Elysium (2013)

Elysium Movie Poster

Elysium Movie Poster

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

There is good science fiction, and there is bad science fiction. Elysium is the bad kind. Don’t bother.

Elysium is the sort of film that just doesn’t quite sit right with you while you’re watching it–for all the obvious reasons when in the moment–and then later on, as you’ve taken the time to properly digest it, you come to realize that there isn’t really a shred of story that holds together on any level. It’s not necessarily offensive viewing, but the entire concept is broken on so many layers that it’s impossible to be kind about it in any kind of objective analysis.

Brief example: a huge plot point hinges upon the fact that Jodie Foster’s repulsive and laughably over-the-top character can (essentially, single-handedly) stage a coup on the presidency of Elysium (which is the luxurious space station/colony to which all of the rich people flee when Earth becomes a total craphole) by simply rebooting the central computer and basically updating a database that will specify her as grand leader.

…and then there’s everything else. Sorry, Neill Blomkamp (director of Elysium)–I’m not sure where everything went wrong, but it clearly did. I’ve heard good things about District 9, but now I don’t know…

Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report poster

Europa Report poster

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

I watched Europa Report because Netflix thought that I wouldn’t like it; I found that suggestion both mysterious and slightly offensive. For the record, I did like the film, but in fairness to Netflix, I suppose that I didn’t love it.

Briefly, Europa Report focuses upon Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and perhaps the most likely place within the solar system to find life outside of Earth. Specifically, the movie follows the journey of an international team of astronauts and scientists that embark upon an ill-fated mission of exploration to the eponymous moon. Is that a generic enough synopsis for you? On the one hand, that’s intentional, in order to avoid spoilers, but it’s also because the film is, to be sure, rather uncomplicated, though it is very sophisticated.

On its storytelling merits, I think this is a solid three (out of five) star movie, though as work of science fiction, I think that it might be somewhat better just owing to the craftsmanship evident in the production and the pains that the filmmakers took in order to imbue the overall experience with a good degree of plausibility and scientific authenticity.

I also can’t fault the acting, which on the average is quite good, particularly in light of the fact that the script spends hardly any time at all defining the ensemble cast. It falls squarely on the shoulders of this capable group to convey the essence of these people we’re meant to care about. And we do. Care about them, I mean. Sharlto Copley gets some of the best character building material in the film, but he deserves it–he’s a stand-out character actor and always fun to watch.

Where I fault the filmmakers is at the level of narrative structure, which they’ve somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into the mold of a found footage horror film. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but they’ve also decided to order the scenes non-chronologically for dramatic purposes in addition to employing another kind of narrative flip in the climax that, while not unclever, feels a bit over-contrived. These contrivances are especially problematic in Europa Report, because the film suffers a bit from multiple-personality disorder. It starts as a documentary, with commentary from the ground crew juxtaposed against the main action, but the filmmakers have no follow-through for that storytelling conceit.

In short, I think that Europa Report would have benefited from ditching the horror genre trappings and playing it more or less straight. But…I don’t know. Maybe that’s just pointless Monday Morning Quarterbacking. On the whole, I enjoyed Europa Report, but I nevertheless felt that I had been sold a bit short on something.

Europa ReportWith that said, if you consider yourself a connoisseur of science fiction films (one apt line that I read somewhere stated that Europa Report puts the “science” back in “science fiction”), I would suggest that you probably owe it to yourself to watch Europa Report, if for no other reason than to support filmmakers who elect not to dumb down the science content in order to court mass market appeal. Make no mistake, this is a niche film, but if you frequently find yourself within that niche, I think you’ll enjoy the journey, even if the destination isn’t, perhaps, terribly thrilling.

After all, Europa is probably a bit difficult to get really excited about unless you are an inveterate science nerd. And try as they might, the filmmakers behind Europa Report faced an uphill battle making ice and radiation into compelling drama, twists notwithstanding.

Reviews of some random stuff

No movie reviews today, so I’m going to do away with the customary star ratings that I usually attach to things, since I’m even worse at reviewing non-movie media than I am at reviewing movies.

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The Hunter is the source material for a couple of films: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson. I haven’t seen the former, but signs point to it being perhaps closer in spirit to the novel by Westlake, which is written in brutally efficient prose that doesn’t waste a word.

In a way, Westlake, writing as Stark, employs a style that is sort of like the way a child would write a book if he were a professional author. It’s full of phrases in the vein of, “Parker thought about his stolen money and he got mad. Then he thought about how he was going to kill Resnick, and that made him happy.” For the record, that’s not an actual line in the book, but it’s the sensibility of the language.

Obviously, the book is written that way for effect, since that sort of vocabulary characterizes the main character, Parker, who is a singularly driven thug and not at all a nice guy. A pretty creepy persona, to be sure. Westlake doesn’t seem to want you to root for him, and in fact, you won’t be rooting for him. He’s an interesting protagonist in this way, despite being about as deep as a puddle of water.

