Elysium

Elysium

In 2009, a science fiction film came from out of nowhere (well, out of South Africa), with no stars but some fantastic special effects and a great story and script making a parable for its home country’s apartheid history. It featured a brilliantly realised world which felt true in every detail and offered insight without being heavy-handed. That film was District 9, (co-)written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Elysium is his follow-up, this time with the might of Hollywood behind him. The risk is that Hollywood will see the original and up the ante on the wrong things as the things that stand out are not necessarly what made the original great in the first place. For a recent example, see Kick Ass 2, wherein the violence and, especially, the swearing were upped while the intelligence and the character was ignored, resulting in a soulless piece of garbage that’s in the running for the worst film of the year.

Blomkamp secured some quality when he came stateside though, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster taking the leads, two actors with a lot of smarts and who don’t pick projects indiscriminately. The film is again a science fiction take on problems in the modern world, this time healthcare, or more specifically the American healthcare model. We’re in a world where the rich (the 1% if you will) have decamped to an orbiting space station, Elysium, while the rest of humanity is left to struggle and rot on earth. Naturally everyone on Earth wants to live on Elysium where the 1% seemingly do nothing to maintain their position and can be cured of cancer by what amounts to a tanning bed crossed with a photocopier. Foster is charged with keeping Elysium free of refugees, but has clashes with those above her in the system and has designs on running things her way. Meanwhile, Damon is a working-class Joe who made a childhood promise to a girl to take her to Elysium one day. Now that friend’s daughter has leukaemia and only Elysium can save her. After being exposed to a likely fatal dose of radiation, Damon is determined to make it up there.

O paper Elysium has the potential to be a truly great science fiction film, something to join the pantheon of greats from the 60s and 70s and those of more recent years, including films like District 9, Twelve Monkeys, and Children of Men. These are films which offer a wider reflection on humanity, on time, on life, on what it means to be human. It’s a shame, then, that Elysium fumbles the opportunity to such an extent that it’s almost laughable to bring those films up in the same paragraph.

What is wrong with the film, at its core, is that it doesn’t present a believable world. Damon, himself, does a good job in the central role of Max, but everyone around him feels like they are there to facilitate the plot or to ensure that Damon doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When building a world, science fiction or otherwise, the further away from the current reality it is the more you have to work to make it feel real. Here, virtually no character that interacts with Damon feels like they have their own sets of wants, needs, or motivations. They play archetypes or caricatures or people who ask Damon things so that he can explain his feelings about the world or what his next move will be. Everything that exists in this world is only there to serve Max and his story.

Then we come to Foster. It’s a very strange thing, but every single line she speaks appears to be post-dubbed (that is, appears to have been rerecorded in a studio and lip-synced badly after the event) despite the fact that she seems to spend nearly all her time in almost forensically clean environments. She speaks in a strange, clipped voice which doesn’t fit in with anyone around her. Her motivations are never fully explored and her job doesn’t seem to make sense. She is there to protect Elysium but all this seems to entail is calling Sharlto Copley (star of District 9) on Earth and getting him to fire rockets to shoot down the refugee vessels. Elysium itself seems to have no security system (to the extent that this giant ship in space appears to have no way of keeping the oxygen in – there’s not an air-lock in sight).

Foster’s plan to take over (and why, when she lives in this seeming paradise, she wants to run it, is never properly explored) is to take a piece of computer programming that would make Elysium’s computer systems think she’s in charge. This will be delivered, Johnny Mnemonic style, in William Fichtner’s brain. Presumably this is a future where not only is cancer cured on a tanning bed but computers viruses can no longer be transmitted wirelessly but instead are more like human-to-computer STDs.

Anyway. It only makes less sense from here on in. There is no insight present, there is no character and what plot there is is risible. It’s a terrible shame because, as I said, when you read out the ingredients this appears to have the makings of one delicious three course meal. I’m trying to think of a positive to throw out, and I’ve heard others say that Copley provides that, but I thought he did his best playing what amounted to little more than an over-the-top bad guy from an 80s action film like Robocop, but while some of the turns in Robocop might be approaching laughable, they worked in the context of the film around them, a film which, incidentally, created a highly believable world. Copley’s take on the part, while trying to paper over how underwritten the role is, is at odds with the humanistic take from Damon and the Badly Dubbed Porn performance from Foster. None of them feel like they exist within the same film as each other.

