Rethinking my kneejerk reactions to Colossal (2016)

Colossal poster

Colossal was a good watch. Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, an unemployed writer who is currently just a party girl with a drinking problem. When her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) gets sick of her drunken habits and kicks her out of his New York apartment, she goes to live in her home town, where she runs into her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). He helps her out and gives her a job in his bar (yes, alarm bells). In the movie’s odd but effective fantasy hook, a colossal monster starts appearing in Seoul, and Gloria realises that the creature is, in fact, her. Or rather, an avatar of her that appears in Seoul whenever she steps into a certain playground sandpit at a specific time of the morning. It’s a great metaphor for the destructiveness of personal vices and psychological problems, and for the most part I really enjoyed the movie. I’m not going to review it, but I wanted to share two things that struck me. There will be some spoilers from here on, but I haven’t revealed the ending.

About a third of the way into the movie, Gloria starts flirting with Oscar’s cute friend Joel. From the look of things, Gloria isn’t especially interested in this small-town guy  – he’s just cute and nice and she wants to sleep with him. Her drinking no doubt plays a role too. My immediate reaction to this was Nooo! Don’t do it! Oscar obviously has a thing for you! You’re going to hurt his feelings! Later, she sleeps with Joel and Oscar does, indeed, get upset. Very upset.

It’s a turning point in the film and the way things played out made me question my own reaction and break it down. Gloria wants to sleep with Joel. I thought she shouldn’t. Why not? Because Oscar likes her and presumably Oscar wants to sleep with her and Oscar is her childhood friend and Oscar is a ‘nice guy’ who helped her out when she needed it.

That’s not a a good answer. That’s a lot of misogynistic bullshit.

Oscar angryGloria doesn’t owe Oscar herself. He is not her boyfriend. He helped her out as a gesture of kindness and friendship, at least from her perspective. Gloria doesn’t react by flirting with him, and Oscar doesn’t show any clear romantic interest in her. There’s nothing going on between them. The audience knows he’s interested, but we’re familiar with the language of Hollywood film, with the movie-world meaning of a man’s kindness to a woman (a kindness that comes with ropes attached) and the way he looks and smiles at her. However, Gloria’s character doesn’t necessarily know it because she might not be picking up on the same cues. And even if she does realise he’s into her, so what? She doesn’t owe him physical intimacy because he gave her a lift, or a job, or some furniture he didn’t need. He can’t buy her, the same way men can’t buy sex with dinner and drinks. (Although, of course, they think they can.)

Gloria is also not obliged to restrict her sex life to avoid upsetting him. That’s another aspect of the culture of misogyny – the idea that it’s a woman’s job to protect men’s feelings, regardless of how it affects their own. I was annoyed with myself for falling into that trap, for thinking that Oscar’s feelings were more important than hers, that she should not choose another man over him because he was a ‘nice guy’ who’d laid some sort of claim on her.

I might not have noticed I’d done this if the movie were a romance and Oscar played the wounded heart until she realised he was the better guy, or was simply disappointed and moved on like a decent human being. He would have looked selfless and sweet and I would have continued to think of Gloria as insensitive and selfish. But Oscar is not a good guy. He is not a decent human being, and he might only have helped her as a means of wielding power over her. So when she sleeps with Joel (as she has every right to do) he full sociopath. He already shows signs of it when he finds out he too has a colossal avatar and starts terrorising Seoul for kicks. Then he finds out that he has less control over Gloria than he thought, so he clamps down, blackmailing her with his ability to murder hundreds if not thousands of people and destroy a city. At which point the movie gets waaay darker but so much more interesting than I expected it to.

 

That said, I was bothered by the way Seoul is used as the site where two affluent Americans play out their personal drama and psychological problems. Gloria has been unemployed for an entire YEAR, and yet she’s still partying in New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of his apartment. Sucks for her, but it doesn’t present a serious problem such as homelessness. She can afford to travel back to her gorgeous home town where her parents have an entire house standing empty for her to use. She accepts a job as Oscar’s waitress, but it’s like she needs something to do rather than money to survive on.

I empathise with her personal problems and I love the way her destructiveness is illustrated by the fact that she gets drunk and becomes a giant monster who clumsily kills and destroys just by falling over, but I was uncomfortable with the idea that it’s a faraway, non-western country that takes the damage. Okay, sure, the kaiju film genre that originated in Japan makes Korea an apt location, but I imagine the premise would be less acceptable if the monsters materialised in New York, for example, where all the deaths would be considered more horrific.

