great director, but I doubt he needs to find a better writer as much as he needs to find a better producer or studio. It fascinates me how many people still don't get this. If you want to make a movie with a budget over, say, $80m in todays risk-averse Hollywood climate there's no way you're going to get the creative freedom you desire. The studio will stick their fingers into everything - most of all the script and the casting - and it's pretty clear this is what happend to Blomkamp, especially as this was just his second movie. Hell, it seems to happen to more established directors too - this is me giving GDT the benefit of the doubt right now. There must be some reason PR was so painfully bad in the writing stakes. I imagine all this is the resaon Blomkamp is going back to SA with a lower budget and lesser known actors for his next production.

And...really? You find inconsistent politicians less believable than giant interdimensional dinosaurs? Your geek credentials check out just fine.

Oh, and one tip: next time you want to use someone's full name in a patronising, school teacher tone? Spell it right.
Juan Pazos
26. seanamber
I'm genuinely sorry that I misspelled your name or that I came across as patronizing. In the end, what we are discussing here is mostly a matter of opinion, and in my opinion inconsistent politicians in Elysium are a bigger flaw than giant interdimensional monsters in Pacific Rim simply because Elysium seems (to me) to be striving for a serious political statement that is muddled by the plot not adding up. This may be the studio's fault for all I know, certainly, but the fact is other movies deal with the shortcomings of big budgets and executives meddling much more successfully. As far as I am concerned.

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