Anyway, if you’ve seen either of those movies, you know the story, and I’m going to assume anybody reading this has seen at least one of those movies.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

For my birthday, I got a Kindle knowing full well that it’s a luxury at best–but birthdays are good opportunities for indulging in luxuries. I love reading on it, and I knew I had access to a good selection of public domain titles, as well as e-books through the library, so I figured, why not? A Connecticut Yankee is one of those afore-mentioned public domain titles, and I had always been curious to read it if only because I’m a fan of time travel stories in any form.

To be sure, this isn’t speculative science fiction. I was going to make a joke about this being the novelization of the Martin Lawrence film Black Knight, but then I didn’t. But anyway, the mode of travel into the past is the same as in that film (which actually was inspired by Connecticut Yankee, I think)–a blow to the head and a character from the modern day finds himself body and soul in the England of King Arthur.

I wound up enjoying this novel quite a lot. It’s a burlesque, so the characters are not portrayed romantically. At all. Merlin, for example, is just some insane (if cunning) hermit who believes in his own mythology, the Knights of the Round Table are all just useless brutes, and King Arthur, himself, is a mental midget short on redeeming virtues. Nominally, the story follows the Yankee’s attempt to purge Arthur’s Britain of the false ideal of knight-errantry, but what I really enjoyed were the protagonist’s interactions with the sundry characters living in the kingdom, and how they all so thoroughly buy into their context, and how ridiculous it all looks to a free-thinking modern man from a democratic nation.

If I can get all political for a moment, this satire is still cutting even in the world today when you look at, for example, the recent riots in Egypt over this film that apparently nobody has even seen. The calls for the film’s director to be imprisoned, made an example of, the fact that Americans are being killed because of the freedom of expression allowed in our country.

The irony of this in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring is that it’s obvious these nations, which continue to lean heavily on theocracy as a basis for governance, will for a long time be plagued by prominent groups of people–either organized or disorganized–who just don’t get freedom. Their brains have essentially been hardwired to not even be able to comprehend how somebody can (a) have an opinion that isn’t the shared opinion of the realm and (b) that holding such an opinion shouldn’t doom them to death or imprisonment just because certain people don’t like what he has to say.

Twain’s view seems to have been that something like a fundamental human morality exists, but that it too easily gets perverted by the state, religion, superstition, or generally the will of flawed men. Some things never change.

It would be interesting to read a book like this written by a person living a thousand years from now. Moving on to music…

The Color Spectrum (2011) by The Dear Hunter

I recently downloaded Spotify, and I have no idea why I didn’t do this sooner. It’s pretty much the best thing ever. I’ve listened to more music in the past week than I have in the past five years previous. What I’ve been doing is just going down the list of well-reviewed albums at Metacritic.com. I’ll give almost anything a shot except for heavy metal.

On this topic, something I’ve discovered is that I trust user reviews a lot more than I trust the reviews of professional critics. It’s obvious to me that what paid reviewers look for in music is not necessarily what I look for. To be sure, the aggregate user ratings and the aggregate professional ratings are not often very far off, but if the critics give an album a combined score of 75 and the users give it a 95, it’s a sure thing I’m going to like it more than an album for which those scores are reversed. Anyway, this has nothing to do with the album I’m about to review.

The Color Spectrum is the sort of album I would have never in a million years have had the chance to hear if not for Spotify. And it’s a damn shame, because this is an amazing work of art. There are actually two versions of this album. One has a mere 11 tracks, and it’s the version I listened to first. Then there’s an expanded version that has 36 tracks, and I’m not even going to wager a guess at what that clocks in at for playtime, because the tracks are not trite little radio-friendly ditties that are over just as you’re getting into them. I’ve listened to the expanded album twice already.

What I love about it is that as the album proceeds through colors from black to red to orange to yellow, etc., the tone of the tracks just shifts organically from one end of the spectrum to the next. It’s a vastly diverse collection of music and you get it all in a single package. But more impressive to me is how well written the songs are. I’m not sure you’re going to find yourself necessarily singing them around the house, but any single track is catchy in its way, and nothing feels like a throwaway.

I mean, it’s not the sort of album I’d recommend to my mom, but it’s one of my favorite albums of the past few years.

Swing Lo Magellan (2012) by the Dirty Projectors

So inventive. I sort of see this as a quintessential Indie album in that it’s not attempting to be mainstream at all, but rather is pushing the boundaries of traditional sounds, melody, and musical phrasing, but building around a core of evident knowledge about song writing and structure.  I wish I knew enough about music to better explain why I think Swing Lo Magellan is so good. But it is. I think that if you’re a fan of the genre, you probably owe it to yourself to at least give it a listen.

Transference (2010) by Spoon

I guess I’m a little late to the party on this one. This is a truly great collection of songs that aren’t at all catchy. It’s almost as if Spoon set out to create an album that couldn’t be used on the radio at all. That’s not a criticism. I’ve listened to it twice in the past week. I simply couldn’t really tell you a single song that’s on it. Compared with something like their Gimme Fiction album, which was instantly memorable on almost every track, it feels a little like a departure. But then again, maybe Gimme Fiction was really the departure.