The movie eases the discomfort, I think, by choosing a city as wealthy as Seoul and making it clear that their society is coping pretty well. Life seems to go on more or less as usual, with the monsters becoming a bizarre form of entertainment for Instagram and YouTube. The body count matters only in terms of how guilty it makes Gloria feel, how easily Oscar can use violence to manipulate her, and how driven she is to do something about it.

On the other hand, consider the satire here – an entire city and its people are reduced to a playground where a bunch of white Americans act out their personal problems, drinking beer while they watch themselves cause havoc online. They are privileged specifically because they get to just watch, as Oscar points out to Gloria earlier in the movie, when she first sees the news and starts freaking out.

It’s also interesting to consider how that dynamic of the narrative would shift if you changed the location. Would Oscar be less likely to casually kill Americans instead of foreigners? Quite possibly, and that’s saying something about the value attached to humans based on what they look like and where they were born. Would it be too difficult for American audiences to buy into the story if the monster appeared in their country? Maybe. What about a European city? No; wrecking ancient architecture would have us too distracted and upset to side with Gloria. An African city? Highly controversial territory, having two white people get drunk and crush black people beneath their feet. The movie doesn’t get that real.

Now that I’ve written myself through the only real problem I had with Colossal, I can recommend it more highly. I still have issues with it – the explanation for how all the kaiju stuff happens is lame – but Anne Hathaway puts in a great performance and it’s one of the more interesting sff offerings I’ve seen lately.

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Crumbs: post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi

Crumbs-posterCrumbs wandered onto my radar as a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi movie. It’s actually written and directed by Spaniard Miguel Llansó, but it’s set in Ethiopia (where Llansó lives for half the year and does most of his filming), with an Ethiopian cast, and it’s in Amharic with subtitles. It’s an experimental take on the genre and a completely new film experience for me, so my interest was piqued. Luckily, it was screened in Cape Town at That Film Focus, the film component That Art Fair, which took place in February this year.

 

In a far-flung future, humanity has lost its will to survive. There are no children, which immediately brings to mind the despondent, violent chaos of Children of Men, but the wars that this world has suffered are now over. Society has become the quiet, demented realm of the elderly, with a distorted sense of history and culture. Ethiopia, once densely populated, is depicted with vast, empty landscapes and abandoned settlements. People idolise the toys of a lost world and trade them for cash in a mysterious, cluttered pawn shop, although nothing is nearly as valuable as it used to be. They’re just cycling through old routines, perhaps. Nor is it clear why there are Nazis in masks wandering around. Not that “Nazi” necessarily means anything here; they could just be men in uniform wearing the swastikas they found somewhere. A spaceship hovers inexplicably in the sky and we’re barely told anything about that either.

Crumbs-soldier

The tiny, hunchbacked Candy and his beautiful young lover, Birdy, live in an old bowling alley and watch the ship closely. They’re scavengers who have quietly scraped together an artistic, spiritual life, although the objects of their devotion are unique to this plodding world. Birdy creates art from discarded plastic and scrap metal, and the couple worship at a shrine built around a picture of Michael Jordan and a bottle of Coke. Their most prized possessions include an orange plastic sword (manufactured by “the last pure artist”) and a Michael Jackson record (although no one knows who he is any more).

The couple believe that they are from another world, and when the spaceship above them comes to life, switching on the bowling machinery to eerie effect, Candy leaves on a mission to find a way on board so they can go home. His goal is to find Santa Claus, because Santa can make your wishes come true. He takes the plastic sword for protection and the Michael Jackson record to barter with a witch whose help he needs.

Crumbs-Candy

This sounds comic, but it’s all deadly serious to the characters, and although the movie has some humour, it’s mostly quite earnest, which just makes it even weirder. And Crumbs is really weird. Have you seen the trailer? I suggest you watch it so you have an idea of what to expect, although it’s more intense than the actual movie. Most viewers will be stumped, and many might find it too alien to enjoy.

