Snowpiercer hatchetmen

Elysium & Snowpiercer: exploding heads vs. rail sociology

Despite the deep flaws running through 2009’s District 9 it was a film I enjoyed at the time, and I still think well of it five years later. Last year’s Elysium is Blomkamp’s first feature film since – a fact I’m a little relieved about, to be honest, as rumours have bounced about for years that he’d be pulled back toward directing another Halo film. To which I say, eww.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. Perhaps a Halo project is what Blomkamp should have done. Elysium is bad science fiction on just about every level, and a pretty poor film to boot. Er, sorry, should I have put those two clauses the other way around?

Much about Elysium is deeply improbable. There are too many instances to really list, but there are a few which particularly stood out for me. Shooting down a spacecraft that has left Earth’s atmosphere with a shoulder-mounted homing missile from the planet’s surface strikes me as utterly ridiculous, and was presumably only included to demonstrate the ‘plausible deniability’ of the Elysium space station’s harsh approach to refugee approaches.

Then there’s Elysium itself, which from the shots we see has a surface largely composed of MacMansions and other eye-gouging architectural monstrosities beloved of the tasteless and wealthy. Apparently this tiny space habitat – it’s only got one ring, and from its size you can extrapolate that its population is clearly not large – can support many wasteful and pampered lives, no doubt dining on the finest cuisine, without apparently according any space for the production of food. So, er, I guess they airlift all of that from Earth… the planet that’s so overpopulated and climate-ravaged they fled? I can’t see how this makes any sense at all, but it apparently doesn’t matter so far as Elysium is concerned. Maybe the people of Elysium don’t eat, just drink cocktails all day.

Why did the rich move to space in the first place? Something something global warming, yada yada overpopulation? Hell, Los Angeles doesn’t look like that much of a sun-scorched hell-hole, and it was pretty hot to begin with, and nor is it overflowing with human bodies much beyond what is a common sight today. Why didn’t the rich just move further into the northern hemisphere if the climate was responsible? If they’re got robots to guard them, why not gated enclaves as we see today? Why not do anything other than move to a space habitat that cannot be sustained internally?

One thing that particularly irks me about the film’s lazily improbable setup is that we’re to accept that, for the most part, those left behind on Earth are primarily interested in reaching Elysium to make use of its medical technology. Presumably they’re not naive enough to believe that they could stay there, that as refugees they would be accepted. It’s just the medical tech – which as far as we can tell, works essentially like magic.

From this we can extrapolate that the same medical tech isn’t available on Earth, but contrarily – as the film’s triumphal and optimistic conclusion suggests – Elysium can meet some or many of Earth’s poor’s medical needs and there is no technological or resource-derived reason why that technology could not be shared. Presumably, then, no one on Elysium actually cared enough to try and make it happen, whilst some folks actively worked against it. Why? Presumably because they are Bad Guys, and that is what Bad Guys do.

There is plenty of suggestion that some of those on Elysium (of the three or so who actually have speaking roles) regard the poor of Earth as sub-human assets to be despised and disposed of when they are no longer convenient, but while that’s an all too possible scenario to imagine – need we really point at the historical analogues – it’s equally difficult to imagine that in what is presented as a peaceful, mannered quasi-liberal democracy there would not be any internal pressure to help the people left behind on Earth. The human mind is capable of great cruelty and selfishness, and it is capable of great rhetorical feats to justify the same and extol it as virtue, but the human mind is also capable of great empathy, generosity and kindness. To elide the latter whilst making monstrous and unchallenged the former without addressing how this has become or why this is so is to render a future in overly broad and lazy strokes.

The heart of Elysium is composed of so many short-hand sketches and lazy assumptions that its body collapses inwards on close inspection, like a corpse rotted away from the inside bound up in fragile skin. Rich people don’t pay attention to human suffering, poor people endure and many turn to crime, technology magically fixes problems, we can get away with stuff that makes no sense if it looks cool, social and economic structures don’t need any actual thought putting into them, and everything is okay if you have cool CGI and guys exploding. Neill Blomkamp really likes to direct scenes in which guys explode. Far be it from me to be squeamish about guys exploding – I do love his visual effects – but I’d take a few less dismemberments and greasy smears if it meant a story, characters and a setting that weren’t so contemptibly lazy. Elysium has nothing to say about poverty, wealth inequality or the challenges that may face our species and planet in the future.

