Is ‘Elysium’ Socialist Agitprop or Smart Sci-Fi Filmmaking?

Rearview: 'Elysium'

REARVIEW: Variety critics take a second look at the weekend's most talked-about movies.

(Spoiler alert: This piece reveals details about the ending of “Elysium.”)

In the days before “Elysium” opened last week, a handful of right-wing news outlets attacked the film for being “sci-fi socialism” (Newsmax) and “just the latest of several Hollywood movies this year to try and co-opt Occupy Wall Street plotlines into their films” (as media watchdog Dan Gainor put it to FoxNews.com). Over at Breitbart.com, an alarmist report opened with the line, “Director Neill Blomkamp only has two films to his credit, but already he’s at the forefront of the left’s message machine.”

To my chagrin, some of that Drudge-baiting language originated in Variety’s own review, which cited “one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory, beating the drum loudly not just for universal healthcare, but for open borders, unconditional amnesty and the abolition of class distinctions as well.”

Such charges put Blomkamp and star Matt Damon on the defensive during several of their interviews, and though it seems disingenuous for them to insist that the film is apolitical, when it comes to quality sci-fi — and “Elysium” is among the best Hollywood has to offer, serving up both a meticulously realized metaphor for our present conditions and a thrilling action movie in the process — such circumstances are designed to make us think, rather than stuff a predigested agenda down our throats.

Does the film end with the thrill of dismantling a broken system and providing healthcare to the suffering masses? Yes. But does that mean Blomkamp is openly advocating socialism? Or, as I would argue, is it possible that the helmer has successfully identified the palpable tension over wealth disparity and constructed his premise around the idea that only the super-rich have access to effective healthcare, casual plastic surgery and the most desirable living conditions?

If you compare the look of “Elysium” with other sci-fi movies, which tend to imagine gleaming skyscrapers and other flashy examples of technological progress here on Earth, the difference is immediately apparent. With the exception of the giant ring-shaped space station in the heavens — a metaphorical ivory tower modeled after Stanford torus designs from 1975 — things appear to have moved backward. At first glance, Los Angeles in 2154 is indistinguishable from a dense, dirty and overcrowded Third World metropolis, a smoking shantytown stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. (Contrast this with the elegant, Apple-styled sky pods seen in “Oblivion” earlier this year.)

There can’t possibly be enough room on Elysium for all the rich to live, though the film conveniently ignores how the various classes coexist on Earth. Practically speaking, it’s challenging enough to establish — and overthrow — an entire sci-fi regime in a two-hour film, and Blomkamp complicates that task enough as-it is by introducing power games between a conspicuously multicultural president (Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir), his ambitious secretary of state (Jodie Foster) and the corrupt technology exec (William Fichtner) who engineers a coup.

It’s peculiar that the righty websites didn’t seize on certain superficial similarities between these characters and our current administration — choices that clearly reinforce the fact this is a skewed version of the present that Blomkamp is presenting, not the distant future. Meanwhile, the implication that L.A. will be more Latino than not, 141 years hence, plays into their immigration-related fears, though these pundits refuse the film’s invitation to respond to ideas, rejecting what smells like “hard-left” politics (to quote Breitbart.com again) at first whiff.

As audiences, we often take for granted the most fundamental part of a filmmakers’ job, even before the plot kicks in — what the videogame community calls “world building”: namely, to establish a world and populate it with compelling, relatable characters. This task can be most challenging with science fiction, where so many of the fundamentals are unfamiliar, which explains why effective storytellers repurpose existing elements when fashioning their own future worlds. (When people criticize “Avatar” for recycling a familiar plot on Pandora, I like to point out all the other areas where James Cameron focused his innovation in that film. Now that the world has been established, the true test will be how original the sequels are at the story level.)

With this challenge in mind — and the basic understanding that would-be blockbusters are designed to appeal as broadly as possible — it stands to reason that the “1%” has become such a popular target of recent studio films. But don’t forget that the most popular Hollywood storytellers often rise to the top-earning tier themselves, so they’re never too critical of success. (Blomkamp revealed to Wired.com that he aspires to buy a skyscraper in downtown Johannesburg.)