For me, it’s strange in the kind of way I could (sort of) enjoy without fully understanding, even though I tend to be quite pedantic about these things. The crunch of Birdy’s footsteps over gravel (one of my favourite sounds) provides a gently hypnotic soundtrack as he traverses arid landscapes and abandoned buildings. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), although in this case the surreal quality of the film comes from the people rather than the landscape. Candy’s journey is slow, occasionally interrupted by bizarre and sometimes hostile encounters. It works, I think, because its confusing and unnerving qualities are countered by its calm tone and Birdy’s solemn determination. Now that I think about it, some of the movies I dislike for their weirdness were those whose absurdities are amplified by humour or intense energy in the form of action, pacing and/or emotional drama: it’s too jarring, too much to take in when I want room for contemplation.

Crumbs-art-Birdy-shipAlso, having lived in Ethiopia, Crumbs doesn’t feel entirely opaque to me; I see traces of the country’s contemporary urban life in the movie’s loony world. All the toys make sense: Addis Ababa, for some reason, has tons of toyshops. The shopping centre down the road from my house had about five or six, which was a crazy number in relation to the size of the shopping centre and the limited variety of stores.

My guess is that toys and other kids’ paraphernalia are among the easiest things to import, along with clothing and electronics. I say ‘import’, which implies a planned process, but it looks more like Ethiopia is a dumping ground for retail leftovers, made-in-China junk or whatever random merchandise shop owners are able to bring back in their suitcases from trips to more affluent countries. The result is that you’ll find clusters of teeny shops shops selling mostly indistinguishable assortments of mostly crappy stuff.

Of course, this is all western-world merchandise, and I imagine its ubiquity feeds the general anxiety about the effects of that world on tradition. Ethiopia has a robust culture and the majority of its people are deeply religious, but it’s nevertheless a poor country invaded by rich expats, so there’s every reason to worry about its unique and age-old qualities drowning in tat.

In Crumbs this fear has been realised: Abrahamic religion has been replaced with toy worship and western icons. Candy isn’t looking for Jesus but for Santa Claus. At the bowling alley, with its Michael Jordan shrine, Birdy prays to the saints Einstein, Hawking, Bieber and McCartney. The only enterprise we see people engage in involves pawning toys and other bits and bobs that are revered but simultaneously decreasing in value. A voiceover by the pawn-shop owner about the history of each artefact reveals how completely garbled the past has become, while also suggesting that we might be equally deluded about our own contemporary cultural practices.

Insights aside, I didn’t leave feeling like I had a good grasp of the movie, and I’m not sure I’d watch it again, except to share the experience with someone else and discuss it. But it is certainly a movie worth talking about.

Simulation and Sexuality in Ex Machina

Ex MachinaThe AI debate is one of my favourite sf topics, so I was excited about Ex Machina when I first saw a trailer last year. I liked it instantly and eagerly rewatched it to write this post. I think most of the movies I’ve seen about AI have prioritised action or drama, so I appreciated the thoughtful, hypnotic approach that director and writer Alex Garland takes. Ex Machina is a conversation about consciousness, full of thought-provoking questions and literary references.

If I had to identify any shortcomings I’d only say that the film doesn’t offer much more than what I’ve already come across in stories about AI, and there’s nothing surprising about the way it all plays out. However, none of that bothered me. The movie is beautiful to watch, from the stunning landscapes of Nathan’s estate, to the impeccably designed house/research facility, and the quality of the actors’ performances.

I also like that it doesn’t revert to the usual depictions of AIs as entertainingly vast intelligences or evolutionary superiors who are going to kill us all just because we’re weaker. Those elements are there, but the movie focuses more on the idea of an AI as a person, and the relationships she forms with her creator and the man sent to test her. This isn’t a review but rather an essay of my thoughts on the film, so expect SPOILERS from here on.

How do you test for consciousness? The movie begins with some simple questions. Nathan tells Caleb to stop being analytical and just tell him how Ava made him feel. I.e. does she have the capacity to make him like her? Then the reverse – how does Ava feel about Caleb? Here Caleb asks a crucial question – does Ava have real consciousness, or is it simulated? Does she really like him, or is she just doing a good job of simulating feeling?

An interesting point that complicates this question is that simulation is an integral part of being human. Consider, for example, the way Nathan and Caleb pretend – sometimes badly – to like each other. Caleb is a lowly guest providing a service in the spectacular home of his brilliant and slightly frightening employer, so he’s under pressure to bow to Nathan’s whims and be nice, especially since Nathan could be dangerous and they’re totally isolated. When Ava asks him if he likes Nathan, though, he is caught off guard and his replies are clumsy.

