That Neill Blomkamp’s ‘District 9‘ made a killing despite zero name recognition of its cast, crew, or “brand” seems amazing in 2013 (it was pretty amazing in 2009, too). But while we’ve spent years bemoaning the plight of brandless films at the box-office, another element of District 9’s success has become even more anomalous among blockbusters in the years since: its tight, cohesive, singular, functioning script. Even “prestige” effects pictures from incredible filmmakers that could once be counted upon to deliver the broad, actiony goods have become entirely unreliable. If it’s something in the water or the cocaine has just gotten really great, I don’t know, but the scripts just aren’t working, even on like, an ‘Independence Day‘ level.
Just as the monsoon of incompetent tent-pole screenwriting reached a crisis point with the 1-2 gut punch of ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ and ‘Man of Steel,’ the marketing ramped up for Blomkamp’s sophomore feature, ‘Elysium.’ In a landscape where the feel-good movie of the summer centers around a middle-aged couple bickering to a breaking point, the return of the South African writer/director to cinemas promised, like the time traveler in that movie’s finale, to save the summer. Like before, Blomkamp came armed with a vision, a voice, and “something to say,” augmented this time by a couple of Oscar winning box-office champs, a massive budget, and a “from the director of” tag in the trailer. If any movie seemed like a safe bet to show the hack-jobs how its done, it was ‘Elysium.’
Without access to early script drafts and insider knowledge of production, its impossible to know at what point a movie goes wrong. So maybe it was all part of Blomkamp’s original vision, but ‘Elysium’s script is riddled with the same issues as every big-budget disappointment of the past few years (the same issues that ‘District 9 totally lacks). Unnecessary convolution, unnecessary characters, unnecessary exposition, unnecessary explanation. A million crutches. It’s hard to walk with a million crutches (or so I would think), and it’s easy to see, as ‘Elysium’ limps along, how it could have soared without them.
Let’s start at the beginning.
‘Elysium’ opens with some badass visual storytelling. We start with shots of a dusty, colorless earth, a massive slum that mixes ‘District 9’ with last year’s marvel of singular, cohesive vision and storytelling, ‘Dredd.’ We then travel from the shittiness of Earth, through space, to beautiful Elysium, a Halo in the sky where all the rich people live in glamorous bliss with perfect healthcare and perfect lawns. The juxtaposition of the two settings tells us everything we need to know about this world in pure visuals. But Blomkamp (or the studio or whoever) either didn’t trust the visuals or didn’t trust the audience, because what we see is explained to us in a redundant text overlay. It’s the first thing in the movie, and the first sign of all the problems to come.
And then come all the actual problems, neatly tucked into a prologue lifted directly from ‘Up.’ People cite ‘Up’s opening all the time as a marvel of efficiency and effectiveness in storytelling, motivation, emotional attachment etc… It’s a great setup. Undeniably. So it’s easy to see why someone would emulate it. But ‘Elysium’ takes superficial bits from it and leaves out the stuff that makes it work. A boy meets a girl. They like each other. There’s a pretty place in the sky that they want to visit one day. Boy promises girl they’ll go. That’s about it, as far as Elysium’s prologue goes. It leaves out the charm, the style, the emotion, and the actual storytelling of ‘Up,’ but I guess the nuts and bolts of plot are there. Unfortunately, those nuts and bolts were exactly the wrong ones to build this particular story on.
After the prologue, the real story starts. We meet grown Boy, now named Max, as he starts a typical day in his awful life. He walks out of his shitty apartment, strolls through the slums, jokes with some kids about the price of a ticket to Elysium (which hangs tantalizingly close in the sky), then gets beaten up by some robots on the way to work. It’s a nice, thorough, involving introduction to the movie’s universe, letting the audience piece together the details of the world to understand the whole. Unfortunately, it comes about 10 minutes in, after everything has been painstakingly, literally spelled out.
So when he finally gets to his crappy job where his bosses are evil beyond belief, he gets zapped by radiation and given 5 days to live. And as we know from Max’s stroll through the slum and his conversation with coworkers, there simply isn’t healthcare available outside of Elysium. So now we’ve got a loner in a dead end life with a dead end job with a hopeless worldview given the most primal reason of all to get out of it: survival. Sounds like this guy has a places to go, both physically and in a character arc kinda way, and a lot of urgency to get there.
But then that nasty prologue rears its head again with the reintroduction of Girl (in adult form as Frey), and all the urgency of that beautiful, crystal clear set up is let out by obfuscation. See, Frey has a daughter with terminal cancer. And it can only be treated on Elysium. And, as we know from the trailers, the poor people of Earth can’t get there without a mess of trouble. And not only does Frey’s daughter have cancer, but Boy promised Girl that he’d take her to Elysium one day. So now we’re stuck with a whole bunch of reasons for Max to get to Elysium that are a whole lot less pressing than the (ultimate) one he already had, and we have to deal with them for the rest of the movie. And they are alright. The actors are good. Their scenes are emotional.
By motivating Max from the beginning to reach Elysium for reasons other than his own survival, Blomkamp neuters the emotional and thematic impact of Max’s final (spoiler) sacrifice. Basically, Max dies at the end for everyone else to get free healthcare. But there is nothing from the prologue to end credits to suggest he ever would have done otherwise. Because the entire time, he has cared more about Frey and her child and his promise than about himself. And that’s fine. But thematically and story-wise, you can’t have it both ways.
If Max is going to die (from radiation poisoning), then his motivation to reach Elysium must be pure survival. That way, when his journey takes him to the final choice of saving himself or dying to save others, he actually has a dilemma. Because we’ve assumed he’s wanted to save himself all along, his choice to die to save others hits us, hard. We’ve traveled the journey with him, we want him to save himself, and his choice to die renders the movie’s themes in a visceral, emotional way.
Using the ‘Up’ prologue and all that it entails (Frey, her daughter, the promise) could have worked, but only if Max wasn’t also dying. In this potential set-up, Max’s goal the entire time is selfless, but because he doesn’t HAVE to die (because he hasn’t been radiated), his choice to die to save EVERYONE, not just his loved ones, has an impact. But since the movie wants to have it both ways by having Max be a good, selfless guy who is also already dying, the ending has no weight. He’s gonna die anyway. He cares about other people. He’s always wanted Elysium to be reachable by the poor (exemplified by the promise). It’s a win-win all around with no need for character growth. No real dilemma, other than probably preferring to not be dead (a motivation which is diluted by the existence of the other motivations). And given the socio/political point about healthcare and wealth discrepancy that Blomkamp was clearly trying to make, that dilemma was everything. As it stands, he’s preaching to the choir (choir ably portrayed by Matt Damon) while at the same time robbing the narrative of the clean, tense propulsion that it begged for.
It’s unclear why Blomkamp chose to add all this unnecessary baggage to his script. Perhaps he didn’t. It smells a little bit of studio mandates, as far as a required love story and over explanation go. But maybe Blomkamp, having already proven himself adept at the lean, mean, action/sci-fi machine (with a brain), wanted to make his own ‘Prometheus.’