RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 1: Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013)


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The Players:

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga and Sharlto Copley, with Diego Luna, William Fichtner and Wagner Moura.


The Plot:

In the mid 22nd Century, the wealthy elite has divorced themselves from an overpopulated, toxic Earth to live out an exclusive, eternal life of luxury on the space colony known as Elysium. Such an Eden is the envious life of those left behind, and for one Max DeCosta, getting there may be the only chance of saving his own degrading life.


The Rant:

For those who’ve kept paying attention, this is the first installment of the third (and hopefully final) iteration of RIORI. It’s for two reasons, one practical and one we’ll call sympathetic.

First (in short), the practical: I finally fine-tuned the blog to a setup of maximum efficiency and minimal fuss. In real life, I make my living as a cook. That being said, us cooks must work with an economy of motion. I’ve read other blogs out there. No doubt so have you. Some are very pretty, models of webtech, which we should all aspire to. They posess lots of splash-and-dash and eye grabbing visuals that might make your forget you visited a blog to read something above all else…and try to ignore that Disney bug in the corner.

Popular blogs—the ones that might garner sponsors—look quite professional (e.g..: users paid for the premium ticket. I’m broke, so I work with what I got). A great deal of them read like they had the NY Times as underwriters. Well written, user-friendly and just the right amount of eyewash to separate them from the dross. These precious few are the high watermark that us in steerage try to aspire. That and those of us who try to follow grammatical logic (haven’t figured out the “your/you’re/you are” trifecta yet? Go review you Funk’n Wagnalls, and we’ll chat never, okay?). I’d like to think that’s so, such streamlined blogs of untrammeled verbiage. Simplicity and economy.

It’s hard these days of immediate text overflow to differ between good online content when it happens or just a lot of shock-and-awe-with-your-unwanted-selfies-in-that-truck-stop-stall-with-the-crumpmled-tallboys-of-PBR-at-the-heels-of-your-widdershins-Candies. I still suck at it. I am trying to not contribute to it. And about those beer cans? Tsk-tsk.

I’ve always strove towards efficiency and economy. Tried to. I’m no Hemingway, but I think most writers owe him a debt of gratitude in showing how to tell a story with just enough words to convey both meaning and feeling. Following that example—at least when it comes to sheer effectiveness—I’m trying to keep RIORI slim and trim, easy to access and minimal on the sparkly. Trying to. The focus should be on the semi-regular posts—the words and stories—and not the ever-alluring bells and whistles. We can access enough accidental porn via spam, thank you very much.

On the flipside, as a caution, most other blogs I’ve frequented look like a six-year old high on glue let their older sibs smatter their tweets onto solid hypertext to make the galaxy know that their kitty is such a good, good kitty. Such a good kitty. That and there’s a lot of spelling misteaks. I’m not passing judgment; I’m just reporting on what I’ve seen. Just sayin’.

*draws squeegee across monitor, hitches up belt and feels fattened by the marrow than only prime blogging can bring. Checks lock on door*

Ahem…

Second (in long), the sympathetic: The intro page at RIORI shouts its intent, ribald as it is. I’ve made no apologies; I warned you after all, and yet week after week you come back for more abuse. Thanks, by the way. But like the germ for all good stories—at least, I’d like to think this a good story—an original idea never occurs in a vacuum.

In the summer of 2013 I was tasked to work in a glorified snack bar at the country club I chef at. I did it for two summers, which were two summers too many. For one, the kitchen’s heat was insufferable. If you stood still long enough, you could watch hydrogen atoms merge with oxygen atoms and their osmosis would collect on your eyebrows. Yeah, it was hot.

For two, the clientele were basically the Disney Channel audience on speed. Kids aging from afterbirth to frustrated tween demanded at full volume where the f*ck their chicken fingers were. These were the spawn of the alarmingly wealthy; kids always tapping away at their iPhone 6 in 2012. I was the go-to man for “You wanna super-size that?” What I wouldn’t have given for a hankie soaked in chloroform and a polo mallet.

For some perspective, I was once the sous chef at a white tablecloth restaurant complete with a fey sommelier and an ever-changing menu that reflected the months. Not seasons, months. My chef was into a seasonable/sustainable doctrine that hadn’t seen such fervor since the first draft of Mein Kampf. After years of keeping salsify fresh with a milk bath and cultivating mint and sorrel in the restaurant’s backyard, I had to (being a new dad and a newfound family to support) seek out a gig that paid better and eventually promised health bennies.

Enter the club, and the ensuing chicken fingers.

