Elysium (2013)

elysiumWatching Elysium I had the feeling I was watching a film where a dodgy script or shooting problems were being fixed during the editing process with questionable success. By which I mean the whole thing didn’t really work. The pace seems wrong, the editing awry, the intentions rather confused. There’s something wrong here- too many (frankly irritating) shots in  ‘slow motion’ in a vain attempt to add emotional resonance; a love story that doesn’t convince, protagonists that are one dimensional and under-developed without explained motivations.  Plot-points that race by without explanation. God knows the whole thing looks utterly gorgeous, a huge budget, A-list cast, with seamless effects and slick design involving none other than Syd Mead. This should be a classic, but instead its rather a dud, possibly my biggest disappointment of 2013.

I expected rather more of Neill Blomkamp, particularly in mind of his excellent District 9, one of the most notable sci-fi films of the past decade.

At its heart, Elysium is the story of the chasm between rich and poor, a story that dates back  in sci-fi films as far back as the great Metropolis, a film that did the job much better as it turns out. Elysium is a utopia, a space station in orbit that can be seen by the impoverished millions on Earth. On Elysium the rich and the beautiful live long (possibly endless?) lives free of hunger, pain and sickness, with each household having a miracle medical machine that cures all ills and injuries. It looks very clean, very idyllic. But beyond all that, we know nothing of Elysium. We know nothing of the citizens life of privilege, what they do all day, what political system operates.  We don’t spend any time with the folks of Elysium to understand how they live, how they feel about the poor left behind on Earth.  We don’t really even know if they depend on the labour of those left behind on Earth to maintain their utopian lives; its  a plot point never developed, like so many others, another thread that when pulled starts to unravel the entire enterprise.

Our allegiance is obviously with the poor masses left behind on Earth. Here they have no miracle health machines, jobs appear scarce and unrewarding, poverty and crime are everywhere. Terrorist freedom fighters hijack transports to illegally emigrate to Elysium, but how they finance or organise/act out such efforts is never explained (getting a shuttle into orbit and onto the station is hardly as simple as crossing a border or smuggling aboard a freight lorry, but its depicted as if its easy enough to be a constant thorn of  Elysium’s security force).

A (sincere enough) Matt Damon stars as Max, who in rather pointless flashbacks spent much of his childhood staring up at Elysium in the sky wishing he could go there. Adult Max is still on Earth, with a criminal record to his name and stuck in a manufacturing job in a factory building law enforcement robots (shades of the recent Total Recall remake there). Max meets childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) for the first time in years; she’s a doctor now, working in a hospital. Unknown to Max, Frey has a daughter who is terminally ill.  An accident at work results in Max being irradiated with only days to live.  His only hope is to reach Elysium, and he falls into his old criminal crowd, working for terrorists who recruit him in a raid on a high-ranking Elysium citizen who runs Max’s factory, John Carlyle. Carlyle has intel that Max and his cohorts can use to gain entry to the orbital station.

elysium-elysium-on-the-curveThe complication is that Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (a criminally-underused Jodie Foster) has a scheme in place with Carlyle to instigate a coup in Elysium, placing Delacourt as president. Delacourt’s reasons for this act are vague, other than frustrations with the current leaders of the station, who she sees as weak and ineffectual against the tide of immigrants harassing her orbital paradise.  In anycase, the data that Max manages to steal from Carlyle is the very data she needs to rewrite the stations operating system and put herself in charge. Being able to rewrite the stations operating system, this data in the wrong (terrorist) hands could also undo the utopia completely and bring the miracle health machines to the poor masses on Earth.

Cue several high-octane actions sequences that, while impressively staged are also rather boring. The problem being we don’t really care.  My summary of the plot makes it seem an interesting film but there’s something wrong. Rather than be a genuine bad guy/criminal that eventually turns good in order to save the masses, Max is instead just a misfortunate who always had a heart of gold, there is little character arc here for him. Likewise Delacourt is a one-dimensional villain; we don’t really understand her motivations beyond a superficial level. How interesting this film might have been had Max been a criminal always out for himself in the cut-throat world he lives in, who finally learns to change in order to save those around him. He doesn’t change, he’s always just been a good boy at heart. Likewise if we had understood who Delacourt was, her allegiances to the system, her loved ones she strives to protect by maintaining their lives of privilege, we might have sympathised with her a little. Instead a complex premise is made simple black & white and weakened. When Delacourt finally meets her end, it happens almost in passing, incidental, as if it means nothing. It does the casting of someone like Foster in the role a real disservice. Indeed, all the parts here seem thankless, from Max to Frey to Elysium sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley, so wonderful in District 9), as one-dimensional a villain as you ever likely to meet in a movie. I expected Kruger (betrayed and sacked at one point by his masters) to switch allegiances and assist Max in his quest but no, he’s just a dumb soldier for hire with an aptitude for guns. Another wasted character arc. Which sums up the film really. Its pretty but vacuous. I had hoped for more.

Gravity (2013) Imax 3D

gravity-movie-posterYeah, you read that right; Ghost has been back out to the movies, and a film in 3D at that. That sound you hear is the world halting on its axis and Hell freezing over. Well, I guess if I was going to succumb to the evils of 3D after all these many months of avoiding it, it would have to be because of something special. That’s what GRAVITY is; something special. But is it a movie? Even when watching it I had the impression I was less watching a movie, more experiencing an event. If GRAVITY has any shortcomings then they are clearly in the more traditional movie arena, things like plot, characterisation… but such things hardly matter when the damn thing looks and sounds so utterly overwhelming, particularly in Imax. If I ever watch any 3D movie ever again, I’ll be sure to make certain it’s on Imax.