Much of what Republican pundits mistakenly see as Occupy Wall Street support is merely a form of “mass-ploitation” — Hollywood seizing on angles that appeal to the widest possible audience (preferably, an international one). That’s why I disagree with the Entertainment Weekly line, “If you are a member of the 1%, ‘Elysium’ is a horror movie. For everyone else, it’s one step shy of a call to arms.” If anyone’s trying to foment revolution here, it’s the press. To pin a film to the Occupy movement would be to limit its potential appeal, whereas it’s just savvy positioning to recognize that it never has been and never will be “fair” that some people have access to prime property, first-rate healthcare and a better standard of living.

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  1. jodi says:

    Wasn’t Jodie Foster stunning – her wardrobe was outstanding. Man I hope I look that good at her age…wow! And where can you get one of those beds anyways? Are they available yet, or do I have to wait until 2156? Just imagine….no wrinkles….what a dream life. Elysium…fantastic movie! BTW…what does allegory mean? hmmmm

  2. I had no idea what this movie was about when I purchased my ticket other than it was sic-fi and Matt Damon. But it was clear as day as the plot took shape that I was being shown a propaganda piece.
    Here’s the plot and please correct me where I’m wrong;
    MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

    Matt Damon plays a good hearted and noble working member of a society that is oppressed by the robots he works to manufacture, paid for by the evil rich people who live in the sky to control the unwashed masses back on earth. Under threat of losing his job, Matt Damon exposes himself to a fatal dose of radiation and is given four days to live. His only hope, is to escape earth and arrive at Elyisium, the sattelite of rich people that orbits the earth, where they have magic health care machines that only the rich have access to, that can cure anything and allows them to live forever. So precious is the magic health care, that the government of Elysium and it’s evil politicians will go so far as to kill the unwashed masses if they attempt to access said magic health care.
    Being the hero that he his, Matt Damon kills his evil corporate boss and downloads his brain, which he not only uses to gain access to Elysium and the magic health care but ultimately uses the information held secret by the evil corporate boss to “bring down the system” and allow ALL of the unwashed masses access to the magic health care. Sadly though sacrificing himself and his life so that ALL could have access to the magic healthcare. The end.

    Did I miss anything? Other than the oddity of Damon being white and the rest of the unwashed masses being some shade of brown, held in check by an obviously South African, white racist psychopath.

    No. No propaganda here.

    • Joe Smart says:

      So I guess in your worldview any movie that has an actual political perspective is propaganda and only mindless garbage like the Transformers movies which aren’t about anything other than blowing crap up qualifies as genuine entertainment. I truly feel sorry for you. Of course you would need to be mind mindbogglingly stupid to go into Elysium without knowing anything about it since it’s by the director of District 9, which was an equally political sci-fi film, every review of the movie mentioned the film’s politics and every interview with the writer-director mentioned the film’s politics. Right-wing commentators also complained about the movie’s politics. You must live in a bubble that lets no outside information inside. To say you have nobody but yourself to blame if you didn’t like the message of the movie is an understatement.

  3. swamiwilly says:

    Elysium is an allegory so it will exaggerate and simplify in order to drive an essential truth home, like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Ayn Rand’s books were allegories too, but they were wrong in their insight into the human condition.

    FuriousYT’s “healthcare should be universal human rights (paid for by rich people, of course)” betrays his class bias, one similar to Romney’s 47% comment, and Rand’s “makers and takers.”

    I hope a lot of young people watch Elysium and wake up to the reality of increasing polarization of wealth in the US. So far they are rather complacent. This film might stir them.

    BYT, the documentary 240 Park Avenue, Wealth and Power is now available on Netflix, live stream. If you have any doubt the US is now a Plutocracy, this will cure you.

  4. deborah holt says:

    Also i would like to comment on you. As a critic of films that have implicated a social message, i see no need to be sooo biased. Goes to show where your heart and mind are, obviously stuck at, which is biased , on the side of the verrry wealthy. Goes to show you catagorized yourself with the Elite and you havent any room for anyone else to also get at the top of that all exclusive “top of the ladder.”

  5. deborah holt says:

    About elysium being a pundit for the disgruntled 99 per cent im all for the film exposing how true to its fictional yet factual existence IN todays society. I would love to support going to view this film.