I arrived then at what I now know as the “cattle call.” Summer’s a big deal at clubs. Being an operation based mostly on a summer sport, it would go to follow that during those heavy, hot days, with numerous would-be golfers champing at the bit to play a few rounds, folks might get a slight peckish. The club had several satellite kitchens opened to fill the members’ hungry needs. In turn the place took any willing applicants they could, regardless of experience.

Read: I was a sucker. But a sucker with a wife and kid. You’ll suckle at anything then.

Two sentences: I needed the job and needed the benefits. I did not need to dunk fries for the children of effete wastrels absconded to the bar because their offspring was a secondhand notion. Not that I’m bitter. Hey, want my recipe for balsamic moules a la basquaise? Of course you don’t. Go to Red Lobster. They won’t have it either.

In spite of the heat and the thankless tasks of feeding, babysitting and allowing my knives getting rusty, I had a simple pleasure in working with some good guys. All of them summer folk and they possessed a resigned, genial, shrug-and-nod attitude to the place. Most of the time working with good people in a sh*tty work environment will make the day feel a lot less like work and more like a day just getting on.

Despite the craptastic, cramped conditions, insufferable heat and nary a sous vide well to temper, it was a well-paid gig. And thanks to the bennies, I’m assured I can always afford to be sick. It was what it was, and I’ve always hated that axiom. I still do, but after the club’s snack bar summers, I’ve learned to understand it. I only pray that you, dear reader, never have to understand it also.

One of the cool guys I suffered through summer with inadvertently planted the seed that would germinate into Rent It Or Relent It. Again, I assure you it’s a good story. Again I at least think it is. Most of the best stories are personal. You still reading? Okay:

Jordan was at least my junior by a decade. I’ll spare you the magnifying lens of nostalgia. The fact that he liked Vonnegut, Neutral Milk Hotel and the works of Terry Gilliam as I did says enough. Good taste, no matter what the age, is always welcome.

I know that Jordan occasionally visits this blog. For any digressions from the conversations we’d had, I’ll employ the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence escape clause: if the legend is better than the facts, print the legend. He’s an honest soul; I’m hoping he’ll forgive any embellishments. Then again, we worked late and were both doped-up with heat. Some things get cloudy.

Anyway, we worked the night shift. We were left alone to close up the place. This permitted some down time and interesting conversations would ensue. Work stories, travel stories, this and that. One night Jordan told me about a movie his friend had seen and he wanted to see also. It was Elysium, and was directed by the guy who brought us District 9. I hadn’t seen 9 yet but heard good things about it and its director, Neill Blomkamp. Jordan had seen that film and was jonesing to catch Elysium. I just kind of shrugged and nodded. I heard some flap about 9, also a lot of quacking about its class warfare theme. From what little I knew of the movie and people’s reaction to it, I was surprised to hear that most people didn’t get the apartheid allegory. Jordan wasn’t surprised at this. He was more along the things of, “You know how people are.” Me? I’ve all but given up.

After Jordan finally saw Elysium and reported back to me, he was kinda bummed. All the hype surrounding Blomkamp’s big-budget, name-actor sophomore effort was for naught. He was disappointed that the film was so, well, blah. It had no real twists and turns, very straight-forward. That and Jodie Foster had this inscrutable accent that was very distracting.

I told Jordan that, yeah, that’s happened to me too. A big deal movie turns out to be not such a big deal after all. This got me to wondering and I shared my thoughts with Jordan. There ought to be some website out there that warns us about seeing “blah” movies. Not movies that outright suck, but disappoint, fluster and lead the audience into a state of post-viewing, “…The f*ck?”

That’s when it hit me. Jordan and I had seen many movies that had this effect. Jillions of them were already floating in under-supervised RedBoxes around the planet, just waiting to be inflicted on unknowing movie watchers. The horror!

I had to do something.

So that’s it. Really. And here we are. Since August of 2013 RIORI has tracked down and picked apart dozens of “blah” movies, all to save you from possibly wasting precious time and money. You’re welcome, by the way. And if you haven’t appreciated my screeds here (yet you keep returning), blame Jordan. It was more or less his idea in the first place.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as good a story as I had thought. Whatever.

Onto this week’s time waster, the Maguffin that got this ball of wax rolling…


Los Angeles has always been a sprawling city. It teems with millions of people from all over the country—nay—the world to set up shop and try to live out some existence that passes at most productively and at least manageable.

That’s the 21st Century we’re talking about. In the 22nd Century, all LA is meager existence. Meager, poverty-ridden, toxic and diseased. Not just LA, but the Earth as a whole. The world has become an open sewer. The destitute live hungry, diseased lives. And to make matters worse, the way out, the Promised Land mocks the rabble from orbit.

