Archive for August, 2013

Review: Elysium (2013)

ElysiumFour years ago, Neill Blomkamp scored an unexpected hit with his first feature, the science fiction/action film District 9. Carried by a manic performance by breakout star Sharlto Copley, the movie adroitly (or not so adroitly, depending on who you ask) morphed from faux documentary into shoot ‘em up, without ever losing sight of the central metaphor that made it a vicious critique of South Africa’s immigration policy. Now Blomkamp is back with Elysium, which he wrote and directed, another high-concept science fiction offering. Working with a much higher budget and actual big-name stars, Blomkamp delivers a mindless action vehicle that’s at least often visually arresting. It’s one step above most of the terrible science fiction blockbusters of the year (I’m looking at you, Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness), but several steps below Blomkamp’s own debut.

Elysium opens with some expository text explaining that by the end of the 21st century, our planet got so polluted and overpopulated that the rich and powerful just up and left for a space station, the eponymous Elysium, leaving the poor behind to toil away in giant factories. This is accompanied alternatively by shots of Elysium, so lush and green it looks like Naboo in the Star Wars prequels, and of a run-down Earth where all cities seem to have devolved into slums (in one of the film’s cooler shots, we see a dilapidated tower with people camping out on makeshift balconies). We then move from this global scale to a much personal one, as we’re treated to a series of flashbacks showing us how two kids, Max and Frey, met in a Los Angeles orphanage run by Spanish-speaking nuns. This sequence feels rushed and awkward, a clumsy way to provide generic backstory and heavy-handed foreshadowing (“One day I’ll take you up there,” Max tells Frey as she’s drawing a symbol she says means “Max and Frey forever” on his hand). This doesn’t prevent Blomkamp from coming back to those flashbacks throughout the movie, just in case we didn’t get it the first time around.

Finally we get to the present, or at least to 2154, when the film’s action takes place. Max (Matt Damon) is now in his 30s, and he’s just finished a 3-year stint in jail for grand theft auto. He works at the local droid plant, building the very robots that then harass him as soon as he sets foot outside his apartment. This part plays like a black comedy, with Los Angeles as some sort of fascist state ruled by robots that threaten you with jail time before offering you pills to calm your nerves, and the conversation between Max and his “probation officer” (a crude mannequin that asks at some point if Max is “being sarcasting-slash-abusive” towards it) seems like something right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Yet the whole thing is undermined by the fact that Max brought this all on himself, willfully antagonizing security droids when he knows full well they’d be suspicious of him to begin with. Max’s idiocy is short-lived and plot-mandated: in the ensuing scuffle, his arm gets broken, which sends him to the hospital so that he can then run into Frey (Alice Braga) and reconnect with her after years spent apart. Unfortunately, most of what happens in the film similarly does because the plot demands it, and acts of inexplicable stupidity and transparent contrivances are commonplace.

While Max is trying to convince a less-than-willing Frey to go grab coffee with him, local kingpin Spider (Wagner Moura) is busy sending illegal shuttles towards Elysium. The station’s Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who gets to show off her flawless French), will have none of it, though, and she calls on psychotic agent Kruger (Copley) to shoot down the shuttles. Elysium doesn’t seem to be equipped with any defense system of its own, which seems like a pretty big oversight until you realize that Blomkamp needs to introduce Kruger as working in Los Angeles somehow; once again, plot takes precedence over logic. Delacourt’s handling of the situation is met with disapproval from Elysium’s President, so she comes up with an elaborate plan to stage a coup. Meanwhile, back at his job, Max gets accidentally (as in, by being stupid) irradiated, and when he gets told he has five days to live, he decides to find a way to go up to Elysium to use one of the station’s Med-Pods, which have been shown to be able to cure every ailment. Of course, Max soon gets himself tangled up not only in Spider’s machinations, but in Delacourt’s as well.

If that sounds a little complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. There are theoretically many players in Elysium, but in effect, the film quickly comes to revolve around Max and Kruger, while the others sit around and watch. And I mean that quite literally: Spider and Delacourt both spend a good chunk of the movie sitting in front of computer screens, watching the other two running around or shooting at each other. Frey has it even worse; the introduction makes it seem as though she’s going to be a major character, but what little screen time she has she spends either following Max around or cowering in terror from Kruger and his henchmen. (To be entirely fair, she does get to patch up a wounded Max at some point, but that’s about it.) That’s because Frey isn’t so much a character as a prop to move the plot forward. So is everyone else; Spider can be a ruthless crime lord one moment and a humanist working for the greater good the next, and Kruger can make the most baffling decisions, all based on what the story needs them to be and do at a certain point. Everything about Elysium is similarly mechanical (insert joke about Max’s goofy-looking exoskeleton if you will), meant to take you from point A to point B with little regard for things like character motivation or development. If District 9 worked, it’s because Wikus van de Merwe and Christopher Johnson were actual characters; the whole point of the movie was Wikus’s transformation from a callous bureaucrat into a more compassionate individual. But there’s no such thing at Elysium’s core.