  6. André Caron, Quebec City. says:

    I’d like to point out that the comparison with “Oblivion” is misleading. You must compare the “Apple-style sky pods” of that film (of extra-terrestrial origins) with the giant ring space station of “Elysium”, not with the slums of Los Angeles. These are rather associated with the underground human resistance of “Oblivion”. This kind of stark contrast between the rich and the poor is a consistent metaphor in science-fiction dystopian films going as far back as “Metropolis” and seen most prominently in “Soylent Green” and “Minority Report”. To read “Elysium” only as socialist propaganda is missing the point of a recurrent social allegory in this type of cinema.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    Blomkamp is a gun-loving Boer refugee who has repeatedly made clear that “District 9” is less an “apartheid allegory” than it is a Malthusian tale about illegal immigration from Zimbabwe overwhelming the black poor of Johannesburg. Similarly, “Elysium” is about how Mexican will overrun Los Angels and turn it into a dusty slum, just like Mexico City. Blomkamp has repeatedly said that the seed for “Elysium” was a disastrous visit to Tijuana where corrupt Mexican cops kidnapped him and shook him and his companions down for $900.

    • Joe Smart says:

      That’s an interesting if bizarre interpretation of his first two films. He did indeed talk about the Tijuana experience as a catalyst for Elysium but you got completely the wrong take-away from that story, likely based on the personal prism of your own politics. What inspired Blomkamp about his experience of being kidnapped on Tijuana was the feeling of being powerless and oppressed, not that Mexicans were human vermin that would overrun and destroy any place in which they lived. You’ve essentially turned the entire message of Elysium on its head and made Jodie Foster the hero for trying to keep the Mexicans out of Elysium by any means necessary.

  8. Well says:

    This is not a good film. The setup is absurd, the script unwieldy, the performances miscalculated and or weak, and the social agenda, while I personally don’t disagree with any of it, doesn’t serve the storytelling in any way whatever, it just comes off as obnoxious. Not to mention it won’t age well.

    • Joe Smart says:

      You’re speaking as if you were some sort of infallible authority that could not possibly be wrong or disagreed with but your comments are almost completely generic, like you looked up a bunch of negative things to say and strung them together. I honestly just find your comments bizarre–it’s like they’re written by a computer that was programmed to churn out a negative review. Elysium has a 66% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so a lot of professional movie critics apparently don’t see the abundant faults with the movie that are so glaringly obvious to you. Whether a movie is a hit or not has no bearing on whether it’s any good–if that’s how you give value to movies then you must consider the transformers films modern masterpieces.

    • Joe Smart says:

      I’m not sure what social progress you are referring to. The gap between the wealthy and everyone else has been growing steadily since Ronald Reagan was president and nobody in the government has any interest in dealing with the issue. Republicans claim that it isn’t even an issue. There are fewer and fewer jobs in America every year and the jobs that exist do not pay middle class wages. The United States is importing jobs to third world countries and the only way we will ever get those jobs back is if we become a third world country ourselves, which we are well on our way to doing. I actually think Elysium is an optimistic movie and the future we are headed for is far more bleak than what is depicted. I don’t see how the fact that the movie has a political point of view is a weakness or the fact that the stars die at the end is a problem. You must watch very bland flicks if you think killing major characters makes a movie bad. Elysium wasn’t meant to be a franchise starter and the deaths of Jodie Foster and Matt Damon’s character’s serves a narrative purpose. Matt Damon is that old literary archetype, the Christ-figure who sacrifices himself for others (see The Poseidon Adventure for another pop-culture version). Matt Damon’s character spent the entire movie doing everything he did to stay alive–and in the end he sacrifices himself to save others. You don’t see any narrative power in that? I really think your problems with Elysium are the result of your politics rather than the movie, which is extremely well-made, in spite of your claims that it’s terrible and stupid and that nothing in it works.

      • Well says:

        The killing off of everyone isn’t a problem in movies wherein we are led to care about the characters. The human connections are so standard (hence lazy, rushed screenplay), and the characterization and performance of the love interest so weak, with nothing surprising or novel, audiences just don’t care at the end. There is a collective shrug at the resolution. Too much of the film hinges on politics; that is, ideas, instead of emotion, earned through technical and artistic proficiency, of course. And the hero’s sacrifice is one of the potentially strongest dramatic structures — if executed properly. The lackluster B cinema score shows the film is not resonating, and hence not well crafted on a simple story level (forget the performances, there’s simply not much to work with). The imminent huge second weekend drop will confirm this. I could go much further, but what is the point? It’s obvious, on a pure film level, exactly what this movie is. I don’t understand why you seem to take it personal. Or, maybe I do.

