Movie Review: “The Martian” (Ridley Scott, USA 2015)

Ask most people to name their favorite science fiction films, and many of the answers you’ll get aren’t really science fiction. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA/Hong Kong/UK 1982) is film noir set in the future. Alien (Ridley Scott, USA/UK 1979) is a horror film set in space. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013) is a chase film set in space. Even Star Wars (George Lucas, USA 1977) is really a traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy film set in space. Science fiction is one of the most misunderstood phrases in all of film. Science fiction has to be about real or imagined technology, and the problems and results of that technology have to be central to the film.

The Martian, on the other hand, is a real science fiction film. What is it about? The difficulties of getting a man back home after he is left on mars following a manned mission that is cut short. It doesn’t have a deeper point to make (to its detriment) and it doesn’t use Mars as a backdrop to make a film that has little to do with its setting. It really is two and a half hours of watching to see how he survives long enough for NASA to get him back to earth. Continue reading

Movie Review: “Elysium” (Neill Blomkamp, USA 2013)

An interesting shift has occurred in the way that villains are drawn in American films. Once upon a time, it was true that “henchmen” sorts–the common enemies who worked for the more powerful main villain–were all, to use old Dungeons and Dragons nomenclature and prove that I am the world’s biggest nerd, either neutral evil or chaotic evil characters. They were all angry, vicious, violent sorts who were either unquestioningly following a superior’s orders or just out to satiate their own bloodlust. The main villains, meanwhile, were typically lawful evil. They were the enemies who were attempting to enforce a moral code, albeit a corrupt one, on others. They were the most dangerous, because they didn’t sow the seeds of their own destruction and were capable of planning and deliberation.

However, we are now often seeing the lawful evil villains end up overtaken by chaotic evil villains. Perhaps the clearest example in recent history is the Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2009). In the film’s world, the mafia has been the primary villain in Gotham City, until the Joker arrives and essentially destroys them. The mafia, like most criminal organizations, is a carefully organized group that operates on specific rules and a strong code of conduct for its members. The mafia is a perfect example of lawful evil. Meanwhile, as Alfred once says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” a perfect description of the Joker and/or of chaotic evil alignment. The Joker is more dangerous because of the very unpredictability and desire for destruction without any personal gain that traditionally provided the opening for similar villains’ destruction in the past. But it’s not just the Joker–the title Winter Soldier in the last Captain America commercial is not the calculating lawful evil villain but rather a mercenary, the most popular type of villain is now a horde of mindless zombies, and Scott Pilgrim fought seven evil exes who didn’t execute some sort of long-range plan in order to get Ramona Flowers.

Elysium fits nicely into that paradigm shift–it presents us with a perfect example of a lawful evil villain in Secretary Delacourt and a chaotic evil villain in Kruger. Delacourt sets the long range plan and uses Kruger as a means to her ends, knowing full well that he is only helping in order to satisfy his violent instincts. And in the end, he turns on her like a rabid dog and becomes the most dangerous villain for Max.

However, the reason I had so long to think about that paradigm shift as I was watching this film is that it was so predictable and poor that I had no reason to keep paying full attention to it. It telegraphed its every cliche move well in advance, its characters were cardboard cutouts, and it ultimately had nothing to say.

It says something that perhaps the most interesting part of this film was actually the bizarre car crash that was Jodie Foster. Her line readings were full of odd pauses and changes in voice. Her accent careened through the world from American to French to English to something unrecognizable like a drunken motorcycle rider. She spoke through clenched teeth and inappropriate smiles through perhaps 90% of the film. She had no recognizable emotions, and yet somehow managed to seem inappropriate for the tone of every scene. It was a part that should have been easy to play–even Zooey Deschanel has survived playing an emotionless ice queen before–and yet an actor as decorated as Foster managed to mangle it to an incredible degree. And yet, it all seems so calculated that it seems that she simply must have been attempting something that I (and other critics–I am not the only one who has hated her performance here) am missing. It was messy and odd in a way that few performances in history are.

Otherwise, the acting throughout the film didn’t stand out. Matt Damon is a talented actor who seems to have decided that he simply does not want to take parts that require any acting, and that trend continued here–he played Max well enough but really didn’t have anything to do. Alice Braga (of CIdade de Deus [Fernando Mereilles, Brazil/France 2002] fame!) just had to look pretty and forgiving, and she did that simple job. Sharlto Copley, however, did stand out in a bad way–his over the top scenery chewing was annoying but appropriate enough for his insane character, but his slurred dialogue was a chore of the highest order to understand–I really am not sure I understood a word he said.

Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch did nothing to distinguish this film from the animated dreck that mostly populates the action and science fiction world in which it lives. The CGI was high quality, but it was still far, far more present than it should have been, and the film was relying on that CGI for too much of its look. They did not show any desire at all to use lighting, angles, or color to enhance the motion of a moment or help push a point but instead just left the entire film with a made-for-television color palette.

One thing that did work pretty well in this film is the score. Ryan Amon was rather conventional–the score at many points sounded very, very similar to Hans Zimmer’s work–but he also stayed true to what was occurring on screen throughout and never lost his way. It wasn’t a particularly stirring score, but it was one that befit a better genre study than this one.

All told, Elysium is terrible. It’s so unoriginal and so conventional that I was practically bored to tears and the only real interest was provided by just how shockingly bad/strange one of the lead performances was. It’s a film that’s to be missed, unless you just want to attack Jodie Foster.