Earth’s ultra-beyond-belief rich established the space colony Elysium as a haven from the scourges that ravage the planet. Every day on Elysium is idyllic, serene and free of worry. Perfect. Magic technology allows Elysian citizens to live in a virtual paradise, free from aging and sickness, not to mention having to intermingle with those dirty savages on Earth below. Elyisum is basically a big “f*ck you” to the troglodytes planet-side. Yes indeed, the rich are different.

Max DeCosta (Damon) is an ex-con trying to live the straight and narrow in a shanty town of overpopulated, deteriorating LA. His days consist of work and his nights of sleep, thankful to have that amidst of all the sh*t he has to swallow. In the face of soulless police robots randomly attacking the poor populace to air pollution that could choke a walrus, Max considers himself one of the “lucky ones.”

Until an industrial accident takes that little bit away from him.

After suffering a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at the plant where he builds said robots, he’s facing at most five days to live. Now sick, Max knows of illegal “immigrants” hot-wiring shuttles to get to Elysium and access to their healing tech. Most of these “escape routes” are blown out of the sky, and those that do make it there are captured and are trucked right back down to sh*tty ol’ Earth again. If they’re lucky.

Facing a grim fate, Max hangs up his goody-two-shoes schtick, seeks out help to get to Elysium and fix himself before time runs out. He’s not sure what’ll kill him first: the radiation, the robots or the missiles. What Max is sure of is that he’s not going to kick off anytime soon, and flawless Elysium holds the solution…


There’s nothing quite like a sci-fi parable. When you think about it, almost all sci-fi stories are parables. Leave the dictionary alone; I got your back.

A parable is an allegorical story. Y’know, one with a message. It’s usually steeped in social commentary and a lot of “look out, you could be next” symbolism. Most sci-fi, which is usually designed for outright escapism, can be some pretty dark stuff. A lot of sci-fi books/films almost always have a shade of darkness to them. The 1984 adaptation’s a good example, so is THX-1138, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the one with Keanu, you simp), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Silent Running, even Starship Troopers and the original Godzilla, before God. Sniff around and you’ll probably find more examples. The future’s not all bright and sunny most of the time in the not-too-distant.

After District 9, Neill Blomkamp established himself as an astute observer of class warfare via sci-fi allegory (despite the fact that a lot of moviegoers missed the point. In some way, I guess that’s good; apartheid was vile, and since now a generation doesn’t get it…well, let’s call that a semi-good thing with an added plus of disregarding certain U2 albums). Elysium isn’t all that different than 9. It’s more pointed, but has a more straightforward story than its kin. That’s sometimes welcome, especially if it’s executed with a keen sense of purpose. In the case of Elysium, that purpose is to entertain first and preach later. Sometimes parables don’t have to be serpentine in getting a message across. Sometimes directness paired with action film implementation is all you need to get by. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Elysium starts off with some very compelling visuals. The trading off between Earthscape and the space colony is very earnest in setting up boundaries via the issue of unlawful “border crossing”. Elysium itself looks like, well literally, Elysium. The curling space colony recalls Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga, doubtless an inspiration for Elysium. It looks like a perfect world, in reflection of the sh*tastic life on Earth. Those rouge shuttles remind me too much of the open-air caravans of migrant workers being trucked back and forth between the Cali border and home to Mexico. I guess Blomkamp did a good job. Future LA looks like it’s begun to revert back to its natural desert climate, all dust, dirt and desperation. This future looks just plain worn out, I like grimy sci-fi; please refer to your Blade Runner notations.

There’s some darkness here with a crude sense of humor—usually delivered by the symbolic robot paradigm—that gets rather chilling after a while. The humans on Earth are the horde, totally worthless and easily expendable (save for Max; he is our hero after all). The automatons act more human—at least regarding being fully functional and sinister like their masters—than that of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, especially when it comes to quelling the mob.

Elysium plays out a like the proto-Philip K Dick story. Dick’s muse was “what is reality?” If the world of Elysium reflects Dick’s hard-nosed sense of existential muckraking, it’s taking a backseat with the pointed commentary. The metaphors of Elysium are as obvious as an exploding cigar at a state funeral, but executed with the élan of the original Die Hard; Max is the utmost reluctant hero. He ain’t fighting to win, he’s fighting to quit puking. Through his trials, Damon’s Max acts with a serious “What the f*ck is happening?” vibe. Such disbelief reflects the audience’s expectations—Max is doomed, he gets wired up (meta-allegorical considering that robot-producing Armadyne caused his plight in the first place), tears through dusky LA nigh invulnerable, desperately searching for a way out with a lot of emotional obligation involved.

I think I might have just described all of John Wayne’s early vehicles. The Duke was always the strong, silent type, and Damon seems like he’s channeling a taste of that in his Max. However he doesn’t have a heart of gold by any means, only a sense of conscientiousness and more than a little need for retribution. He’s a unwilling hero with a purpose, albeit one who’s MO is highly personal. It a literal matter of life and death.