    • Joe Smart says:

      I can’t agree with your analysis on any level. The social agenda is an integral part of both the world that was created in Elysium and the plot of the movie. If you remove the politics there really isn’t anything left. I think the movie will likely age very well because we are moving closer and closer to the world depicted in the movie–nobody is doing anything about the income inequality between the rich and everyone else and that divide is going to continue to grow because companies continue to outsource jobs to the lowest bidder. You have people in this country with masters degrees working at Starbucks. There is virtually no middle class left and in twenty years it will probably be gone altogether. More than a third of the country has no medical insurance and Republicans want to repeal Obamacare without replacing it with anything else–meaning the Republicans view of the future is very much like the one in Elysium–only the wealthy can have health care.

      • Well says:

        You can’t stop social progress, you can only slow it down, therefore I don’t think humanity is headed for the facile dystopia of Elysium. And I agree, take away the politics and you’re left with basically nothing. It’s the mark of a weak(er) filmmaker, at least than what District 9 initially suggested. It’s also miscalculated on a simple story level — (spoilers) there are three names cast, and they all die by the end. The only character we have to latch onto is the woefully underdeveloped mother/love interest. I was alternately bored and frustrated by this overpriced vanity project.

  9. This article is strange, describing in detail the movie’s political agenda while in the next breath denying its existence.

    Damon’s left wing agitprop (Promised Land, Green Zone) have been box office bombs, so the idea here is to wrap it around a tent pole sci-fi flick, then sucker punch the audience with the politics once they’ve already bought a ticket (see Avatar).

    Hence the vehement denial by Blomkamp/Damon of the obvious political agenda, insulting our intelligence. I imagine the marketing team gave them instructions to vigorously downplay the politics when promoting the film.

    I don’t agree with the message, but I’d respect them more if they were honest about it.

    • Joe Smart says:

      I’ve never read any interviews with Neill Blomkamp where he wasn’t entirely forthright about his political beliefs, in spite of what this article implies. He also doesn’t make any attempt to hide them in his movies. District 9 was an obvious apartheid allegory and Elysium is about income divide between the rich and everyone else. The only way you could possibly go into either of his movies and be blindsided by the politics would be to not read or see any interviews with the director and not read any reviews of the movies. If you chose to see movies without knowing anything about them first and then find yourself unpleasantly surprised by what you see you have nobody to blame but yourself.

  10. G. Jardoness says:

    Apart from trying to argue every side of this Rubix Cube, what was your point?

    To opine, as if this were some class struggle or political litmus test, or even an intellectual honesty matter on the part of the filmmakers themselves, is simply histrionic and unfounded. To say that the ‘masses’, who, by your calculation, and condescension, would most identify and fervently seek out this subject matter as a catalyst for their cauldron of social unrest, were instead, swayed or scared off by the opinion a few people no one has ever heard, is simply foolish…

    Instead, just perhaps, we might consider, for the last three years, at least, we’ve been inundated by post-apocalyptic, alien invasion, dystopian, end-of-the-world, pandemic, robot jox movies. And like those of the early 70’s, like “Soylent Green”, “Logan’s Run”, “Omega Man”, “Silent Running”, and “Andromeda Strain”, to name just a few, even with the veneer of allegory and metaphor, we’ve been beaten senseless regardless of the message…

    And perhaps, you and these filmmakers, insisting we should just ‘eat our peas and like them’, might further consider, you’re ‘not’ be telling us anything we don’t already know? And perhaps — just perhaps, that collective wisdom of our ‘fellow unwashed’ now seeks cooperation and productive solutions rather than animosity and reasons for a never-ending resentment you seem to thrive on?

  11. Joe Smart says:

    I think Neill Blompkamp went out of his way to make the disparities between the elite on Elysium and the muddle masses on earth as indefensible as possible, so the fact that right wingers still find something to defend in a fictional society where any injury or sickness can be fixed–but only for the very wealthy, really says something about the obscene sense of entitlement rich people on the right apparently feel.

  12. Ted Trent says:

    I am sort of tired of Hollywood always casting the white people as the rich. I work in Downtown Los Angeles real estate. The white people are not the wealthiest on this planet. It’s a stereo type that I think Hollywood likes to perpetuate and it isn’t exactly true. I get it the idea, but the film would have been a little more interesting if they had a diverse cast of rich people. In the future, I think we will see more diversity among the rich. I think they forget it was a futuristic film. I still give it an A+, but would have liked to see that diversity that I think is even present today.

    • Joe Smart says:

      As the article points out the president of Elysium was Indian. I don’t think they’re generally considered white.

      • Joe Smart says:

        The stereotype of most rich people being white probably comes from watching Republican politicians and Republican pundits, almost all of whom are white.

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