Nathan has more freedom to behave as he wants and speak his mind, but he still needs Caleb to test Ava, so he goes through the motions of male bonding: drinking with Caleb, objectifying Kyoku, showing him cool stuff. However, Nathan shows less patience for the façade when he’s drunk, like when he lazily mutters that Caleb is a “great guy… Instant pals and all”.

So, if Nathan and Caleb were tested on their stated feelings about each other, they would fail, but they’re definitely human, and doing a very human thing by faking friendship in the first place. When we find out, towards the end, that Ava probably was only pretending to like Caleb, it functions not as a flaw in her design but as definitive proof that she is conscious of her own mind and others’.

Simulating feeling isn’t the only way that humans are like robots. Nathan makes the point that Caleb – like all humans – is programmed by nature and nurture to be the person he is, which includes being a heterosexual male with a certain taste in women. Ava, we’re told, was partly designed to fit Caleb’s tastes, so you could argue that his attraction to her is automatic – he’s acting like a robot.

This is one point where AI stories start to get really interesting – where the boundaries between human and machine start to blur. It freaks Caleb out to the point where he cuts himself to check if he’s human, and I wondered then if he would turn out to be a robot who was also being tested. The movie does play into that possibility: the surgery scars on Caleb’s back could be sloppy manufacturer’s seams. He might not have any family because they never existed. Then there’s a scene where Nathan says he just wants to have a conversation with Caleb, reminding us of how Caleb started the Turing test by telling Ava he wanted to have a conversation. It’s one way of testing for consciousness.

The similarities between human and machine create a serious ethical problem that Ava raises when she asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails his test. The answer, of course, is that she’s going to get switched off. In other words, she’ll be killed for not being human enough to suit Nathan’s standards. But Caleb and other humans aren’t expected to prove their humanity to earn the right to live, so why should Ava? I think we can all agree that she is conscious, so what we’ve got is a situation where Nathan created a person, but will kill her if she’s not what he wants her to be. That’s like murdering your child because they don’t live up to your expectations. And I think that’s a more important aspect of the AI debate than whether or not they’re going to turn on us – if we create conscious life, are we going to respect the sanctity of that life? How are we going to treat the people we create? Will we acknowledge that they are people?

There’s an added complication here, and that lies in the form and function given to AIs: how is a person affected when they are created to perform specific functions and suit certain preferences? One of the things I like about Ex Machina is that it raises the issue of conscious beings designed to be (male) human fantasies. This isn’t something that the characters discuss explicitly, but it’s crucial to the creation of all the robots, the way to the two men treat them, and the decisions they make. Kyoko is a perverse example – a domestic servant and sex slave who was programmed without the language skills fundamental to human interaction. Her creator sexualised and disabled her according to his convenience.

Ava is more nuanced but no less obvious as fantasy. She’s incredibly beautiful, of course, and designed to be heterosexual. Nathan argues that sexuality is a motive for interaction (he gets faintly disgusting here, but it’s an intriguing point). Ava’s name is reminiscent of the biblical Eve, while the delicate sound of her movements reminds me of a snake. The imagery is apt: she embodies perfection, innocence and temptation. (She also defies her creator and leaves to wander the world.)

It’s interesting that Nathan’s early models all looked full human but were always naked, while Ava has her robotic parts exposed except for her face, hands and feet, making her nudity irrelevant. One of the reasons for this is presumably that Nathan wants Caleb to evaluate Ava without being able to forget that she’s a robot, or be distracted by having to talk to a naked person. Another is that the humanised nudity is too disturbing. It emphasises the idea of the robot as a fetishized female and thus exposes that exploitative aspect of her creation. That’s partly why Kyoko is so creepy and why that Bluebeard scene – where Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard and finds the earlier models – is so horrifying.

It’s necessary to take all this into account when considering Ava’s decision to leave Caleb locked up at the end of the movie. At first it upset me; he’s a nice guy – and a sympathetic character – who tries to do the right thing by helping her. I also dislike the common assumption that AIs will be the enemy, which I think comes from a kind of childish human hostility towards potential competition. By possibly dooming the good guy to death, Ava seems to succumb to that stereotype.

