Hollywood could take a lesson from the Bard.
In a recent Hollywood blockbuster, Elysium writer-director Neill Blomkamp, 34, interprets paradise in the 22nd century as a Beverly Hills-like space station pirouetting around earth, while the planet resembles a Supermax prison in the middle of a breakout. Escape from Alcatraz anyone?
I expected a lot from this film after Blomkamp notched four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for his first feature film, District 9. Moreover, the cast for Elysium was pretty good.
But even Oscar-winners Matt Damon as tragic Max DaCosta and Jodie Foster as Elysium’s Defense Secretary Delacourt couldn’t save this film from being the 98-pound weakling it is.
If Blomkamp is destined to become a modern-day Shakespeare, Elysium confirms he’s not there yet. The film opens in a fictional earth where the environment is wrecked; civilian governments are weak and workers have few protections.
The best healthcare is reserved for the rich folks in Elysium and the poor can’t immigrate to this pontoon boat in the sky.
The issues Elysium raises are important, but there is no room for grey in the writer-director’s black and white world — workers are good, managers bad; criminals good, security services and their mercenaries bad. It’s as if Blomkamp can’t trust us to process his underlying political messages. Boring.
DaCosta wants Elysium’s good life for himself and his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and is spurred into action when both he and Frey’s daughter become so ill that only the techno healthcare on Elysium can save them.
The central movement is DaCosta’s journey from earth to the space station and a metaphorical journey from poverty, crime and deprivation to health and prosperity. DaCosta defeats his nemesis Secretary Delacourt and her minions to reboot Elysium’s computers so they recognize all earthlings as citizens of the space station with access to universal healthcare. Yes, healthcare.
DaCosta also pursues a symbolic journey, growing from mediocre Max to a man sacrificing his life to help others. Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about DaCosta’s humanity to feel the profound loss of his sacrifice.
I don’t want to give you the idea Elysium is a meaningless and shallow movie. It’s just shallow.
Compare Elysium with Shakespeare’s more nuanced plot in his tragedy Othello, which he wrote at about Blomkamp’s age. Shakespeare opens Othello in Venice, a preeminent Renaissance city in Christian Europe where blacks were seen as animals and women as little more than property.
And yet two of Shakespeare’s major characters are heroic Othello, a renowned black Venetian general, and his bride Desdemona, a white aristocrat who married the Moor without bothering to tell her father, Brabantio.
So what kind of inconsistency is this, anyway? They are just two people, outliers really, so trivial, so nonessential, so counter-culture. History and civilization are much bigger — these rule.
But then, Shakespeare introduces the audience to Venice, a city that softens civilization’s hard edges. Venice was for Shakespeare “The City” of government, of reason, of law, and of social harmony.
When Brabantio learns of his daughter’s marriage and threatens a bloody street brawl, a court of law examines his grievances and civic authority enforces its rulings.
In a scene where Othello and Desdemona declare their love and explain it to her father, they are shielded by the assembled leaders of Venice, who control passions and substitute justice for riot.
So many shades of grey in Othello, vastly more interesting.
Below the surface of Shakespeare’s characters lurk ancient terrors and primal drives — fear, pride, greed, lust — that drive their prejudice. Othello’s aide-de-camp “Honest Iago” conceals beneath his exterior a witchery and evil so intense that he seeks the destruction of everything outside himself.
Othello is the portrait of reason and self-control. But the hero who roams the world undaunted by its horrors is still capable of believing his wife a harlot on the thinnest of evidence, murdering her to protect his reputation.
Only devoted Desdemona is what she seems to be. Love and openness make her suspect in a world where every other major character is in some degree corrupted.
When Venice orders Othello to Cyprus to defend the island outpost, he brings Iago and Desdemona. Cyprus is an untamed place far out in the seething sea where the “people’s hearts [are] brimful of fear.”
Here emotions are closer to the surface. Instead of the established administration of Venice, only Othello controls violence and defends civilization. In this remote place Iago poisons Othello’s mind with innuendo and false evidence suggesting Desdemona’s infidelity.
He teases to life Othello’s deepest fears. Deeper than even jealousy, the general covets his reputation. It salves a black man’s insecurities in a society that assumes white superiority; a society where he is married to a woman who represents what Venetians most value.
Desdemona is younger, spirited, magnificent. Iago plays on Othello’s growing panic that his hard won reputation is at risk if men scorn him as Desdemona’s cuckold.
Othello’s passage from Venice to Cyprus, from unconditional love for Desdemona to her murder and (when he understands her innocence) to killing himself, these are Shakespeare’s words for tragic man.
What Shakespeare calls tragic, I call interesting.
Jim DeSimone is a principal at Orlando-based Knob Hill Companies. Books, films and plays discussed in Bookmarks include masterworks that have been influential over time. If you have a recommendation for Bookmarks please send it to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.