Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Elysium" and "Beowulf": An Unlikely Comparison

Okay, obviously I have been less than inspired lately as this is my first post in over a month.  I've still been watching movies and stuff, but nothing has really excited me all that much.  Also, school has begun so I'm much more focused on teaching than writing about movies.  Teaching literature does allow me to think about movies in a different light, which means that I have had a little inspiration for writing something about Elysium.  This is not a review.  I'll still write a lengthy review here and there, but only if the movie makes me think and stays with me after watching it.  Unfortunately, Elysium didn't stick with me all that much.  So I'll start off with a very short opinion about the film itself, then go into a comparison to the epic poem Beowulf.  This is where the teaching literature stuff comes in handy.  I gave my seniors a few writing assignment options after they finished the poem, one of which asking them to compare it to the hero's journey of a modern action film.  I try to complete all the assignments I dish out (partly to see if it works as an assignment and partly to see if I can come up with anything good), and this is my entry.
Short Review
I loved District 9.  I liked Elysium.  There are some great moments and Matt Damon makes for a good hero (Sharlto Copley makes for an even better [and crazed] villain).  I felt like I was watching two films shoehorned together, though.  I just thought things started moving by too fast, and it became too simple.  I suppose District 9 ends the same way, but I felt more connected to that world and that character than I did to Matt Damon's character.  Overall, a fine sci-fi film with some commentary on health care and whatnot that entertains, but doesn't really resonate. 
*I'll be SPOILING the crap out of Elysium from here on out...


Beowulf Comparison
Beowulf can be compared to pretty much every action movie, so let’s look at a recent one: Elysium.  In Elysium, Matt Damon does not begin as a powerful man.  In fact, he seems weaker than most, accepting a low-key life of straight work after a career in theft.  Once his death becomes imminent, however, he is literally upgraded to badass Beowulf status.  Damon is outfitted with an exoskeleton that gives him much needed superior strength to get through his final days.  This essentially turns him into that unique physical hero that Beowulf was. 
"I always thought Matt Damon was kind of a Streisand..."
But he look's like he take on about nine giant sea-beasts
with that exo-skeleton on.
In Beowulf, Grendel and his/its mother represented pure evil, literally crawling out of some kind of primordial evil slime to bring death and misery to Earth.  The ultra-rich floating utopia of Elysium represents that pure evil in the world of the film because they have the ability to provide much-needed cheap health care, but simply choose not to.  This is an interesting contrast to the epic poem because the high-low dynamic has been reversed.  The bright, shining example of all that is good in Beowulf, Heorot, is at the top of a hill while Grendel and his mom are down in the muck.  Of course, Earth would be considered the muck in Elysium, but it is not filled with pure evil.  Instead, the innocent and the good live in this dirty, lower level while the truly evil spend their time on top of the hill.  Basically, things have been reversed and Matt Damon must right these wrongs, with a little help, of course.
Which brings me to why Damon can’t be compared to Beowulf completely as a character.  Yes, he has the exoskeleton, but he needs help.  He needs a lot of help, actually.  Damon doesn’t really know how all the gizmos work, so he’s dependent on the criminal element to help him with his quest.  Without Spider, Damon would fail completely.  This is the opposite of Beowulf, a superhuman who not only doesn’t need weapons to defeat Grendel, but he doesn’t really need his men, either. 

There are quite a few similarities, however, when you consider Kruger to be the Grendel of Elysium.  If there was a character that was meant to be seen as true, violent evil, it would be Kruger.  His handler (symbolic mother) Jodie Foster is certainly just as evil, but in a more political way.  Kruger enjoys killing and getting his hands dirty.  So, of course, Damon must stop him.  When they finally battle it out to the death, Damon must rip off Kruger’s exoskeleton, rendering him much less harmful.  This is the equivalent of ripping off Grendel’s arm.  Beowulf couldn’t leave it at just that, and, in the poem, eventually tracked Grendel down and finished the job by cutting off his head.  Damon doesn’t decapitate Kruger, but he does place a grenade on him to make sure Kruger stays dead. 
Kruger as Grendel works, but Foster as Grendel’s mother is a bit lacking.  She is certainly the more dangerous of the two for most of the film, but her end is anti-climactic to say the least.  Damon does not track her down and defeat her with some magical weapon.  Instead, her own (symbolic) child stabs her with a shard of glass, and she pretty much accepts death.  Damon doesn’t really have all that much to do with her death.  I found this to be unique, but unsatisfying, and it also messes up this comparison.  The best connection I can make to this is the idea of Grendel having mommy issues (as he does in John Gardner’s novel from Grendel’s perspective, Grendel).  Still, Grendel killing his mother does not literally suit this comparison, which is unfortunate.

...and his mother.
Moving beyond Grendel and his mother, Beowulf eventually fights a dragon, which leads to his death.  Of course, there is no dragon in Elysium, but Damon’s final fight ends in his death, as well.  You have to get pretty symbolic here, but you could consider the system that keeps millions of people sick to be the dragon.  It works quite well when you factor in the dragon hoarding a treasure in Beowulf.  The dragon of Elysium is guarding the portable med-pods, which is certainly the most valuable treasure in the world of the film.  This is also where Spider’s help makes Damon more like Beowulf.  Sure, Beowulf didn’t need help taking out Grendel and his mother, but when it came to the dragon, he needed the help of a lone warrior, Wiglaf.  Everyone else had run away scared, only Wiglaf remained to help and to ensure Beowulf’s final wishes were fulfilled.  Spider is certainly the Wiglaf to Damon’s Beowulf. 
Is Elysium a full-on adaptation of Beowulf?  Of course not, but even the adaptations of Beowulf aren’t all that faithful (most adaptations try to add dramatic moments that didn’t necessarily exist in the poem).  It's safe to say that this comparison is not a stretch, though.  It just goes to show that the earliest hero quest stories out there still live on in our modern storytelling.

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