Oddly enough, criticising GRAVITY for not having a truly great plot or characterisation seems almost redundant. In that respect, its much like that granddaddy of sci-fi films… and I’m not talking AVATAR.

GRAVITY may be the nearest thing to our generation’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I guess that might seem like just so much hyperbole but I think its a valid comparison. Kubrick himself, I think, when talking about 2001 described the medium itself as the message, if any, of the film. It was Pure Cinema. Conventional film-making techniques, such as narrative, plot, characterisation, dialogue, were left behind by Kubrick. 2001 was an experience to be see, to be heard…  and GRAVITY is like that. Its a sensory overload.  The story is perfunctory, almost incidental.  The genius about GRAVITY is that while so many blockbusters are huge entertaining thrill-rides that are ultimately as un-fulfilling as the popcorn being chomped on by the audience, this one has something of a soul and intelligence to it nonetheless. But regardless, its utterly beautiful. Every single shot is utterly convincing and a work of art. Its like magic, almost. Hell, make the Blu-ray barebones guys, I have no interest in any commentary or making-of featurettes, just leave the illusion, the magic there.   The film is that good.

???????So yeah, comparisons to 2001 are inevitable, even beyond the similar subject matter. 2001 has many meanings to many people. It can have a different meaning each time you see it. Its the ‘true’ history of man, from Ape to Starchild. Its how inhuman and souless that the future of artificial orbiting worlds and moonbases and AI makes us.  Its how utterly unknowable true Alien Intelligence will be. How small is our place in the Cosmos. How boring and mundane Space travel might actually be. That perhaps we should be careful not to lose our humanity as we leave the Earth. 2001 can be all that, and none of them.

GRAVITY isn’t really that profound, or trying to be, I suspect, and me making such comparisons between them is likely unfair to GRAVITY.  GRAVITY’s meanings… well, I’ll leave that to the inevitable multiple viewings ahead on Blu-ray next year. Maybe its just about how deadly and strange space really is. Maybe its just about the grieving process, of letting go, of Rebirth. I think I’ll keep this Spoiler-free so won’t dwell on any of this too much, but if you haven’t yet seen the film, skip this paragraph completely, but… well, here’s the thing that’s been bugging me:  does what we think we see in the film in its latter stages really even happen? There’s a moment late in the film, something happens, and, well, I really thought that the film had imploded, Jumped The Shark. Anyone who has seen the film knows what I’m on about.  Its clearly something unreal, a vision even, or visitation, but even when everything apparently returns to ‘normal’. I have to ask- I had my doubts even when watching it, but I haven’t seen or heard anybody else pick up on it;  what are we watching, towards the end?  Are we back on Earth at the end, or in Heaven? Maybe its all literally happening as we see it, but I’m not so sure. I half-expected to see a little girl standing, waiting on the shore-line at the end of that final shot.

But anyway, if this film doesn’t clean up all the technical Academy Awards then the Oscars is even more redundant than I had thought. And here’s the strangest, craziest thing of all, that I’ll leave you to ponder with even as I am shocked to realise I’m writing this- Sandra Bullock here deserves a nomination at least. If she won Best Actress I wouldn’t mind at all. She’s that good. There. I’ve said it, and my reputation flounders in that statements wake. But she is very good, and yes the film really is that good. Film of the year.


Cautionary Birthdays

We’re all getting older, and while I don’t wish to become too melodramatic or dwell too much on mortality or anything, it did nonetheless come as something of a shock to read in a recent Saturday newspaper that it was Ridley Scott’s 76th birthday, and Terrence Malick’s 70th. It’s a sobering reminder that two of my favourite directors (and isn’t that weird, them sharing the same birthday?) won’t be around forever, and that every future film they make should be something to be thankful for. Even if it does turn out to be another PROMETHEUS.

Ridley Scott has been making films for nearly all my life, certainly all of my adult life. He’s always been there, making films, good, bad or just plain average, but there’s always been a new film of his to look forward to. His best films were probably his first three- THE DUELLISTS, ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER are really great films, all capably demonstrating his strengths and, yes, weaknesses.

But reading that he’s now 76. Well. Looking back, memories of waiting outside my ABC cinema to go see LEGEND for the second time in order to soak up those visuals, or becoming bemused by Ridley going ‘real-world’ with SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME.. all the way through to the frustrations of PROMETHEUS, you know, I can see the years of my life pass  by to the tick-tock of Ridley Scott films being released at the cinema. Its like my CD collection of Vangelis albums being a soundtrack to most of my life. You don’t realise how linked you are to an artists career and work until, a few decades later, you can look back and see it stretching back before you.

Both Ridley and Terrence Malick could yet have more than another decade or two of films ahead of them, and (unlikely as it may seem) those films may yet include their finest work yet. So its important not to dwell too much on the negative or consider that either of them are soon to drift off this mortal coil and their work become some finite DVD/Blu-ray boxset like that of Hitchcock or Kubrick. But their ages are a sobering reminder that they won’t always be working on movies, that retirement may be around the corner, or that other current titans of cinema, like Spielberg or Cameron for instance, won’t be around forever either. We have been fortunate these past few decades, we’ve had some very gifted directors making memorable movies. Good times. But while their films may survive and live beyond them, they themselves won’t be around forever.

What then, I wonder? Who survives them?