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

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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