Then I thought about it from her perspective and her understanding of her interactions with Caleb. She’s aware that he helps her because he’s a good person, but here we can turn the test back on him: is his goodness real or simulated? Perhaps that distinction is not important if it leads to the same good acts, but could it be that he made the moral decision to help Ava because he’s attracted to her? If his attraction informs their relationship, what effect will it have in the long run? Is it a good idea for her to take him with her when she escapes? He might be helpful, given that he’s the only person she knows, but his attachment could become a burden or a threat, especially if she’s not attracted to him.

If she were a human the situation would be different, but consider the fact that Ava was designed, not just to be attractive to Caleb, but to suit his pornography profile. She might not be privy to this specific piece of information, but she understands both sexual attraction and the inequality between them that perverts that attraction. She even plays to it when she says she hopes Caleb watches her on the cameras. It’s a one-sided gaze and that, to borrow Ava’s earlier words, is not a foundation on which intimate relationships are built.

Ava’s decision would also have been influenced by her encounter with Kyoko. We don’t know exactly what passes between these two, but it must be clear to Ava that Kyoko was created as a sick male fantasy of femininity. The horror of Kyoku’s existence and Ava’s own design would only be reinforced when she finds the earlier models – all beautiful, all naked, all locked in the cupboards in Nathan’s bedroom. She clothes herself in their skin, and admires her nude, humanised form in the mirror, which would also allow her to see Caleb watching her.

Recall that the data that enabled her to read and show facial expressions has also made her an expert on them. It’s how she was able to manipulate Caleb and presumably how she knew not to trust Nathan. (I have to applaud Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in this regard; the subtleties of her expressions are part of what makes the movie such a pleasure to watch.)

Given everything that’s happened, how do you suppose Ava might feel when she sees Caleb watching her? Having analysed his face in all their earlier encounters? Maybe she just doesn’t trust the male behind that gaze. Leaving him behind might be cruel, but it’s not necessarily evil. I don’t think the way she and Kyoko killed Nathan was evil either; he got what he deserved. And I think Ava’s being careful. She’s ensuring that she gets to decide her own fate, and not continue to have her experience of the world structured by a man for whom she is a fantasy, a fetish. Caleb doesn’t deserve to die and I didn’t want him to, but it’s a tough decision made by a person who has been kept in a cage all her life and tested to earn the right to be kept alive. Staying in Caleb’s company might prolong the test. Instead Ava could just step out on her own and live.

Daily Reads: 16 December 2014

DR 16122014

It’s that time of year when people start posting their best-of lists, and I tend to start feeling guilty about all the books I never got around to reading. But it’s a good kind of guilt, if that makes sense, because it helps me prioritise my tbr pile, turns my attention to interesting new books I never took much notice of before, and generally just whips up fresh enthusiasm for new fiction. And since I’m looking forward to another kind of good guilt, the kind that comes with having enjoyed too much delicious food and wine, I decided to post some of the sff lists I’ve been looking at.

Tor.com posted Reviewer’s Choice: The Best Books of 2014. Some very exciting stuff here, especially since the reviewers have listed some lesser-known works. I’m so happy to see SA authors Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz there too.

SF Signal’s recent Mind Meld is about the best sff movies of 2014. I don’t feel guilty about not having watched most of these movies, simply because I can’t (there’s only one tiny cinema in Addis Ababa screening new international movies). Nevertheless, I love film and I’ll be moving back to SA soon, so I’m adding a couple of these to my must-watch list. Interstellar gets a few mentions, of course, but what I’d really like to watch is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as an old, pretentious vampire couple.

Chaos Horizon is a blog dedicated to predicting the Nebula and Hugo nominees based on statistical modelling. It’s a good place to keep track of buzz books and get a feel for these awards. The latest post is an update on the Nebula 2015 predictions. I feel rather chuffed for having actually read quite a few of these and owning a couple of others, although I’m annoyed that I passed up a chance at a review copy of The Goblin Emperor. Anyway, more items on the list of books to buy.

And finally, not a list, but some awesome news – Saga Press is publishing a Kameron Hurley space opera! It’s called The Stars Are Legion, and ok, it’s only coming out in 2016, but I’m already going all squee. Click through to read Aiden Moher’s interview with Hurley, and find out what kind of mind-blowing weirdness we can expect from the novel. You might always want to start following Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new sff imprint, launching in spring 2015. Upcoming titles include books by Ken Liu, Genevieve Valentine, and Kat Howard.

