Book: Elysium: The Art of the Film


It’s taken me a long time to get to Elysium: The Art of the Film, published by Titan Books and in stores now. There’s a lot to admire in the design elements of the movie and how rich and lived-in the world of Elysium is. A few personal matters got in the way of me writing about the book sooner. The big thing that kept this write-up on the book delayed, however, were my feelings about Elysium the movie.

I admire the look of the film and think the art is an incredible exploration of futurist creativity. Kudos should go to the Weta Workshop and Syd Mead. But the film? It’s absolute garbage. Elysium contains so much that I hate about cynical, cliched Hollywood product that its sheer dumbness overshadows its brilliant production design.

It became apparent that I couldn’t just talk about the art in the book. Taken as a whole, the book and the film are a great exploration of the difference between world building and storytelling. Elysium succeeds at the former but fails spectacularly at the latter.

I’ve noticed the topic of world building coming up a lot recently. Earlier in the month, Alyssa Rosenberg at The Dissolve ran a piece about the difficulties of world building in feature films. Maybe two weeks ago, a friend of mine shared an io9 piece by Charlie Jane Anders about the seven deadly sins of world building. While Rosenberg focuses on plot holes and logical inconsistencies and Anders gears her piece toward deepening initial decisions about fictional settings, I think both writers touch on something at the core of so many awful films: too much time is spent on backstory or mythology and not enough time is spent on crafting a story that someone can care about. (That’s maybe the most succinct way to sum up how I felt about Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium.)

Reading the design considerations in Elysium: The Art of the Film, it feels like so many intelligent questions were wrestled with by the concept artists. Syd Mead in particular seemed in top form. Mead is a legendary designer and futurist whose film credits include Blade Runner and TRON, and the world of Elysium is well-realized just in terms of objects. While designing the aristocratic space station that orbits Earth, Mead asked his friends at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab if a roof were necessary or if an atmosphere could theoretically be generated through proper pressurization and centrifugal motion. Simply in considering this idea, Mead demonstrates an attempt to make the design work in order to fit the needs of the story.

By contrast, it seems like writer/director Neill Blomkamp was using the world building as a crutch for a story that’s downright insulting in how unimaginative it is. When the Flixist staff chimed in on whether or not we make an effort to support original movies, I was careful to state that original concepts (i.e., things that aren’t remakes, sequels, or adaptations) are not automatically original in execution. Elysium is just such a movie. There are so many bland cliches, it’s a bit embarrassing:

  • Everyman schlub who has heroism thrust upon him only to become a potential messianic savior for the world
  • Flashbacks to childhood in which adult figures suggest he will one day be the chosen one
  • Love interest who functions only as a damsel in distress
  • (And of course our hero and the damsel in distress were friends during childhood who happen to bump into each other again)
  • Adorable kid who manipulates the emotions of the audience and appeals to a hidden soft side within the hero
  • Minority sidekicks (note: Matt Damon is the white redeemer of the large minority class in futuristic LA)
  • Psychotic underling villain as the muscle who is a loose cannon
  • Guess what happens to the love interest and her kid just before the third act — go on, take a wild friggin’ guess

By the end of the first 30 minutes, you’ve already predicted the rest of the movie beat-by-beat, and it’s more boring than you’d think. This is why lazy, formulaic storytelling should go the hell away. (And don’t get me started on that stupid hippo and meerkat story.) On the world building side, the designers are creating dynamic landscapes and remarkable vehicles and weapons. Blomkamp, meanwhile, seems content to write the screenplay equivalent of the suburbs: predictable streets, prefabriacted homes. Blockbusters are slaves to cliche, that’s a given, but I’m just tired of suffering through such abysmal narrative Levittowns.

The sociopolitical elements of Elysium are blunt — the 99% and the 1%, illegal immigration, access to healthcare, worker exploitation, politicians in cahoots with big business — but that could have actually worked in the film’s favor, which I’ll touch on in a bit. Elysium reminded a little of the problematic indie thriller The East, a much smaller film that similarly rode the tide of Occupy and other topical issues to inform its narrative. (Like Elysium, The East succumbs to lazy cliches, though not as severely.) At least The East had characters. Some were flat or one-dimensional, sure, but they were characters I could at least tell you something about. Elysium simply has human props with pronouns; by contrast, the props that Weta and Mead designed actually have personalities. You could have substituted the robots in the film for all of the human leads and not noticed a difference. Actually, no. The difference would be a film that took risks rather than resorting to overused character types.

(An all-robot Elysium spin-off may actually be better. The most interesting character in the whole film is the AI parole officer. He’s bolted down in one place, but I would pay good cash money to see AI Parole Officer hanging out with Johnny Cab from Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall in a feature-length film. Just picture something like Night on Earth and My Dinner with Andre, but with robots. At the very least it would be more daring than Elysium, and possibly more human.)

In Elysium: The Art of the Film, Blompkamp says two things that struck me. The first comes early on in the book’s text, where he seems to want to distance himself from making social statements in his films: “I’m the last person to push any kind of sociological issues on people or any sort of bullshit about using awareness or anything like that. If you think you are making any difference as a filmmaker, you have picked the wrong industry.” Much later in the book, Blompkamp seems to detach himself entirely from the notion of creating works with a social conscience: “I want to blow things up as much as I want to make films that are about serious topics. Elysium and District 9 can’t be taken completely seriously — they’re popcorn films.”

I can see Blompkamp’s point to a certain extent, but I also think he’s being too flippant about topics that clearly have resonance for him. (Though given the way he treats attempted illegal immigration in Elysium, it seems to me he hasn’t really thought seriously about how it works in this invented world.) Both District 9 and Elysium have fundamental social and economic inequalities at their hearts, though District 9 feels more personal and Elysium feels like it’s a detached narrative without as much personal stake. Is it a sophomore slump? Were there studio notes that sheered away the personality? Was it a case of trying to build a world in a movie with the story as an afterthought? I’m honestly inclined to think it was the world over the story, when really they both need to inform each other.

There are a few lines in Les Blank’s short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe that have stuck with me for a long time, and I’ll make a closing point with those lines because they seem relevant to this larger discussion of world building and storytelling. In that short documentary, Herzog laments that our civilization lacks adequate images. By that he means the sorts of images that we’ve never seen before, ones that tell us something true about ourselves. I think that’s still a problem the world faces today, at least looking at a lot of contemporary film. So many movies are shot poorly and without imagination, like bad television or so-so television rather than something that’s dynamic and cinematic. Given, not all films aspire to adequacy, but there seem to be fewer and fewer in wide release.

But that’s just part of the issue. I think our civilization is generally lacking adequate narratives as well. We need adequate narratives to go with these images and help us confront and understand the plight we’re in, whether it’s at the global scale or the personal one. The design of Elysium shows a super abundance of adequate images that could express something, even if it’s just a reflection of the world tied into an entertaining yarn. Too bad that these images don’t have an adequate narrative. The world’s been built, but beyond the aesthetics and the potential for other stories, there’s no compelling reason to pay attention. Why eat stale popcorn?

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.