Maybe it wasn’t fair to see Elysium the day after I took in Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s masterful drama The Hunt, but I did.
During the movie, something happened that hasn’t occurred since I was a teenager forced to sit through Titanic with my family: I found myself, just 45 minutes into the sci-fi shoot-em-up, glancing down at my watch to check the time. It happened again 20 minutes later.
What the hell is going on here? I thought as I watched Matt Damon, ponderous as the film’s hero, Max, phone in a role originally offered to a pair of rappers, Ninja and Eminem.
South African writer and director Neill Blomkamp, who made the excellent District 9 when he was just 29, can be forgiven for viewing America and its ills through the lens of Africa. Socioeconomic problems that plague Elysium’s Los Angeles, from healthcare to national defense, are painted in broad strokes that misinterpret both the root of those issues and also how they would likely play out 150 years down the road. It irked me, but I was willing to look past my issues if the movie was planning on saying something meaningful.
Stupid me for hoping that a $115 million blockbuster was willing to take a stand. In what has become all too typical for science fiction movies, Blomkamp’s high-minded story loses steam and the movie gives way to gory, technically impressive but ultimately mindless fight scenes. What a shame, considering that Elysium’s themes are ones that science fiction should be addressing in mainstream films. But this is Hollywood we’re talking about, and there is no problem that Damon, beefed up and shaved bald, can’t fix with a huge rail gun and a couple of hand grenades.
That is an unoriginal observation for a tired premise. The film finally ended as a 109-minute mess of half-baked ideas and promises unkept. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if not for the fact that Elysium is just one member of 2013's truly miserable crop of science fiction films.
Of the movies that have come out so far, the best is probably Star Trek: Into Darkness, but more on that later. The worst films are far easier to spot and numerous. Oblivion, one obvious offender, bears some striking similarities to the problems that plague Elysium: visually stunning with a cool premise that ends up getting derailed by poor writing and by kowtowing to its hunger for action over ideas.
After Earth, the Will and Jaden Smith vehicle written and directed by the spiraling M. Night Shyamalan, is another clunker. Rotten Tomatoes does a nice job of summing up the film’s ills by calling it a “dull, ploddingly-paced exercise in sentimental sci-fi” to go with its 11-percent rating. Again, it’s a movie that looks great but is disappointingly vacuous.
One year’s worth of stinkers does not necessarily spell doom for the genre, but it’s disheartening to see so few quality science fiction movies being made each year. Over the past four years, six movies out of dozens stand the test of time. Last year gave us Prometheus and Looper, Source Code came out in 2011, Inception and Monsters led the way in 2010 and District 9 was released in 2009.
That’s a pretty thin list, despite the high quality of the movies on it.
Prometheus was beautifully shot and worked not only as an Alien prequel but also as a creepy standalone thriller that ruminates on corporate greed and the very beginning of human life. Looper transcended the pitfalls of time travel with a smart script and a tense final 30 minutes that elevated it from a fun action movie to something far more meaningful.
Another pseudo-time-travel movie, Source Code was multi-layered and fractious and most importantly, it felt like a science fiction film masquerading as a thriller instead of the opposite. While Inception and District 9 are probably the two best-known and most widely well-respected science fiction movies to come out in recent years, it’d be a shame not to recognize the under-appreciated Monsters. The British film was made by first-time director Gareth Edwards for around $500,000 and is the perfect example of why sci-fi films don’t need the crutch of excessive CGI to effectively tell a story.
While Edwards was able to keep his budget low in part by doing the special effects shots himself, CGI is a Pandora’s Box and too many filmmakers are so tempted by the low-hanging fruit of making a movie that looks great they forget to say anything while they’re at it. Perhaps part of this temptation, as a friend recently pointed out to me, might be related to the rise of superhero movies, which are essentially two-hour advertisements for effects houses such as Industrial Light and Magic, Weta Workshop and Legacy Effects.
Unlike sci-fi movies, we don’t ask superhero movies to say anything, just that they look good while we watch evil get destroyed — usually along with half a city. And why should they expand beyond that simple goal when they’re making so much money? The Avengers, enormously fun popcorn entertainment, made $1.5 billion dollars worldwide.
So why damn a movie like Elysium if it’s more interested in showing the different ways that a human can get blown up than making a statement about the class system? Because science fiction should be held to a higher standard. There’s no sin in making a summer action movie. Just don’t give me hamburger and call it a New York strip.
What makes the current state of the genre even more frustrating is the fact that there are so many new ideas to explore. This should be a golden age for science fiction movies. Humanity is on the precipice of an exciting, scary era in science and technology, and if sci-fi’s role is to interpret and extrapolate, this embarrassment of source material should spawn countless films dealing with everything from genetics to nanotechnology to privacy issues.
So mourn for the science fiction fan, for we will probably never again see the likes of Blade Runner, arguably the genre’s apogee.
The writing has everything: action, drama, ideas about where we’ve been and where we’re going as a society, and yes, some science to ponder. But Ridley Scott’s opus of expert practical effects and delicious cinematography came out in a different era, one when studios still respected their audiences’ ability to think for themselves.
Perhaps one of the reasons that movies, sci-fi films in particular, are getting stupider is that audiences aren’t doing anything to earn respect. After Inception’s release, director Chris Nolan was inundated with people asking him whether or not Cobb’s top kept spinning at the end — as if that was even the point.
Now we’re hit over the head with directors and writers wielding lowest-common-denominator themes like baseball bats. DON’T YOU GET IT? UNLIMITED GOVERNMENT POWER IS BAD! VERY BAD! Even a truly entertaining and well-made flick like Into Darkness is guilty of this distrust in audience intelligence. There are no shades of gray, only the tired binary of good vs. evil.
If you were ever the slightest bit confused as to who is good and who is evil, the movie makes sure to have mean old Admiral Marcus immediately start shooting at our heroes. It’s unfortunate, because doing so robs the crew of the Enterprise and the audience the ability to make any kind of judgment about whether or not Marcus might be right in his desire to militarize Starfleet. A firefight is far more exciting than one of The Next Generation’s infamous observation lounge meetings, but it hardly makes for the most compelling science fiction.
I’m not sure where all this leaves the genre. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon who can’t appreciate a good time, or a philistine who simply refuses to engage a summer blockbuster on its own terms.
However, it’s not just the blockbusters that seem to have issues. I’m haunted by a friend’s recollection of Europa Report, a small-budget film I was extremely excited to see. He seemed so disappointed by it that I allowed him to describe the plot to me, which boils down to this: everyone dies, the CG monster is discovered, the corporate suits and scientists are happy they discovered alien life. Cut to credits.
Wait, what? What’s the journey worth if the destination is so trite? But that’s the place science fiction has arrived at. Even Prometheus couldn’t help itself and had to show the xenomorph burst out of the Engineer’s chest cavity, because why leave any ambiguity when you can just whip up a green-screen shot? At this point I would be far more shocked if a movie just ended on a quiet, thoughtful note.
Europa Report was supposed to put the “science” back into sci-fi, but I’m just as eager for quality fiction as well. I’m know I’m asking for too much for literary science fiction from every film. A good start would simply be less gunplay, fewer CG monsters and more ambiguous morality. Then again, it’s damn scary out there sometimes and maybe the dearth of serious science fiction in film truly is the genre’s reaction to the modern world.
In that case, it’s probably a good thing Disney’s Star Wars: Episode VII comes out in 2015.