Movies should be judged on their own right, of course, but Elysium really seems to invite the comparison to its predecessor. Not only are both science fiction actioners built around a central allegory, but whole parts of Elysium seem lifted straight from District 9. The basic story is exactly the same: guy gets irradiated/infected by something that will kill him/turn him into an alien within days and tries to find a way to save himself. Max, like Wikus, spends most of the movie motivated only by his own survival, and finds himself forced to fight a psychotic South African mercenary working for a nefarious government (Copley’s intense and creepy Kruger is one of the best things about the movie, but he’s no match for David James’s Koobus Venter). Frey and her leukemia-addled daughter even serve the same role as Christopher and his son did in District 9 by forcing the hero to reconsider his actions, but unlike the alien duo, they don’t get to actually do anything. It’s as if Blomkamp had decided to remake his own movie, replacing the characters by hollowed-out versions, and making whatever cosmetic changes are necessary to accommodate the allegory he is working with this time.

When it comes to that central allegory, Elysium has the subtlety of a sledgehammer (I mean, the rich live in a space station named after the closest thing Greek mythology had to Heaven, come on). That isn’t necessarily a problem; after all, District 9 was hardly a model of subtlety itself. What is a problem, though, is the fact that Blomkamp doesn’t seem particularly interested in what his premise has to offer beyond a basic setting for his movie, an excuse for his action scenes. Sure, having Kruger, the film’s main antagonist, be under the heel of the Elysium elites for most of the movie is a nice touch (the poor fighting the poor while the rich prosper), but that’s about as far as Elysium goes. We’re never made to understand just how that world works, what the exact consequences of Max’s actions might be. In Elysium, class inequality is a problem that can be fixed by strapping on a nifty exoskeleton and duking it out with a South African psycho, or so it seems. But as Delacourt points out early on in the movie, resources on Elysium are not infinite, and giving everyone access to it does nothing to solve that problem. By the time Matt Damon is punching Sharlto Copley in the face on a suspended bridge, though, Blomkamp seems to have long lost interest in that question, and the film’s class politics dissolve in a barrage of explosions and barely intelligible action. One man changing the world with his fists, the Hollywood way. If only it were so easy.


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Pacific Rim and the modern blockbuster

Warning: The following contains some minor spoilers for Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 (if you count a very oblique reference a spoiler).

Over the past couple weeks I’ve had what basically amounts to the same conversation with several different people who didn’t seem to have enjoyed Pacific Rim as much as I did, to put it lightly. Most of them actually seemed baffled that I could love it so much. “But the story’s so predictable!” they said. “And the characters are a bunch of clichés!” And, to a certain extent, they’re right. Pacific Rim’s story is rather straightforward and traditional, and most of its characters are broad archetypes. But my response to that is, why is that such a bad thing?

I’m not trying to be glib here. I mean it. Why is having a story whose shape you can recognize considered a weakness? Why is relying on archetypes suddenly a problem? Of course, Pacific Rim’s detractors will argue that its story is too predictable, its characters too archetypal. I’d contend that you can only reach that conclusion if you refuse to engage with the movie at all, if you only look at it at a surface level. But there’s something else. The more I think about it, the more I realize the problem is not with Pacific Rim. The problem is with modern blockbusters, and with the expectations they have created.

Do you know what other movie has a story that fits a very traditional mold and characters that are barely more than archetypes? Star Wars. You’ve got the farmhand destined to be a hero, the mysterious mentor, the princess in distress, the wisecracking mercenary who turns out to be a valuable ally, the seemingly all-powerful evil adversary, etc. (Yes, things get slightly more complex once you hit The Empire Strikes Back.) Star Wars is high fantasy in space, and it hits every tope in the book. What makes Star Wars so good, though, is the way it manages to create an entire world, to give us a glimpse into this place and make us believe it really could exist… which is exactly what Pacific Rim does, too! And it does it using the same tricks, giving people and places names that stand out, making things look striking and unique. Luke Skywalker and Stacker Pentecost. Tattooine and the Shatterdome. The Mos Eisley Cantina aliens and the kaiju. Pacific Rim is like Star Wars in many, many ways (down to the exposition-heavy dialogue and at times awkward acting).But we don’t want our blockbusters to be like Star Wars anymore.

Nope, nowadays, we want our blockbusters to be like The Dark Knight. We want our heroes to be dark and tortured, our plots to be as convoluted as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Dark Knight; I just hate what it’s done to Hollywood.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at this year’s crop of blockbusters. Everywhere you look, it’s brooding heroes and excessively complicated stories. I say complicated, not complex, because most of those stories have little in the way of complexity. Complex is hard to pull off, after all, but complicated is the next best thing, and with any luck, people won’t be able to tell the difference, especially if you re-use the same tired thematic cues everyone else is using in order to make it seem as though you’ve got something to say. We’ve been made to think that a complicated story is a smart story, and that a straightforward one is dumb. So blockbusters are packed with reveals, reversals, betrayals, and other plot twists, most of them to the point that they stop making any sense.