Max as everyman—at least him an example of the rot that plagues future LA—is in stark contrast to our villain, Foster’s Secretary Delacourt. She epitomizes everything that is wrong with Elysium society. I love villains whose motives are despicable but are executed under the belief that what they’re doing is for the good. That’s more or less how serial killers operate. Delacourt is a conniving, opportunist zealot disguised in a thousand dollar suit and a perfect coif. She’s power hungry without the frothing at the mouth and mustache twirling. Despite being the voice of reason and law in Elysium, she’s underhanded and self-righteous, couching her power plays in the name of “the greater good.” She’s a sci-fi version of one of those Fox News pundits who think they know which way to steer America while advancing their personal gain and ever inflating their—as Bill Hicks once put it—“fevered egos.” In the case of Elysian society’s betterment, Delacourt “knows what’s best,” enough to employ mercenaries to destroy the hijacked shuttles and hack into the brains of politicos that stands in the way of her private agendum. It’s okay though, she only has the “children’s’ interests” in mind. Mwa-ha-ha.

Both Max’s and Delacourt’s aims are clearly set, and the pacing reflects that; Max is not one to go off half-cocked, nor is Delacourt. Again, I lean back onto my bitchy muse of engaging cinema: pacing. Elysium has a leisurely pace, with no hurrying the story despite Max’s impending death. However it feels appropriate. Max is just chattel, like the rest of the scrubs downstairs. Why should his life be any different? But it is his life, and Max has the right to survival regardless of his predicament. Even with all the chase scenes and gunplay, Elysium’s pace is methodical. Scene by scene follows Max’s progression from average joe to techrat fighter to revolutionary (as well as reflecting Delacourt’s nefarious chess games) is very deliberate and engaging. It may play out to some as too straightforward and predictable, but it has a progression that is executed with precision and simplicity. Not all parables have to be so forthright to get their message across. Saying that, Elysium is very satisfying.

So after sweating it out in the infernal snack bar, a good way to kill time and keep my hand in the writing game emerged. Once during that humid summer I brought in manuscripts of some of my completed short stories and novel I had labored over for year. I let Jordan and the servers peruse them in a half hidden way to fluff my ego under the guise of healthy criticism. Jordan saw through that ruse as easily as most people eat food, breathe and go into spiraling credit card debt. You know the thing about fooling most people yadda yadda yadda.

Still, Jordan planted the germ and I guess I’m forever in his debt. That and he got me to see a sturdy little sci-fi action flick, which I enjoyed even if he felt gypped. No matter. What did eventually matter (after getting RIORI off the ground, off of FaceBook and onto a practical blog) was that I got out of that damned sweatbox snack bar with most of my sanity intact. I’m still a cook, and still endure the stressors that come with it—excluding my dubious choice of voluntarily watching dubious movies—but at least I don’t have to beg to have an audience pore over my diatribes and endless pontificating about what you fools should see and/or steer clear of like a hooker ninja with both ADHD and the siff.

The club kitchen still rolls on and I with its endless punches. I’m still in good financial standing if it comes to contracting said STD, and I try to flee from chicken fingers as long as I can.

But sometimes I miss the mint.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, grounded sci-fi parable, with very little preaching. Nothing is out-of-sorts, the acting is solid and the pacing is precise. Such things appeal to me. Welcome to Volume Three!


Stray Observations…

  • Foster is struggling with her accent, whatever its supposed to be. Speaking of which, what the hell’s Kruger’s?
  • “Now it’s time for the real fun…”
  • Carlyle’s got a nice ride.
  • I need a gun like that. F*ckin’ Canada geese.
  • Nice football metaphor there, Spider.
  • Max tearing off that robot’s head was really satisfying.
  • Um, how can a car outrun an aircraft that can reach supersonic speeds in 15 seconds? Biodiesel, I tell ya. Biodiesel.
  • “What’s in it for the hippo?” An honest, tender, fleeting moment.
  • Palm trees. Nature’s icon of the idle rich, even off-world.
  • “It’s just a flesh wound, mate!”
  • Elysium: any place or state of perfect happiness; heaven. It could only happen in outer space.
  • “You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at right now.”
  • I tried very hard to make this installment as well written as I could. I’ll admit I’m a hack, but most hacks try to do well. Consider this all a tribute to my fellow misfit Jordan, who just did what he did. We all need some friendly inspiration now and again (“Could I interest you in a little pot?”). Keep enjoying SD, Jordan, and don’t follow my errors.

Next Installment…

Oye ¿como va, Spanglish? De nada, you gringos.


 

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