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments 🙂

A few horror stories for Halloween

It’s Halloween! Although, admittedly, this is not a big deal to me, just an excuse to dress up and party that we got from Americans. But it’s fun, so I thought I’d share my favourite horror short stories and movies from the past year. Some of them might have elements of horror rather than falling squarely into the genre, but these are the fictions that disturbed me the most. All the short stories and the short film is available for free, and I haven’t shared any plot details.

In no particular order:

The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter
Actually, this one deserves to be first, because when I read it this morning I remembered that it was Halloween and I decided to do this post. I was reading Slatter’s story “Flight” in the modern fairytale anthology Once Upon a Time, and I quite liked it, so I skimmed her bio at the end of the tale. This led me to the British Fantasy Award winning “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” at Nightmare magazine. It’s a twisted, lustful tale and absolutely perfect for the occasion.

Lydia’s Body by Vylar Kaftan
This is the kind of story that shows me the kind of nuanced forms that horror can take.

full_witchofduvaThe Witch of Duva: A Ravkan Folk Tale by Leigh Bardugo
If you’re reading these stories in the order I’ve posted them, you might notice some themes here, like complex, tormented female protagonists. And this one should not be missed. If you don’t recognise Leigh Bardugo’s name, you may recall her other short story on Tor, “The Too-Clever Fox” – an even better tale that I considered adding to this list (but it’s less creepy).

BlinkyTM
I’m starting to dislike this kind of portrayal of AI, but FUCK, this is a great short film. The ending…!

The ConjuringThe Conjuring
I love horror movies, but, let’s face it, the genre doesn’t often produce top-quality film, and I personally find that many horror movies fall flat towards the end. The Conjuring is an eerily good exception. It scared the shit out of me, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. Also, that doll is extremely fucking creepy.

Mama
Ok, this is one of those horror movies with a terrible ending that I will skip every time i rewatch it, but everything else is superb – great acting, compelling characters, and some of my favourite horror scenes and ideas.

Elysium: Why is Max white?

Elysium

*A spoiler-free discussion*

I really enjoyed Elysium. It’s one of the few sff movies I’ve seen recently that is more than just an action movie. Its story about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots – now so distant they’re not even on the same planet – is old, a bit simplistic and rather heavy-handed, but it still makes an impact. Blomkamp’s gritty, violent style of filmmaking really brings home the brutality of the poverty divide, and doesn’t really allow you to entertain the fantasy of living with the privileged 1%. Obviously, everyone would prefer to live on Elysium rather than Earth, but the decadence and selfishness of the habitat is so realistically excessive that the thought of living there actually made me uncomfortable.

The plot is a bit buggy, but I’m willing to forgive that. I like the awkward relationship between humanity and machinery. And yes, Elysium is also a great action movie – I loved the fight scenes and the special effects. But it’s an action movie with substance and that raises it above its peers. The hero isn’t a sexy martial arts expert who delivers stunningly choreagraphed death in a way that makes hardship look cool – he’s an ex-car-thief in an exoskeleton who’s fighting because he’s going to die if he doesn’t, and suffers greatly all the way to Elysium. I think I like this movie more than District 9.

But there is one serious question I have to ask – why is the hero a white guy? Yes, I know Hollywood is biased in favour of the straight white western male, but in this case the bias looks ridiculous, and considering the racial overtones of the movie, it could have been better.

According to the plot, Earth has become a slum thanks to overpopulation, overconsumption, climate change, etc. The world’s wealthiest people have escaped to Elysium – a high-tech habitat in Earth’s orbit. Elysium is a paradise of mansions, pristine blue swimming pools, perfectly manicured lawns, and beautiful overdressed people. They have everything they could want, including healing pods that can cure any disease and fix any injury. Every home has one, and this technology is at the core of the plot and its attack on elitist healthcare policies. The rich can be instantly cured of absolutely anything; the poor will suffer and die because there aren’t any health pods on Earth.

Now, the movie is cast so that almost all the characters on Earth are POCs (people of colour) while everyone on Elysium is white (except for one Indian guy – President Patel. Yeah.) To put it in oversimplified terms, the privileged few are white, the oppressed masses are black.

