'Elysium' Shows Why Social Commentary Is Useless in Blockbusters that Have Nothing to Say


When Scott Foundas, reviewing “Elysium” in Variety last week, characterized it as advancing “one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory”, it hardly seemed so surprising to anybody (read our review of "Elysium" here). The director responsible for this thinly veiled blockbuster socialism was, after all, none other than Neill Blomkamp, whose debut feature “District 9” was received even upon release as a clearly legible allegory for discrimination in his native South Africa. It is doubtful that any modern Hollywood science-fiction film—or for that matter any fantasy, horror, action, or genre film in general whatsoever—could contain a social allegory or coded critique that might genuinely shock or upset an audience hip to the message, and in fact these layers of metaphorical import are so commonplace that they are practically expected as a matter of generic convention. We have reached a point now where James Bond installments lean hard on the implied portent of Christ symbolism and even “Star Trek” has to culminate in some stupefying inferno of expensive special effects and strained 9/11 imagery. It isn’t enough to simply make a genre movie anymore: everything has to have a message.

This trend is not exactly new, of course, as artists working on the periphery of Hollywood have been fashioning genre pictures into vehicles for social messages for decades. Part of the appeal, I think, is the ease with which high-concept lowbrow films lend themselves to satire and loaded critique: when your picture turns on the premise that people must contend with some monstrous and terrifying force, the nature of that force is wildly open to imaginative interpretation, and nudging your audience in one interpretive direction is as simple as adding a few visual or aural cues. In most cases the results have only a tenuous grasp on whatever social import they’re engaging with, and the message itself is rarely articulated with anything like sophistication. Even a film like “Dawn of the Dead”, which levelled its satire of consumerism succinctly and with great elegance, doesn’t really have much to say about the consumer culture of its day beyond the observation that modern mall-goers resemble mindless zombies—it’s a fair point, but it’s ultimately rather simplistic, and if were not tempered by the more basic qualities of the genre, it’s unlikely we would be very impressed.

This ease—the sense that any old social message can be grafted atop a genre film with minimal effort—is precisely the problem with the approach. Fleshing out a necessarily superficial concept with some vague allusion to the zeitgeist is, in most cases, nothing more than a shortcut to feigned profundity, as if a science fiction premise could only be taken seriously if it aspires to something greater. When you think about a film like, say, Pixar’s “Wall-E”, the message propped-up behind the premise seems perfectly obvious: humans are wasteful by nature and if we continue to behave in the way that we are now our planet will one day be rendered uninhabitable. It it hard to imagine anybody watching “Wall-E” and being surprised to learn that humans are egregiously wasteful or that our current living conditions are unsustainable as-is on the long term; it’s even harder to imagine somebody walking away from the film with a restored outlook on life, committed to effecting social change.

One could argue that “Wall-E” is intended for children and is therefore not beholden to the complexities of more serious social allegories, but that film’s message is actually quite typical of sci-fi allegories as a whole: even “Elysium” itself, with its vision of a future where humanity’s salvation is found on a self-enclosed space station above the earth while a destitute Los Angeles is ghettoized over time, pretty much slaps our collective wrists for the same reasons.

“Elysium” does run a bit deeper, mind you: the so-called “socialist agenda” kicks in when the film’s working class hero takes to the skies to upturn class disparity and to redistribute the wealth of the elite, which I suppose makes it a rallying cry on behalf of social revolution. But as Foundas points out in the same review, Blomkamp never suggests how a world rendered uninhabitable due to overpopulation might solve its problems by sharing wealth and space. Well, and why not? Suggesting real solutions for social problems is really hard work, and “Elysium” is, after all, just a science fiction blockbuster, a bit of escapist entertainment for the masses. At least when it wants to be. That’s what’s so frustrating about these kinds of wafer thin allegories: they get all the glory of seeming deep and socially engaged but are absolved of the responsibility of actually doing the legwork needed to make a social critique thorough and well-rounded. Savvy audiences can congratulate themselves for recognizing the hidden message buried just beneath the surface of the film’s base pleasures, but those looking to hold the film accountable for the thinness of its argument can be dismissed by merely deferring to the expectations of the genre. It’s a crummy middleground, an attempt by big budget nothings to have it both ways. A film can’t reasonably aspire to depth without putting in the effort to actually get there—that is, conceiving of a more fully realized agenda and then articulating it as if it were the central thesis rather than just some ancillary feature.