The summer of 2013 has produced a large number of cinematic failures. I might have said that the summer of 2013 has produced an inordinate number of failures, but then I think back to all the previous summers of cinematic stinkers, and this summer's number of failures is probably ordinate. Indeed, most seasons produce large numbers of failures. Summer’s (mostly financial) expectations, however, highlight and accentuate those failures.
Three weeks into its run, Neill Blomkamp's Elysium (2013) looks to be headed toward the "bust" or "bomb" category. Now, a box office bust or bomb does not always indicate a film's quality. Fritz Lang's epic and now near-universally revered Metropolis was, by the cruel logic of box office receipts, an epic bomb. Popular audiences have been known to ignore quality cinema, but Elysium's critical reception has, at best, been mixed. Even the more positive reviews, such as Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker, take hundreds of words to dissect the more disappointing aspects of the film in an attempt to redeem its more positive features.
Part of the disappointment that Elysium has elicited seems to have stemmed from the expectations surrounding Blomkamp's second feature film. His first, District 9 (2009), was both a critical and financial success, garnering four Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. In both its script and direction, District 9 was a cleverly crafted sci-fi film with heavy doses of social criticism, yet the social criticism was added deftly enough so as not to spoil the film.
Similar to District 9, Elysium is a sci-fi action flick with heavy doses social criticism. Class struggle, lack of social mobility, unequal distribution of resources, healthcare, immigration, and countless other contentious issues worm their way into Blomkamp's second film. Unfortunately, the delicate mix of ingredients does not balance out, and the final product in Elysium tasted like an overcooked meal with too much seasoning.
The film's two distinct geographical locations, a dystopian, futuristic Los Angeles and the compass shaped space station/resort spa, Elysium, never effectively meld together. Los Angeles is essentially a slum, and Elysium is a high priced gated community. It is obvious that the workers in the slum sell their labor to the CEOs of Elysium for a small pittance, but Elysium fails to further analyze the dialectic situation it presents.
Elysium also fails to make Elysium attractive. While Blomkamp may have intended to create Elysium in the mold of the most boring, sterile gated community, he unfortunately created an environment that was a boring, sterile gated community. Aesthetically, the film suffers at any point when it moves to Elysium. The direction, editing, and camera work all seem weaker during the scenes on Elysium. And I cannot believe that I am about to admit this, but Jodie Foster's character, Delacourt, Elysium's director of defense, is rather boring and baseless. Any setting or location that makes Jodie Foster boring is a place that is most undesirable and probably should not exist.
By contrast, the scenes in the slum-ridden outskirts of Los Angeles are taught and visually compelling. Blomkamp and Elysium seem much more interested in Los Angeles, and, not unsurprisingly, the portions of the action that take place in Los Angeles are far more interesting. Elysium would have been a better film and script without Elysium.
Yet even if Elysium becomes a failure by whatever critical or financial standards apply to cinematic failures, such a failure is not always a bad thing. Many failures often lead to great things. I often tell my students that they need to fail in their initial readings and writings before they can become better. The above referenced Metropolis failed during its initial release and languished for years. But I doubt that Metropolis's fate will be the fate of Elysium. If Elysium is eventually regarded as a monument of cinematic achievement in the next hundred years, then that world will be far more horrifying than the one portrayed in Elysium.
I think (or hope) that a more accurate counterpart for cinematic failure would be Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965). Prior to Major Dundee, Peckinpah had created two smaller-scale Westerns: The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962). Similar to Blomkamp's District 9, Peckinpah's first two critically acclaimed films allowed him access to a bigger Hollywood budget and bigger Hollywood stars. And while Peckinpah would go on to work with big stars and big budgets in later projects, this first foray did not go well. And just like Elysium seems inconsistent with Blomkamp's previously displayed talents, Major Dundee fails to exhibit Peckinpah's exceptional directorial qualities. The film's lead, Charlton Heston, seemed to be an awkward fit for someone like Peckinpah. (Of course, Heston seemed to be an awkward fit in many films.) Similarly, Foster and Blomkamp seem ill matched. Both Blomkamp and Peckinpah were given shiny new toys, and in their initial excitement, they created their own fantastic messes.
Hopefully, Blomkamp can learn from his latest mess the same way that Peckinpah did from his. Peckinpah followed up Major Dundee with The Wild Bunch (1969). If Blomkamp comes anywhere close to approximating Peckinpah's success, then Elysium's failures will be much more palatable.