When you venture into the multiplexes anymore, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the suits are firmly in control of Hollywood. Sure, movies have been a business since practically the dawn of the medium, but lately the corporate and marketing stranglehold is so tight that the cold plastic from the action figures and the wax from the fast food drink cups can be tasted in the air by the time the first reel gets moving. So with this near insurmountable obstacle of commercial influence, any time an intelligent, well-crafted genre film sneaks through the board rooms and the farcical focus groups is a victory for geeks like us.
This is precisely the (first) reaction I had to seeing footage from Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming film Elysium. The celebrated South African director, who spun a meager budget into pure sci-fi gold with District 9, is set to bring us another action-packed genre romp with social commentary and weighty themes worn proudly on its sleeve. It presents a future in which the world is so polluted and overpopulated that the upper crust have actually built their own world just off planet called Elysium. Here is contained all the latest medical technology. Here is a world free of crime and poverty. Here is a world forbidden to those in the financially struggling majority. Matt Damon plays a blue collar guy, an ex-con trying to get his life back on track, who manages to get himself exposed to a lethal toxin. He is given five days to live, but knows that the key to saving his life rests on Elysium. From there, it is a race against time, and the violent contingencies of the entrenched wealthy, to cure himself and gain entrance to this socially unjust satellite.
All that being said, and wholeheartedly sincere, there is another, less admirable reason Elysium has rocketed to the top of my most anticipated movies list. As some of you may know, I’m a bit a of fanatic for bad movies. Junkfood Cinema has given me an outlet for this terminal, hopefully infectious, ailment. While I can’t stress enough the beautiful cinematography and complex themes that were revealed to us in the Elysium footage, something else became quite evident about this film that played directly to my baser film tastes. Basically, Elysium looks like the greatest, most expensive Italian post-apocalyptic movie ever made.
For those of you unfamiliar, in the 1980s, there were a number of filmmakers in that boot-shaped wonderland churning out action movies set in a dystopian, post-fallout society. These movies were usually made for the price of a studded jean jacket and a synthesizer and had all the spectacle and craft of…a jean jacket and a synthesizer. In fact, the reason the post-fallout world was so popular was that it necessitated only burnt-out buildings alongside the highway to serve as sets.
These marvels of micro-budget failure nevertheless proved to be entertaining due in large part to their misguided compensatory overloading of absurdity. Sure, you’d have to sit through a cheese-soaked, grimy misuse of celluloid with a half-assed story and lazy production design, but you were in turn assured to experience an overabundance of hysterically random nonsense. For example, After the Fall of New York is not content to just ape the plot of John Capenter’s Escape from New York, they actually throw in an ape man…along with cyborgs, demolition derbies, and cannibals. It is a glorious pile of a movie.
Please understand, I am not insinuating there is anything about Elysium that looks cheap or that would otherwise relegate it to a b-movie label. However, there are things I saw in the footage that seem like they would find equally solid purchase in one of my beloved Italian post-apocalyptic films. Things like…
Technologically enhanced humans – Damon wears some kind of wire-frame techno backpack that enhances his abilities and makes him look like the king of the wasteland.
A barren, dirty dystopic aesthetic – Not only does Elysium share a bond with Italian post-apocalyptic films in its choice of setting, but the footage opened with “the year is 2159, the world is overpopulated…” This is precisely the kind of text that would be narrated in one of these 80s b-movies to substitute for expensive exposition shots.
Killer robots – The principal enforcers of the socioeconomically-founded law. Robots are also evidently utilized for more bureaucratic purposes. The mechanized parole officer was our chief glimpse into this concept. He sort of reminded me of the bizarre clown robot doling out prizes to the winner of the derby in After the Fall of New York.
Exploding ninja stars – Did I mention they explode?
Laser shields – Reminiscent, but worlds better than, the invisible laser shields of 2020 Texas Gladiators
Class warfare – The isolating of the lower classes on Earth, and the inherent imbalances predicated upon wealth, seems a pitch perfect theme for Blomkamp to tackle after using alien landings to explore the issue of racism in District 9. It also reminds me of Enzo Castellari’s 1990 Bronx Warriors in which the “undesirable elements” are cordoned off in that titular New York borough. The conflict between the classes was often a driving force behind these b-movie forays into the wastelands.
Though my affinity for these schlocky Italian genre films is visible from space, I have not lost sight of filmmakers like Blomkamp who are actually using sci-fi artfully and, well, correctly; seeing contemporary, smart science-fiction peppered with cinematically crowd-pleasing elements is one of my very favorite theatrical experiences where I can find them. For the longest time, I’ve been hoping that someone would merge these two passions of mine into one weird, wonderful blockbuster. My hope is that Neill Blomkamp is about to create something that uses brilliant technical upgrades to enhance the cardboard pleasures of Italian post-apocalyptic cinema.
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