Happily, a few days after watching Elysium I sat down to watch Snowpiercer. Superficially the two films share a surprising amount: both are, nominally, post-climate disaster science fiction films. Both are built around socially-constructed divides between the haves and the have-nots, and both realise that divide as a physical metaphor. Elysium chucks its rich up in space and Snowpiercer puts them at the front of a train – right at the back, of course, are the refugee underclass, and it’s from this group that our hero emerges.

Snowpiercer’s scenario is no less absurd than Elysium’s: a kilometre long train that rattles around the entire globe, carrying all of the remaining survivors of the human race. But it is, in part, by embracing that absurdity that it transcends it. Where Elysium’s themes appear to have been sketched out on a napkin and expanded onto the back of a beer mat, Snowpiercer works hard to develop its themes and characters concurrently as the film develops, and works to surprise watchers by undermining and questioning what has been previously established in the film.

The only previous film I’ve seen from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s is 2006’s The Host, which drew me in with a wonderfully-designed and horrifying monster but captivated me with its in-depth exploration of a deeply dysfunctional family and their efforts to save a young girl from the creature. He’s a director with a great knack for fusing high-concept genre work with detailed psychological studies, and Snowpiercer is another fine example.

So it seems to matter less that the traversal of space in Snowpiercer feels so odd, with characters covering dozens of carriages in seconds. It doesn’t matter that we never see carriages carrying the chickens we see slaughtered elsewhere. Snowpiercer doesn’t care particularly about ‘worldbuilding’; it is interested in exploring the politics and psychology of putting human beings in this high-speed frozen can.

Snowpiercer succeeds where Elysium fails because it attempts a serious exploration of its themes and rarely compromises in pursuing this, rather than using them as a apocalypse-porn backdrop for a high-tech thriller. Snowpiercer has no shortage of impressive action, but at no point does it allow a spray of the red stuff to overshadow its characters or its ideas. Where Elysium was content to throw together a cast of moustachio-twirling masterminds and barbaric mercs, Snowpiercer offers a reason for why all of its characters have come to be as they are.

Please, don’t bother with the half-arsed Elysium, but see Snowpiercer at the closest opportunity.

4 Responses to “Elysium & Snowpiercer: exploding heads vs. rail sociology”
  1. Dylan says:

    I always feel like I missed something with The Host. It seems to get a lot of credit for its characters and their interesting, well realised relationships, but I never really picked up on that in a meaningful way. Seemed quite standard in that respect, as in neither bad, nor especially good.

    Having said that, maybe its an issue of unfamiliarity with the genre. I’ve been in positions where I’ve been enthused about a slasher film for those reasons, and all around me people have shrugged and said “That’s just a slasher film that isn’t as shit as normal”.

  2. ShaunCG says:

    It’s a good half-decade or more since I watched The Host, but one moment I do particularly remember is where the father (or grandfather?) is planning to use his old service rifle to kill the monster. The rest of the family all have their vital roles to fulfil – attracting its attention, leading it to a position where it can be shot, etc – but at the critical moment, the father pulls the trigger and nothing happens. He has a few seconds in which to realise that one of the less reliable members of his family has neglected to load it, before the beast reaches him. A fine moment of a good plan failing to come together.

    I can’t recall the details well but I also liked elements of the ending, where (I think) the son attacked the monster with molotovs, in scenes that were clearly evocative of various anti-autocratic uprisings in South Korea. I recall it contextualised some of the bitterness held between him and his parents.

    Given that most creature features rely on bland archetypes like ‘slutty teen’, ‘ornery sheriff’ and ‘frictionless hero guy’ (sometimes they go with ‘alcoholic hero guy’ instead!) The Host felt like a breath of fresh air.

    But them, this might just be me doing with creature features what you do with slashers. :)

  3. Juho says:

    The Host is a brilliant movie. I saw it last year, not expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised. There’s some more or less blatant political themes centered around American presence in South Korea, but it’s the characters that really carry the movie. There’s a very authentic sense of humanity I don’t recall seeing often in movies like this. It was also quite funny.

    Also, the use of the monster was quite refreshing. After some foreshadowing it makes its proper debut like a bolt out of the blue in broad daylight, and it’s terrifying.

    As for Elysium… yeah. I guess I’ll be seeing Snowpiercer, then?

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Ah, great point about the Host – I love that it is not at all coy about showing its monster. Yeah, its appearance and initial rampage was a tremendous moment.

    Yes, definitely go with Snowpiercer. ;)