Dancing to Dirges

Depressing and happy things Tim says, sometimes while drunk

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Guest Blog: Joshua tells you things about Elysium!

My agent, Joshua Bilmes, is a man of the movies. He's much better at analyzing them than I will ever be, and has seen way, way more movies than I ever will. We both saw Elysium recently, and as it was the final science fiction movie of the summer, we decided to do dueling reviews of the movie. Well, not dueling. But I've done a review that appears on his blog right here, and he's done a review that will appear on my blog.

Right now, in fact:

Elysium. noun.  “Any place or state of perfect happiness; paradise.”  Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary.  1996.  Random House Value Publishing.

Elysium. movie.  Sigh.  2013.  Tri-Star Pictures.

For the avoidance of doubt, Elysium the movie falls well shy of perfect anything.

At the dawn of my career as a literary agent I was put in touch with the “plot skeleton” by Scott Meredith, which is similar to more recent things like Robert McKee’s story structure or a gazillion other guides to writing books or movies.  That plot skeleton started with an identifiable lead character.  Elysium is an instant fail.  Our lead character, played by Matt Damon, is on line to board the bus for work.  Someone behind him gets in trouble with the robotic line monitors.  So first thing when the line monitors come to Matt Damon, he decides to mouth off.

Are you kidding me?

Our lead character is that guy, the one without the brain or common sense to realize that making jokes about bombs while you’re standing on the TSA line at the airport waiting for you or your carry-on to go through the scanner is just not the best idea.

Everything else that happens to our lead character is a direct result of his being a wisecrack.  He is injured so he’s late to work so he’s in trouble with his boss so he agrees to do something dangerous at work because it’s that or be fired so he is injured and has five days to live so he needs to cure himself. 

This might have engaged me if the character was more well-rounded, but there isn’t much else to go by.  We know he’s trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but I just saw that movie and it was called Fruitvale Station.  We know he pines for halcyon memories of his childhood girlfriend.  I’m pretty sure I saw that movie somewhere else.  Many somewhere elses.  Somehow or other, I feel like I’d checked out of the movie around five minutes in, and I stayed that way.

I’m trying to figure out what else there is to say about the movie, and I don’t come up with much.

Jodie Foster gives a strange performance with a Africaans kind of accent for no particular reasons, other than to remind us that this is high art, allegory, full of meaning and lessons.  However, her character, the Secretary of Defense for the Elysium habitat where the rich people live, isn’t very convincing in how she does her job.  Her so-called boss is even less convincing in how he does his.  The underlying set-up, the protocols of how things are done, makes no sense.  It looks like things are being made up as they go along.

There aren’t any other actual characters in the movie.  There are people who fill archetypal roles.  The bad guy.  The good guy who dies so that our hero might live.  The girlfriend.  The young child our heart goes out for.  We should care enough about the girlfriend and the young child that we aren't bothered we can't quite figure out a cogent back story to explain how the girlfriend goes from the idyllic flashback scenes to reaching heaven to returning to hell with a daughter who isn't covered under her health plan.  

The movie ended with the same implausibility and lack of common script sense as it started.  The people on Earth are going to get cured.  The habitat will send its ships full of Miracle-Gro sick bays.  I was kind of hoping for something nice, a good what-would-happen-in-the-real-world scene of people on Earth being killed and trampled as a lawless society suddenly had millions of people angling for 50 Miracle-Glo sick bays.  No such luck.  It's all very elysian, as the citizens of Earth kind of dance and frolic toward the ship's cargo bay, not exactly going in single file but certainly forming a happy and well-choreographed mob where we just know that everyone will get their just reward in the exact right order.     

I could talk about the special effects!  Good special effects!!  Delivered on a budget!!!.

That is what we are supposed to talk about when we discuss the work of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.  His reputation in the US rests on the success of District 9, a sleeper sf hit when it opened four years ago.  District 9 had some creative plotting and an interesting setting, but it devolved into what so many other sf movies devolve into, an extended overlong chase scene that took up most of the movie.  I dozed off for a bit during that, just like a checked out a bit during Elysium.  The main impression I left with wasn’t that I loved District 9, it was that I loved that he’d managed to do an sf movie filled with all the sorts of things sf movies are filled with and done it for some small tiny fraction of what Peter Jackson spends to do it.

So in ELYSIUM, many critics seem impressed that Neill Blomkamp delivers an Important Allegorical SF Film For Much Less Than Pacific Rim.   It’s just not a very good film.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you deliver on a tighter budget, when you deliver the same thing as everyone else. 


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