I’d like to say that it’s a brave attempt, but it fails too much for that. If this is the project that Blomkamp has worked on for the past 4 years, it feels sorely underbaked and in need of another 4 years to add the depth and humanity that a film like this needs. Ultimately it is less successful than the Tom Cruise-led Oblivion from earlier this year, and that was not a film anyone should be going out of their way to see.

D

Film length: 1hr 49 mins – Feels like 2hrs 5 mins

Oblivion

Tom Cruise: Visionary architect of nature

Tom Cruise: Visionary architect of nature

Oblivion is a Tom Cruise film. It’s a very Tom Cruise film. It features lots of close-ups of Tom Cruise’s face. Tom Cruise stands heroically looking at things on several occasions. The full nature of just how Tom Cruise-y Oblivion is can’t be revealed without giving away some plot twists, but trust me, it’s very Tom Cruise-y.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I quite like Tom Cruise. When he’s in the right kind of film he performs admirably. The Colour of Money, for example. The Firm. A Few Good Men. Mission: Impossible. In all of those Tom Cruise is very good, and they are very enjoyable films (to varying degrees, when it comes to the M:I movies). He’s even pretty good in the unfairly maligned “Tom Cruise almost defeats Nazi-ism” film Valkyrie.

And Oblivion is another film in which Cruise is actually pretty well cast – something he probably needed after being woefully miscast in Jack Reacher, a film which demanded a Clint-Eastwood-of-30-years-ago type performer. If anyone is less like Clint Eastwood than me, it might be Tom Cruise. Anyway, Oblivion. It’s got Tom Cruise in it and he’s quite good. So what’s the deal?

Years ago, Earth was attacked by some alien creatures (nicknamed scavengers, or ‘scavs’). Humans managed to fight them off but in doing so ruined the planet. We are now harvesting Earth’s few remaining resources while slowly moving the survivors to a new home on Saturn’s moon Titan. Tom Cruise is a technician assigned the duty of repairing the drones that protect the giant resource-harvesters from the scavs.

Production note: the drones are very clearly modelled on the Zeroids from Gerry Anderson’s Terrahawks:

A Zeroid family at play in its natural habitat

A Zeroid family at play in its natural habitat


The Oblivion Drones, screen-captured for your pleasure.

The Oblivion Drones, screen-captured for your pleasure.

Anyway, when a pod crashes back on earth containing someone from Tom Cruise’s past, the revelations keep on coming. I can’t really say more than that without unravelling the story for you. Let’s just say that all is not as it seems (Cruise’s world is rocked when he discovers all his co-stars are on strings).

Tom Cruise's love interest in Oblivion

Tom Cruise’s love interest in Oblivion

So, the film blends a lot of fairly established sci-fi tropes and scenarios to create a pretty interesting scenario. If you’re well versed in sci-fi then nothing that unfolds will come as a surprise, but there’s nothing incompetent on view either. It doesn’t over-do the special effects – they all service the plot rather than being there for the sake of it – and it unfolds in a pretty organic manner. There’s a decent chase scene that thrills but doesn’t overstay its welcome. It is all pretty satisfactory.

The thing that stops it from joining the upper echelon of sci-fi films of recent years is the pacing. It’s just over 2 hours long – not a ridiculous length but still a good 20+ minutes shy of the ideal length – and I think it could regain much of that time, and thus give the plot some much needed urgency, merely by cutting out the 5 second gaps that seem to come between almost every line of dialogue. The film should be some schlocky sci-fi fun but it takes itself just that little bit too seriously, like it has something serious to say about the human condition. It’s ponderous.

B-

An aside: the story is supposed to start in 2017. Ignore reference to this, it makes no sense. We won’t have deep-sleep stasis pods in 4 years time. Imagine every reference to 2017 is actually a reference to 2070.

