In the New York Times yesterday, Brooks Barnes makes the case that Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s much-anticipated–at least at this blog and in this household–follow-up to his creative alien invasion movie District 9 is a major test case for Sony, which has had a number of high-profile blockbuster flops this summer, including After Earth and White House Down, and is being pressured by an activist investor to either overhaul its movie business or get out of the game entirely. As Barnes notes, the movie has some genuine claims to originality: “There is no sex. There is no goofy sidekick. It will not be released in 3-D. It is rated R….Don’t expect to see the obligatory camera shot of a ruined New York City.”
But towards the end of the piece, Barnes quotes Mordecai Wiczyk, the co-chairman of Media Rights Capital, which helped finance Elysium as saying that the movie will draw in viewers because it is deeply politically relevant. Barnes writes:
Mr. Wiczyk declined to speculate on ticket sales, saying it was much too early to make a judgment. But he did say that “Elysium” has a counterintuitive insurance policy. While trying not to give moviegoers the same “orgy of special effects” that they have seen over and over, the film also deals with topics that are very relatable — familiar, even.
“Look at Bangladeshi working conditions, people having problems accessing health care, immigration issues, the Occupy movement,” Mr. Wiczyk said. “This movie may be science-fiction, but it’s also about what is happening in the world right now.”
What he doesn’t say, though, and what makes Elysium an anxiety-inducing prospect as well as an exciting one, is that Wiczyk is setting up the movie as a test case for whether politics will get audiences to movie theaters. It’s become extremely fashionable to have a patina of politics in action movies, whether Bane and Catwoman are nodding at economic inequality in The Dark Knight Rises, or Star Trek, Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel are getting their quota of drone politics in. But that’s very different from having a political issue like inequality or health care access be the main driver of your story, or frankly, from having a story with a distinct and coherent point of view.
The Dark Knight Rises revealed Bane’s rhetoric to be a red herring for a more nebulously ideological plot, sticking with the rather comfortable idea that private generosity could cure Gotham’s social ills. Star Trek‘s rhetorical gestures at the idea that war criminals need to be tried to ensure the integrity and moral legitimacy of the Federation dissolved in favor of a storyline that advocated keeping Khan alive so his blood could be used to cure Kirk: the much-discussed trial happened off-screen if it happened at all (one can imagine it might have been complicated by his single-handed destruction of much of San Francisco), and the last we saw of Khan, he was being packed away again into permanent hibernation. These are convenient endings for movies that would rather not risk drawing a conclusion that an audience there to see punchings and explosions disagrees with.
But Blomkamp is a political director. District 9 was a searing examination of what human beings are willing to do to the other, and of the agony of moving from a state of personhood and citizenship to a category outside of those designations. Elysium is obviously and bluntly about inequality and health care, and has rhetorically situated audiences on the side of the have-nots. I doubt White House Down or After Earth will be used to discredit the idea of generating stakes by putting the president in danger, or destroying entire cities, or even of post-apocalyptic fiction. But I can very easily see a failure by Elysium at the box office discrediting the kind of political science fiction that would really invigorate our action movie environment.