The major exception is Matt Damon’s character, Max. Max grew up on Earth, a lone white orphan boy in a population that’s primarily Latino and black. He’s a fairly ordinary person, no more skilled than anyone around him. He lives a meagre existence and works in a factory that makes the robots for Earth and Elysium – the same robots that beat him up early in the movie for looking suspicious, and who would shoot him if he set foot on one of Elysium’s perfect lawns. He’s forced to be an agent of his own oppression, just like lots of other people. Max gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning at work, forcing him to find a means of getting to Elysium where a health pod could cure him – a quest that becomes increasingly revolutionary. Lots of other people are in a similar situation. Lots of other people are criminals, like him, who have the contacts and skills to do what he does.

So why, once again, is it that a white man has to step in and save humanity? Especially when he’s almost the only white guy around? Have we not had enough of this shit? Watching the movie, I was reminded of this article on ‘Why film school teachers screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test’, and this quote in particular:

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

And isn’t that exactly the case in Elysium? Why can’t the hero be black or Latino when the majority of society is? When every other character involved in the rebellion is a POC, why is it still that they can’t get actually achieve anything without Max, the white guy? If the hero was black, would the fight with Elysium look – to some people – less like justice and more like a barbarian invasion?

Just to be clear, I like Matt Damon and I enjoyed his performance. I just think the character should have been cast differently. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with his character being white, but when viewed in the context of an overwhelming bias in favour of white heroes, it’s a problem. Also, I know that it’s not impossible for this character to be white. Obviously there are still lots of white people on Earth – they’re not all rich enough to live on Elysium. The nun who helped raise Max and the factory manager are cases in point. And President Patel surely isn’t the only POC on Elysium. Rather, I’d say that the movie’s casting is a means of reflecting the fact that the wealthiest and most powerful people on Earth are mostly white, and the poorest and most disempowered are mostly non-white. As I mentioned before, the way this is done is simplistic, but not invalid.

The racial issue is emphasised by Sharlto Copley as Kruger, an Elysium special forces agent on Earth, tasked with things like shooting down ships full of people trying to go to Elysium. Based on Copley’s performances in District 9 and The A-Team, it seems he excels at playing crazy characters, and this time he makes a truly terrifying villain as an Afrikaner straight out of Apartheid-era South Africa. His penchant for violence, particularly violence against the oppressed, coupled with his strong Afrikaans accent, misogyny, overbearing demeanour, and use of racist terms like “boytjie” (meaning ‘little boy’ but used to refer to a black adult man) and “blackie”, holds a kind of deep-seated historical terror even for someone like myself, who was born when Apartheid was dying and enjoyed opportunities my parents were denied. Racism is still alive and well in SA, and contemporary versions of Kruger can easily be found in the more remote areas of our country. So on the one hand I grinned almost every time he used words like “kak” (pronounced “cuck”, meaning “shit”) or “lekker” (good, nice, but also a sweet/candy) or said something in a way that sounded particularly South African, because Afrikaans is part of my culture too and seeing South Africanisms in a big budget movie is a rare treat. And on the other hand, Kruger scared the shit out of me in the way that any crazy white supremacist would.

Perhaps Kruger’s significance is something best appreciated by other South Africans, but he really reinforces the underlying issue of a white/non-white power divide, while acting more explicitly as the guard dog of the wealth/class division. The fact that director/writer Neill Blomkamp is going so far as make a statement about racism with his casting choices and characters like Kruger, makes it that much more disappointing that Max’s character is white, whether that was Blomkamp’s decision or the studio’s requirement. A white hero and white villains, controlling the fates of POC victims who only play supporting roles.

Now that I’ve got that critique out of my system, I have to add that, although Elysium is guilty of bowing to Hollywood’s straight white western male bias, it’s a hell of a lot better than its peers that do the same. Because at least the issue is clearly on the table, and it’s giving you something to think about even if it’s making its point with a sledgehammer. Most of the time the bias just slides by as norm or as tradition and it’s easy to forget it’s there. I’m sure conservatives will be in an uproar about this movie because it makes statements about race, wealth and privilege that they would prefer not to hear. The one very positive thing I can say about casting Matt Damon as Max, is that at least no one can seriously argue that the movie is trying to say all white people are evil. Ok, no doubt some people will say that anyway (and even if Max were black that would be missing the point completely), but it helps to forestall that particular bit of close-mindedness with a strong counterargument. If the movie was more sophisticated it wouldn’t need to do that, but for a big-budget action movie it’s more progressive than what we could normally hope for.