Take Star Trek Into Darkness, for instance. Into Darkness features not one but two villains, about half a dozen dramatic reveals, and more War on Terror imagery than The Dark Knight itself. Into Darkness is also perhaps the most stupid film I’ve seen all year. And I’ve seen Trance. The problem (or, rather, one of the many problems) with Into Darkness is that, in order to seem complex, it refuses to reveal any of its characters’ motivations for the longest time, which in turn means that the villains’ respective plans make no sense at all. (Seriously, Khan’s plan has got to be one of the dumbest I’ve ever heard.) But, hey, Khan’s a terrorist, and there’s some vague mention of drone-like weapons, too, so this must be a deep movie, right? Nope, sorry, it’s just a super dumb film trying to trick you into believing it’s not. And Into Darkness isn’t the only movie to suffer from this problem. So does Iron Man 3, an otherwise much, much better film: the Mandarin reveal works beautifully, in large part because Ben Kingsley sells it so well, but the main villain’s plan is at best vague, at worst incoherent. Even blockbusters in which the entire world isn’t at stakes (a rarity these days) aren’t immune, as The Wolverine proves. As long as it tries to be The Grey with Hugh Jackman instead of Liam Neeson, it works alright, but when it finally starts delving into the machinations that have been going on in the background, it stops making sense altogether.

Pacific Rim doesn’t suffer from this problem. Pacific Rim makes sense throughout. Sure, the science is a bit wonky, but in terms of story logic, of going from point A to point B without having to make a stop at point “everyone becomes really stupid all of a sudden,” Pacific Rim is super solid. Is the story simple? Yes, absolutely. Is it dumb? I’d argue it isn’t. Star Trek Into Darkness is dumb. Prometheus is dumb. Hell, Man of Steel is pretty fucking dumb. (Man, the whole Pa Kent thing is so irredeemably stupid.) But Pacific Rim’s story, as familiar and straightforward as it may seem, isn’t dumb. And the main reason for that is that we understand why the movie’s characters do what they do, and that those motivations actually make sense.

Which brings us to, yeah, characters. As I’ve already said, there’s no denying that Pacific Rim’s characters are, for the most part, broad archetypes. But at least they’re actual characters, with their own motivations and personalities, traits that come out in their interactions with one another. Again, that’s more than can be said about most blockbusters these days. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, again. Into Darkness has, what, perhaps two actual characters, Kirk and Spock, and I’m being generous. Everyone else can be defined in at most a sentence (Khan is evil (because he’s evil), Simon Pegg is the character Simon Pegg plays in every non-Edgar Wright movie, and Karl Urban frowns a lot) and, more importantly, they barely interact with anyone that’s not Kirk or Spock. They’re not characters so much as props standing around, which wouldn’t be that bad if Kirk and Spock had fully-fledged, vibrant personalities, but, yeah, not really. (I’d argue Spock’s only interesting because he truly feels alien, which is due more to Zachary Quinto’s performance than to the limp script he’s saddled with.) The Wolverine is even worse, in that no one but Logan seems to have any personality whatsoever. At least Logan gets some kind of character development, which is more than can be said of anyone in Into Darkness. (If it seems like I hate that movie, well, it’s because I do.)

But the characters in Pacific Rim do get to interact with one another, they get to show us why they’re the way they are, even when the way they are feels very familiar. Raleigh, who would have spent half the movie moping around after his brother’s death in any other blockbuster (man that would have sucked) serves as a catalyst; much like Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, he may be the movie’s protagonist, but he’s not the hero (that would be, of course, Mako). Thanks to him, we gain access to the Mako/Pentecost relationship (still what I consider by far the best thing about the movie, and a much more interesting relationship than you’ll find in pretty much any modern blockbuster), and to the one between Hercules Hansen and his son Chuck. And while the Raleigh/Chuck sorta-rivalry may feel rehashed, here it’s not so much about the protagonist earning the respect and loyalty of an ally, but about understanding why a character is acting like a dick (because, hey, Chuck’s actually got very good reasons not to be thrilled about Raleigh and Mako piloting a Jaeger) and having him turn into, well, somewhat less of a dick. (The exchange between Pentecost, Chuck, and Herc as the first two set out to kick some kaiju ass at the end packs a surprising punch, if you accept to actually engage with those characters. Herc’s “That’s my son you’ve got there!” gets me every time.) If Raleigh’s so bland, and there’s no denying he is, it’s because Pacific Rim belongs to its secondary characters, to Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori (again, the movie’s real hero for me), to Herc and Chuck Hansen, to Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb. And, of course, to Hannibal Chau. All archetypes, sure, but all much more real and interesting in their interactions with one another than most other blockbusters’ characters.

Because, as del Toro clearly understand, and as so many Hollywood execs seem not to, simple isn’t the same as dumb, and complicated sure as hell isn’t the same as smart.