Sainthood (2009) by Tegan and Sara

Here’s one of those albums where there’s a divergence between the critical score (78) and the user score (9.0) on Metacritic. I’m more in line with the users. I’m not sure what it is about these two women, but over the course of three albums (The Con, So Jealous, Sainthood), they haven’t done wrong by me. They’re good song writers and there’s an interesting quality to their voices.

And I’ll end it there for today. I’ve wasted enough time writing about this stuff.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Is it possible to be kind of okay with a movie even while finding the very premise and execution totally preposterous? I suppose that to some extent, it is, since I didn’t hate The Hunger Games. At the same time, it felt like pretty poor science fiction to me, full of half-developed ideas that won’t bear up to much scrutiny.

I haven’t read the book, but I would like to believe that the film’s shallow context was a result merely of attempting to compress the story’s events into a running time that wouldn’t overly strain a viewer’s attention span. But I’m not sure that forgives The Hunger Games for its cynical presumptions about a future in which a civilized society allows mere children (some of them roughly 10 years old) to fight to the death as a spectator sport for the masses.

To me, this just wasn’t sold. At all. It’s a rather radical notion that the film barely bothers to explore, choosing rather to simply take it for granted.

There are many pieces of this narrative, production design, character development, and acting that I could (and sort of want to) pick apart, but I won’t do that here. I’ll close with this thought: the best science fiction premises are the ones that–no matter how far out there–immediately appeal to some sense of the viewer’s personal logic.

The film version of The Hunger Games fails here because not for a second did I ever suspend my disbelief about the games and the society that imagined such a thing. We’re given no reason to, and as a result, I really didn’t care that much. This was a problem further aggravated by an ending that really wasn’t much of an ending at all, as much as it was a stopping place.

It sounds as though I objected to everything about the film, but that isn’t entirely true. Even at two and a half hours, I still felt reasonably entertained (at least while I watched it–somehow less so ever since). It all has a likeable sheen about it that should play to its target demographic, and on the whole, it isn’t boring. It’s just not a very good story, perhaps. I think my friend Donald may have nailed it when he called it science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction.

Mind f$%k double-header

This has been an unusual weekend, since instead of watching zero movies–which is how about 99% of my weekends go–I watched two movies. Only one of these films is based upon a short story by Philip K. Dick, but the other is in the general ballpark of Philip K. Dick mind-fuckitude.

Source Code (2011)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I’m tempted to go a little higher on the rating for this one, but I don’t tend to like rating films higher than a 4 when I’ve only seen them once. That said, I enjoyed this one quite a bit. If you’re keeping track, this is the film that wasn’t based upon a Philip K. Dick story, but it’s fairly similar in a way to the Nic Cage film Next, which was an adaptation of Dick’s short story, The Golden Man.

Granted, Source Code is a much better film–though I did enjoy Next, as well–better acted, better directed, better written, and overall more engaging. But in concept, it’s really not terribly different.

In Next, the main character can see two minutes into his own future, which allows him to play out a plethora of scenarios until finding one with the highest probability of success. As a result, the government wants to use him to help track down a bomb.

In Source Code, the main character travels back through time–I’m simplifying–in order to relive the same eight minutes over and over again until he can discover the identity of a bomber. In concept, these two plots sound pretty similar, though in execution and plot, they’re not very much alike. In a way, Source Code is also kind of like an episode of Quantum Leap, if they had ever done a Groundhog Day style episode.

Basically, Source Code is kind of a mish-mash of a lot of other high concept sci-fi, but it’s a brilliant mish-mash–particularly in how it builds a convincing romance between two people who only know each other for eight minutes at a time–that works as a taut brain-bending thriller. A couple of notes about the ending:

Even though the ending is hopeful, my wife still felt a little emotionally drained by it or something. After we finished watching, she told me she had to go watch something funny.

Also, I have a quibble about the implications of the ending for one of main characters–albeit, a character we never know much about–but I can’t discuss it at all without spoiling it, and this is a film that I think shouldn’t be spoiled. So go see it, then I’ll tell you what my problem was.

That was supposed to be a one paragraph review, by the way. I guess I didn’t do too well. Let me see how I do with this next one.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

I watched this last night, and I’m still not exactly sure how to feel about it. First of all, I should say that it wasn’t the film that I imagined in my head. I knew very little about the film outside of what I saw in the 30-second television trailers, so without spoiling too much, I’ll just reveal that I had an image of this being something a little closer to The Matrix, where The Adjustment Bureau–whatever that is–was more of a malevolent body. That isn’t really the case at all.

The film is actually something like a meditation on free will and spirituality. Within the first twenty minutes or so, we more or less know what the Adjustment Bureau is, and so the rest of the film is really about how Matt Damon’s character deals with that knowledge. This movie is not an extended chase film as the poster implies–though it does contain chase sequences–but is rather a heady story about a guy who finds out that the evolution of human history is being directed at a fine-tooth level.

It’s interesting and pretty exciting, though somehow I wish it were a little more exciting. But that’s probably not fair. I might upgrade it if I ever see it again. In any event, it’s a fine film well deserving of its good reviews.

Second Opinions from Blogs I Read

  • Television Lady – actually from a review she did on another site, but it’s a helluva lot better than the quasi-review I just wrote