Director Neill Blomkamp, who swallowed CGI whole in one prodigious gulp in his mid-teens, went on to deploy his mastery with a series of advertising and dramatic short films, and with the serio-comic feature District 9 in 2009. It skewered South Africa’s heritage of apartheid and economic inequality with marvelously homely aliens as the underdogs, and starred Blomkamp’s former employer (producer Sharlto Copley) as a mousey bureaucrat-cum-hero who finally stands to deliver them from unspeakable earthly cruelties. What made it special was Blomkamp’s unswerving commitment to its reflection of realpolitik, balanced by his delight in messing about with effects. So it was an original—sci-fi with a purpose, heart, mind, and tongue in cheek.
Attention was paid by the critics and increasingly by the studios, impressed by its ballooning profit margin. Although finding accurate current totals is something of a slippery slope, there is general agreement that District 9 cost about 30 million dollars, and has made some several hundred million since its initial release. Of course opportunity knocked. The question was: what would Blomkamp do next?
Behold Elysium! It’s bigger, bolder, and a tad less original than District 9, with bonafide international stars (Matt Damon, Jodie Foster) and again Sharlto Copley—this time as a truly larger-than-life incarnation of purest villainy. But Blomkamp’s ideas still drive the story, with the haves and have-nots playing out a familiar (and wholly plausible) economic scenario in the not-too-distant future. What keeps it above the heavy-handed action category is partly Damon’s radiant goodness (and the evil duo of Foster and Copley), but even more the evidence of Blomkamp’s passionate love for special effects. Not just the sets, but especially for the shuttles that constantly whiz from Earth (dying of pollution and poverty) to the space station (Elysium) where the 1% live, seemingly forever, in perfect control. The shuttles, from sleek capsules on scheduled runs, to rogue rustbelt wonders a hair’s breadth from crashing and burning, are Blomkamp’s favorite toys. And he really knows how to play with them so we just can’t quit the game. Although Elysium is closer to a comic book spirit than its predecessor (it is, after all, a studio film), Blomkamp’s heart remains in the right place. Let’s hope it stays there…
Cinema of Resistance: Film Society of Lincoln Center
This is an extraordinarily well-curated series that will run from August 28 through September 3 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Center. As an antidote to the current avalanche of worldly woes on every side, and the exhaustion and anomie it produces, it focuses on specific conflicts that sparked real opposition and, eventually, peace. Of course there were lessons to be learned (most urgently that those who forget history are destined to repeat it). But they were decades ago. So perhaps its subtitle should be Lest We Forget.
One cause for celebration is a newly restored print of Far From Vietnam, shown at the New York Film Festival in 1967. A collaborative film by some very big names (Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnés Varda), it explodes with the anguish of the long, long war, but also reveals—in a raucous sequence shot in New York—what it was like to be here when people not only took to the streets to protest, but participated in only-in-New York screaming matches of raw vitriol and principle en route. This landmark movie hasn’t a frame of exhaustion or anomie to its name.
By way of comparison, Icarus Films is offering Far From Afghanistan—another collaborative film–that’s right here, right now, featuring the longest war in US history and how it has impacted both the occupiers and the occupied; there are no winners this time around, nor is the end truly in sight. No one is taking to the streets these days, and most of the contention is behind closed doors in Congress. Lessons not learned…Andre Gregory stars.
One of the series’ rediscoveries is René Vautier’s haunting To Be 20 in the Aurès, a fiction film from 1972. The French did not give Algeria its independence until 1962, and then only after years of violence that targeted both the colony and the French capital. A long, hard look at how the French treated their subjects, To Be 20 follows a unit of pacifists from Brittany who are conscripted to fight abroad, with bitter results. But it rises far above the army buddy genre familiar to Americans because the soldiers are both occupiers and colonists. Their suffering is balanced by their contempt for the Algerians they oppose. Yet the Algerians have inherited a culture of which the French know next to nothing; the desert is punctuated with ancient ruins and pictographs that beg for contemplation that never comes. The entire cast (including Alexandre Arcady and a young Phillipe Léotard) is outstanding. Don’t miss it!
For a complete schedule for Cinema of Resistance: screenings