Sci-Fi for the Win

Science fiction has never been easy to pull off in movies.  In some ways it is harder than fantasy.  While often wondrous to the point of the absurd, its roots are usually firmly grounded in the physics and reality we know and love(?).  I make a distinction between the venerable histories which include The Day the Earth Stood Still (NOT the Keannu Reeves version), 2001, and Contact rather than the more operatic/scifi-fantasies like Flash Gordon, Ice Pirates and even Star Wars – still fun, but often blurring the line between fantasy and true science fiction.

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A fantasy movie like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter can beguile with magic and creatures that require no further explanation other than they exist.  The audience/readers make that pact from the beginning. “We are suspending all disbelief!  Just be somewhat logically consistent and throw in a few dragons and we will be there to enjoy it with you!”  … and I’ve spent many a happy hour doing just that.

Over the years, I’ve consumed much of the fantasy that has been written for print and screen.  There are a few fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy.  By default, fantasy and scifi-fantasy is more about pure dreaming without constraints AND is meant to be consumed rather than questioned.  Even my current favorite, Game of Thrones, doesn’t really ask us/the reader any meaningful questions about how what happens in Westeros has any implications/consequences to us mortals here on Earth.

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Good science fiction is always more relevant because it says “if you take where we (humanity) are now and then…. “  the edge of the universe and beyond is the limit.   The readers immediately have a stake, whether they want to or not, in the outcome of the story because… that story is THEIR future!

Science fiction is also held to an (admittedly arguable) higher standard of disbelief because things have to look and feel like they will be a reality in a few (or few hundred/thousand) years.  An increasingly tech and (hopefully) science savvy audience contributes to this evolution.   Various actuators need to move correctly and give off a convincing (if somewhat dramatized) hiss or crank.  Aliens and celestial phenomena need to at least be plausible if not probable.  It’s science with a wink and a nudge.

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What I’ve personally enjoyed most about science fiction are the questions that are able to be asked and explored.  For instance;

  • The fundamental nature and evolution of humanity in Theodore Sturgeon’s, More than Human (anything written by him is worth it btw).
  • The ENDPOINT of the universe itself in Stephen Baxter’s The Ring.
  • What would society look like if no one could deceive each other in James Halperin’s The Truth Machine?
  • What are the fundamental purposes and relationships between men/machines/the universe in the Hyperion Cantos?
  • What would you do in a society with technology that, near as to make no difference, was boundless in The Culture books by Ian M. Banks.
  • Dune
  • Blade of Tyshalle
  •  I could go on and on.

In movies, some examples of this type of exploration are Bladerunner, Dune and even the Matrix.

In recent television, Star Trek:TNG (barring some questionable “we ran out of ideas” holo-deck episodes) and Battlestar Galactica (excising the ridiculous angel ending of course) and maybe even Firefly (I said it) are the apex of modern speculative science fiction on screen.  All tackled modern day culture and political issues head-on and with aplomb (not with a plum, which is messier)– often leaving the viewer simultaneously more knowledgeable, but still questioning.

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The best sci-fi asks questions about being human in the present day and throws it into a technologically enabled future social grinder to see if anything interesting comes out.

I enjoy fantasy fiction.

I learn about myself and humanity from science fiction.

Which, in the longest preamble possible, brings me to Neil Blomkamp.  This man is the current avatar of gritty, realistic SF design.  I have been a fan of his work for quite a few years now.  In his Tetra Vaal movie short about a company marketing a security robot for conflict zones, I had a flash back to the sensation of awe and wonder experienced when witnessing the first brontosaurus in Jurassic Park.  When a bullet shattered a wall that the CG robot was taking cover behind, and the machine flinched backwards and responded in an almost frighteningly realistic and human way, I think I had a geekasm.  He followed this up with another brilliantly seductive short about an android on the run in Yellow.  Finally, talks of him helming a live-action movie version of Halo culminated in some impressive, combat shorts but support for it ultimately fell apart.

However, a pattern was emerging.  This guy knows how to merge the real/unreal.  Almost as an exact counter-point/foil to the CG laden MESS that were the Star Wars prequels, here was a leader who intentionally took lo-fi, often hand carried, camera footage and married it with CG that could be mistaken for absolutely real.   The only question was whether he had the writing/director chops for a full length movie.

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Thankfully, we received District 9.  The film is not without its flaws, but overall it is simply a genius film and a pleasure to watch.  It took a carbon copy of apartheid and replaced black people for “prawns” (aliens).  What could have been an inspirational but forgettable movie rehashing the well trodden issues between the oppressor and oppressee, becomes those things AND an exercise in human nature and character development. Blomkamp’s main character is a white middle-aged idiot who is just smart enough to marry his boss’ daughter but too dumb to do more than what he is told, or to question his life or his bigoted beliefs.  His only saving grace is that he is not smart enough to be devious and is endearingly genuine and human, despite his beliefs.  By the end of the movie, and because we got to witness real horror, racism and oppression through the eyes of the opressor, District 9 will remain as one of my favorite sci-fi movies.

This is not up until now mentioning Blomkamp’s REAL talent which is to have designed and filmed a world that feels and looks real – for around $30M.  $30M! In an age when studios toss around $150M like it’s the new cost of entry for special effects movies, this number is simply mind-boggling.  This guy could make 6 great movies for every crappy “blockbuster”, I told myself.

So it is with a heavy heart that I come to watch and review Elysium.   I won’t spend much time on it.  To be honest there isn’t much to it.

DO go see it for the impeccable future world design and production execution.

DON’T go see it for almost anything else.

It is hard not to see a similar theme with Elysium that Blomkamp had in District 9.  What are the issues faced when there are a privelaged minority exploiting the powerless masses? But, where District 9 took a risky, creative move and explored these issues with a privileged character growing and exploring, Elysium isn’t nearly that courageous.  Matt Damon’s character, I have no idea what his name is, is a recovering con-artist/future-car thief.  This serves no other purpose than to dislike and hate him as far as I can tell.  He is one of the masses on Earth, being continuously exploited by the affluent overlords in the floating wagon-wheel called Elysium, in space.  His lower plebian status inherently means we are supposed to like him – but we never do.  His humanity, skill in technology and planning is never on display but is talked about occasionally through pointless side-characters to make us believe he is a real person  – don’t believe them.

Bad decision after ridiculously bad decision somehow results in a shallow “happy ending” which makes absolutely no sense.  Matt Damon, no doubt cast because of his ability to play the “every man” appears to have phoned it in.  I can’t remember one thing that was interesting or worthwhile about his character.  So much was made in the media of how Damon got ripped for this role, but I can’t see a single plot reason why this was even necessary. The supporting cast is little better with Jodi Foster getting a special mention putting in a ridiculous accent and pretentious walk worthy of the shiniest Razzie this year.

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 Why?

But it’s pretty – real pretty.  The design of everything from future Bugatti space-cars, robot security, to human implants implies some of the best/worst that our technology driven society will offer.

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But alas, what could have been an ACTUALLY interesting tale about inequality, privilege and opportunity, turns into a boring “hero’s journey” where the “hero” is a bumbling moron, but not written as one, and his journey is linear with: no surprises, transparent villains in his way, and an ending that rings as soulless and uplifting as an Anthony Weiner apology tour.  Its worst crime though is that it never asks any new or interesting questions of the viewer.  It doesn’t demand him/her to examine their own ideas – in this way it is more fantasy than science fiction. It just asks you to sit back and consume – like Transformers.

In the end, it’s less the Elysian Fields and more like the Plains of Armageddon (and not in a good way).

Neil, I forgive you, but you’re better than this.  Go back to making science fiction.