HARDBARNED! The Blog

Searching For Signs of Serious Sci-Fi: ELYSIUM Review (Part 2 of 2)

After posting my own simple praise, I started reading Elysium reviews, particularly those by two of my favorite writers, here and here. Of course, one is a film critic and the other (a novelist) is pretty hard to please when it comes to Hollywood fare, but I'm starting to feel like I'm the only one who really liked this movie.

Yes, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 was better than his Elysium, but I thought Elysium was quite entertaining too, and what's wrong with being entertained? Look, I absolutely loved District 9, but even so, it hit us all over the head with a pretty obvious truth--that racism is a cancer and that without pulling together for the good of the planet and ourselves, we're all basically fucked. It’s the same message that a lot of great sci-fi has pushed for decades, an old trope of Star Trek and beyond. District 9 wasn't very deep, but it was brilliantly executed.

Yes, there was even less room for nuance or character development in Elysium, and it felt even more didactic in its socio-humanist messages about healthcare and immigration, but the performances (mostly) were convincing, the worlds, technologies and landscapes Blomkamp created were stunning…and I guess I’m guilty of enjoying a good apocalyptic battle involving badass mech suits and robots, just like all those 13-year-old boys my friend McKinty derides so thoroughly in his review.

I was able to more easily overlook the tired “save the innocent child with cancer” and “evil secretary of defense” tropes. There just aren’t enough original stories making it into science fiction film, so we are left to decide, among the endless legion of rehashed, reconstituted and recombined plots, which of these have been dressed up most convincingly to move us, if not solely to entertain us.

Maybe I tend to set my expectations for sci-fi movies lower than Edelstein and McKinty? I don't know. I know I’ll be seeing Pacific Rim at some point, but I share McKinty’s concern that it might be a colossal disappointment for a fan of Guillermo Del Toro’s previous rich, unique movies like Pan’s Labyrinth. It might be fun, but I’m not expecting a lot from the Giant Lizard versus Giant Robot premise. Then again, there will be mech suits, of a sort, and it might be supreme entertainment in a very vapid, empty way. Sometimes there is a place for this sort of movie. I’m not trying to write a dissertation on everything I watch, and sometimes it’s fun to just watch cool stuff happen on screen without thinking too much. There will be plenty of time to think when I'm reading.

My sci-fi bar was set high, long ago, with Blade Runner, Brazil, The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I almost never expect directors in this popular, blockbuster genre to truly hit anything out of the park anymore. It has become so very rare to see sci-fi that successfully manages to merge top-level visuals, narrative, acting and emotional/intellectual impact simultaneously.

As much as I wanted to love Sir Ridley’s triumphant return to sci-fi after two home runs in a row (Alien and Blade Runner) so many decades before, Prometheus was a bit of a disappointment and maybe contributed to an already steady lowering of expectations for sci-fi movies on my part, a decline that began in 1999 with a colossally disappointing Star Wars prequel.

Sure, Prometheus looks fantastic, starts with a bang and even manages to top the untoppable chest-burster scene. I definitely enjoyed the ride, but the writing just doesn’t hold together by the third act, when (mostly avoiding spoilers here) brilliant scientists just don’t act like scientists at all when discovering potentially dangerous new species, and highly trained military leaders use terrible judgment regarding officers under their command and don’t even understand which way to run when gigantic heavy things roll right toward them in a straight line. Still, I’m psyched to see what Ridley and company might come up with for a sequel, as the two most interesting characters remain poised for one.

That said, I’m a little terrified about Scott’s upcoming plan to revisit the Blade Runner universe and its potential crossover with the Alien/Prometheus universe, as Blade Runner has long been my favorite movie (thesis topic, poster in my living room, tattoos) and I tend to think he should just leave well enough alone. However, I will apply the same healthy dose of cynicism coated by a razor-thin veneer of fleeting optimism, the very same dose of which I already mentioned I would apply to the potential for Star Wars VII and for…whatever Ben Affleck will be doing in that cape and cowl…

(tangent alert)...I have to admit I was pretty stoked on the idea of an older Batman this time around, but even though The Dark Knight Returns clearly has a part in this story, we’re not going to have a Batman who is quite old enough. I thought Josh Brolin would have been great, and I even held out hope for a return visit from a still snarky, crazy-eyed, gray but fit Michael Keaton, which would have been mind-blowingly awesome, but so it goes. I was surprised by this decision, but I’m not crushed. There’s no way Zack Snyder will allow Bats and Supes to descend to the level of the Joel Schumacher era Batman movies of which we shall not speak. I’m confident in that, though I have yet to see Snyder's Man of Steel.

