The fact that movie ticket sales have remained essentially stagnant for the past 10 years isn't news to anyone. But if you're interested to know why, look no further than the new sci-fi thriller Elysium, opening this week. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, the South African-Canadian director whose last film, District 9, came out in 2009, Elysium is much bigger and much more expensive — just under $100 million — and could serve as a poster child for everything that's wrong with modern movies.
(Just a note: what you're about to read contains spoilers, but only if you haven't seen a blockbuster since Nixon was president.)
Set in 2154, Elysium tells the story of Max (Matt Damon), a lovable ex-con scraping out life on a ruined planet Earth, where crime, disease, and poverty are the norm for its (mostly) brown citizens. Nineteen miles above Earth, however, hangs Elysium, the ultimate gated community: a jewel-like space station inhabited only by super-rich, (mostly) white folks.
Though a series of unfortunate events, Max gets deathly sick and needs to get up to Elysium, where health problems are healed instantaneously with what looks like a magic tanning bed. (Each Elysian home has one.) To achieve this, he makes a Faustian deal to kidnap John Carlyle (William Fichtner), a rich tycoon, and steal his brain data, the ramifications of which could change civilization. Meanwhile, Max is also being hunted by Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a loathsome government sleeper agent and pawn of Elysium's wicked overlord, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who, besides French, speaks in halting English villain-ese. With me so far?
Woven into this adventure is Max's friendship (and possible romance) with Frey (Alice Braga), whom he promised, years ago — and it's in flashback, so you know it's gonna happen — he'd bring to Elysium.
If all this sounds interesting, it's not. From the first minute to the last, Blomkamp's film is entirely predictable, lining up cinematic tropes — The childhood love interest! The charged object! The super-evil villains! The doomed best friend! — like dominoes to topple one by one.
The writing is dreadful. Characters are either completely good or completely evil; nuance in Blomkamp's world is as rare as an ex-con on Elysium. The dialogue is pure torture: the scenes with Foster, one of her generation's finest actors, are in particular the stuff of comic-book cliché. Got a favorite phrase from any major thriller or action flick? It's in there. Hoping a likable character might do something mean, or one of the villains might reveal a little humanity? Think again, fellow movie-goer!
The responsibility for this lies directly with Blomkamp, who wrote the film and should know better. District 9, as I recall, had one or two pieces of moving dialogue, a storyline I couldn't always predict, and an emotional spectrum beyond merely black or white.
What District 9 and Elysium do share, however, is carnage, and although I'm not in the film's target demographic, I will say this (because someone has to, repeatedly): movie violence is a spreading disease on culture. Elysium, for all its purported good intentions — Blomkamp claims that (besides blowing things up) he's interested in "serious topics" like universal health care and wealth discrepancy — the film is so thickly mired in gunfire, torture, and bloodshed that social issues are forgotten, scattered like spent shells on a dusty dystopian floor.
These kinds of films aren't entertaining anymore; they're offensive. Yet they sit side-by-side among countless clones, bullets in the chamber, cogs in wheels in the monstrous Movie Marketing machine — operating within the supercolossal Entertainment Industry — which only cares about money and formula and self-protection. No wonder the industry is dying. For our parts, as moviegoers, we are partly culpable for legitimizing these projects, in which innovation, risk, and surprise are next to nil, by continuing to buy their tickets.
Elysium-wise, is any of it worth watching? Some. The CGI for the space station itself, inspired by the Stanford Torus, is pretty cool. Wagner Moura, as the steampunk entrepreneur Spider, does a good job balancing manic and plain old crazy. But that's really it — the film squarely fails the Bechdel test, and Copley's Kruger is a disaster of agitated overacting.
I caught Elysium at a press screening in Los Angeles, where writers and critics like me filed in, picked up our free popcorn and parking passes, and sat down to watch. During the film, two young men in the audience chuckled a couple of times, after particularly explosive barrages of gun violence, but other than that, nobody seemed to react. As the credits began to roll, everybody got up and left. No applause, no discussion — nothing. We'd seen this movie a million times before.
The next day, on the top floor of a posh Beverly Hills hotel, we were allowed a rapid-fire roundtable interview with the director himself. Blomkamp seemed like a nice guy: amiable enough, responding to our questions with candor and what appeared to be not a lot of ego. But when I asked him why, for a hundred million bucks, he had chosen to take so few chances, he seemed caught a little off guard.
"My whole goal was big-scale cinema and archetypal storytelling," he explained. "It will probably be the most expensive film I'll ever make, but I think it'll be something I'll eternally be proud of. My next film will be far lower budget than this; the one after that may end my career. But to have a bunch of low-budget, super edgy films and not have something cinematic? I wouldn't be happy not to have that in my body of work. Elysium really is the film I wanted to make."
Elysium billboards and bus benches featuring Matt Damon's shaved head are up all over L.A. right now, and all over the world. They'll be up for a couple of weeks, before midnight crews pull them down and replace them with the next project, the next blockbuster, the next 90-minute exercise in toppled tropes. It's what movies pass for now. While independent films struggle to get produced — brief meteors in the night sky — the movie industry hangs above us, Elysium-like, a bloated superstructure reserved only for the richest and lorded over by villains. Only rarely does a young director make it up there, slipping past the sentries and successfully landing his (or, even more rarely, her) scrappy ship on its surface without getting deported or shot down.
Maybe Blomkamp will be happy up there. Maybe he'll make a difference in Hollywood. Maybe his next project will push against the formula, against the community he's recently been welcomed into. We'll see.
The MPAA estimates roughly 600 movies will be released in 2013. At last week's screening, while I sat eating GMO popcorn and sipping high-fructose lemonade, watching a $100 million, cliché-riddled exercise that glorified guns and explosive violence, I thought to myself: We are doomed.