I just saw Elysium, and in discussing it with a coworker we determined that it was indeed a cyberpunk film. Our fellow coworkers weren’t familiar with the genre, and in introducing them to it we remembered the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic. We then realized that Elysium shares many aspects of the classic William Gibson story. From this point on there will be spoilers, and unlike previous posts I won’t be whiting them out, so if you don’t want either film’s secrets to be revealed, you should stop reading.
To quickly sum up the movies before I go into comparing specific elements: both movies take place in a future in which corporations (the rich) hold all of the power and possess significantly better lifestyles than the poor, both choose disease/illness as the preferred display of the economic disparity, and both have protagonists who end up with the secret to health stored in their brains as encrypted data packs. But which movie tells the story better?
I might get yelled at if I don’t give this point to Matt Damon instead of Keanu Reeves, but have you ever seen Mr. Damon give an amazing performance like this:
I really really want to give this point to Mr. Reeves because of that clip (and many others), but I will concede and give it to Damon. Why? Because he’s a much more sympathetic character. Johnny’s tantrum shows us that he is not a low or middle-class man, but instead a rather well-to-do individual. Max also has the bonus of being a broken man who is only capable of doing anything because he had hydraulic pistons bolted to his limbs. Johnny seems to be a super agent where Max instead gets by with grit and sweat.
Kruger vs the Street Preacher…
Both are insane, hopped up on implants, and insane. I’m going to give this one to Kruger because he actually develops as a character. The Preacher is just a walking knife. Kruger is instead a psychopath who develops a political agenda and utilizes emotional torture to get what he wants (as well as just have fun). Sorry Dolph Lundgren, but Sharlto Copley survived a grenade to the face when you got killed by a cyber-dolphin (and saying that out loud almost makes me want to reverse my judgment).
So… Elysium not only shares a great deal of plot elements with Johnny Mnemonic, but it even has a similar character who shares the exact same name. Elysium’s version of Spider is sort of a combination of Mnemonic’s Spider and Ralfi, but to keep things simple I’m only going to compare the two Spiders. This is going to be another point for Mnemonic because of the following two clips:
If you can’t trust Batman to help you make decisions, then who can you trust? The point goes to Johnny Mnemonic.
When you want to introduce a setting which is not modern day or historical, then world-building becomes rather important. You need to establish how the world works, and what the culture is like. In this area Elysium hits you with a blunt heavy object to make sure that you understand that being poor is bad, and being rich is good (and even go so far as to make the poor speak Spanish and the rich speak French). Johnny Mnemonic lets you know about this junk in an opening scroll, but never mentions it explicitly ever again, instead just showing you the urban sprawl juxtaposed with fancy hotels and office spaces.
While Mnemonic may not be a cinematic masterpiece, I think I will actually have to give this first point to the 1995 flop. Why? Because Elysium “done f*cked up.” My issue with Elysium is that the ending plays on how all of human society is maintained and effectively governed by autonomous droids whose protocols are defined by the primary server, but before the ending we mostly see a human presence. Yes, there were law-enforcement and bodyguard droids. Yes there was one butler, one bio-hazard droid, and one parole officer droid, but 1) the primary population we see on screen is human, and 2) every time we see a droid it is under direct control of a human (for the most part). Elysium made me feel like the droids were tools used for safety and efficiency, not a dominant and barely controllable force (which the ending makes them out to be).
I would argue that this last critique is actually one of the most important parts, but reviewing the count it looks like Elysium wins with three points to Johnny Mnemonic’s two. But to tell the truth, I honestly don’t care which one is considered better *coughJohnnyMnemoniccough*. I am just enjoying the resurgence of classic cyberpunk.