As an apt tweet I read in an article about the Batfleck uproar over the weekend indicated, it’s not like they cast Woody Allen, right? We can give Ben a break, right? What actor hasn’t been in a few crappy movies? Just look at what drivel Robert DeNiro keeps churning out. Even the great Bobby D needs to pay the bills, right? An actor acts; not all of them sit around waiting to accept only projects featuring the most perfect scripts and critically acclaimed directors.

As Samuel L. Jackson once said, “you take what you can get, to keep your engine tuned. An artist doesn’t burn out with age because he works too much. Working hones his craft.” Yeah, so he did Snakes On A Plane. Along with his craft, working has also honed his crap, but I agree with him. Sometimes it’s probably fun to be in a crappy movie like Snakes On A Plane or something with J-Lo that shall remain nameless. Mr. Affleck has contributed much to the crap cannon, most of which isn’t worth bringing up here, but I say give the guy a pass. Say what you will; I liked Good Will Hunting and The Town a lot, and in both roles Affleck plays a blue collar dude from South Boston, maybe because that’s who he actually is.

I liked Argo, but Ben didn’t have much to do in there as far as acting goes. As far as Bats goes, he's already got the height and the chin, and the physique shouldn’t be much trouble for him. Maybe Gotham could look a little more Boston and a little less New York this time around? It could work. You need to play to your Batman’s strengths, Mr. Snyder. Nothing wrong with that, right? How you like them apples? (Sorry—irresistible Batfleck tangent there).

Of course, there are always smart, relatively low-budget, fantastic sci-fi surprises every few years, seemingly out of nowhere, like Moon, Primer and yes, District 9. I remain optimistic about Neill Blomkamp’s ability to progress as a director and to improve as he goes along, carefully navigating the originality-squashing big studio system that only wants to bank on surefire hits based on what has gone before. Maybe he’ll still be on the short list if Microsoft and some film studio (or studios) ever make a Halo film happen.

But hey, I liked Avatar, too. It's not among my favorite Cameron films, and I enjoyed it more like I might enjoy a theme-park ride than a movie, but the problem with theme park rides is that you have to actually go to theme parks to enjoy them, and I rarely go to the theatre anymore, though I made exceptions for Avatar, Prometheus and Elysium. Avatar has become quite the punching bag. You should watch the review in that last link. It's damn funny and pretty right on. I think I liked Avatar a bit better than the Red Letter guy did, but yeah, it deserves the critique.

I guess I just don't hold all movies to the same standard; I often keep expectations low, particularly in sci-fi and superhero land. When it comes to sci-fi, I'm usually up for giving B or occasionally even C-level movies a chance because I like to look at cool stuff and be entertained, but beyond those exceptions, for me it is all about good writing, no matter the genre, and it’s a fantastic surprise when a sci-fi movie can match phenomenal storytelling with great visuals. It just doesn’t happen enough, but I’m always ready to give a sci-fi flick a chance, even if I know it’s not going to bring the A game.

While we're at it, I'd give D9 an A and Elysium a B. It's great when someone brings the A game, but it’s far too rare. Many critically acclaimed, commercially successful directors want to take a shot at ambitious, serious sci-fi, at least at once in their careers. I had high hopes for Danny Boyle's Sunshine, and to me, it started well but quickly descended into the "slasher in space" genre, like many others before it (e.g. Event Horizon). Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity looks interesting, and maybe Christopher Nolan will impress us all, even Adrian McKinty (fat chance), with Interstellar, but commenting on movies is all subjective opinion anyway, isn’t it?

Read part one of my Elysium review here.