Star Wars Episode 7: Ewoks in the Magic Castle

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So the big news this week for anyone interested in film or the world of the geek has been the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for a staggering $4bn, Lucasfilm being George Lucas’ company and home to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This sits alongside Lucas’ proclamations of the past few years about wanting to concentrate on smaller, more personal films, something which he first put into action with the $30m film Red Tails about African American fighter pilots in the second world war.

The news of the sale was accompanied by news that could both delight and strike fear into both the casual and dedicated Star Wars fan, possibly at the same time: that Disney intended to release a 7th Star Wars film in 2015, and to follow that up with an 8th and 9th and, no doubt, never stopping to churn them out. So what to make of this? Let’s dispense with the business side first…

It makes perfect sense for Disney; they acquire a brand which is a licence to print money, in Star Wars, and also get Indiana Jones, which could be worth a pretty penny too. As a very astute blog on the Guardian pointed out earlier this week, this purchase helps fill a gap which Disney have been trying to fill for some time. Disney have the 0-8 year old market (and a lot more people besides) locked up with Pixar, they have the Disney Princess market which does for the young girl market, Pirates of the Caribbean for the teens and teen girls, but they had been struggling to really grab the young boy market. Star Wars and their other big claim of recent years, Marvel Comics, fill the gap for boys from 5-15 perfectly (and, as a nice bonus, also have big appeal for boys 15+). So it makes sense for them. Whether $4bn is sensible is a matter for other people, but I can see them making that back pretty easily with all the toys, blurays, video games and everything else that comes along.

What about Lucas? Well, $4bn is a lot of money, and it will fund a lot of smaller, more personal movies. I have no more knowledge than most people but I’d be surprised if we see more than 1 movie every couple of years. What he does with the rest of that money is anyone’s guess and nobody’s business, really… Good luck and fair play to him.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Well, for starters it meant a million tweets like this one being sent on Tuesday night:

 

And also like this:

 

And it’s this second tweet that actually cuts to the heart of the matter of what you actually feel about this move happening. Star Wars may beloved by many people across a number of generations, but is it actually any good? I’d argue both yes and no, and it’ll come as no surprise as to how I differentiate.

The first 3 films (episodes 4, 5 & 6) are good, the next 3 (eps 1, 2 & 3) are not, really. I’m not saying that the original three films are Vertigo or Citizen Kane, just that they are enjoyable and well constructed blockbusters and that the latter three are not. Where the first three movies use classic archetypes to tell the stories, the latter may as well use cardboard cut-outs such is the lack of depth to the characterisation.

Back when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 I was at University studying screenwriting. I wasn’t a Star Wars obsessive, and I was someone who wanted the inside track, so I bought the script and read it before the film was in cinemas. Then I got to the end and thought to myself “Where’s the rest?” There was 40 minutes of story in the film and when I came to see the film at the cinema it became clear that they had crammed those 40 minutes of story into 136 minutes of screentime. It was dull, tedious and lifeless – everything the original trilogy could never be accused of.

But do we need to go over that in any greater depth? It’s old news now.

No, what I find interesting is the way in which Disney is deemed perfect because of some examples of great movies they have produced. The tweet mentions Wall-E and The Avengers (the latter of which is not all that, sorry), but could have broadened that out to just Pixar in general, along with The Muppets, Enchanted and Tangled – all great movies. These are mentioned by way of proof that Disney will do a better job than Lucasfilm did, juxtapositioning them against The Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, poor, poor movies, the pair of them.

However, let me give you another list:
• The Santa Clause (1, 2 and 3!)
• Around the World In 80 Days (starring the perfect ensemble of Steve Coogan, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger)
• The Pacifier
• Beverly Hills Chihuahua
• The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
• John Carter

Those are a lot of bad films, and those are all Disney films produced during the 21st century. It’s not a pretty sight, and I didn’t even include the Pirates movies (terrible, but liable to provoke an argument).

The point is that yes, Disney have a lot of incredibly talented people and yes, the last 3 Star Wars films were terrible, but the combination doesn’t mean that the next Star Wars films will be great. They say that in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything” but I think it’s safe to say that, no matter how good the output from the Disney/Lucasfilm deal, the next Star Wars film will make an awful lot of money. That much we do know.