About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Disappointysium -- a guest review by Tim Akers

It was so much fun doing an exchange of movie reviews with Bryce Moore last month for Pacific Rim that I thought it would be fun to do another one with my client Tim Akers for Elysium.  Tim has just started selling an e-collection Bones of Veridon which collects some of the short fiction that first attracted me to Tim's work,  and you can also enjoy two Veridon novels, Dead of Veridon and Heart of Veridon.  Also highly recommended -- Horns of Ruin, the first fully realized blend of steampunk and sword & sorcery.
The JABberwocky page for Tim Akers
Tim's Blog, main link
My review, on Tim's blog.


I want to start by saying that I kind of liked this movie, in the sense that I didn't walk out and I didn't feel like I had wasted my money and I only got blood-humming angry a couple times. But really, it was a movie of great potential that made dozens of small mistakes and one major mistake that killed it for me. I wanted to like it more, but didn't. Here's why.

Elysium felt strangely like a science fiction movie written by someone with no experience in science fiction. That's odd, because Blomkamp delivered the excellent District 9 (enjoyed it, will never see it again) and is supposed to be something of a ninja among science fiction directors. But from the very beginning there were a number of gaffes that felt like they were being made by someone who heard about this science fiction thing, and thought maybe he'd try his hand at it. Let me tell you, it's not for everyone.

Let's start with the science stuff. I'm not the kind of guy who freaks out about impractical science in my fiction, especially movies. I have a friend who hates Firefly because of the kitchen table in the space ship. It's too big, he says. You'd never waste that kind of space in a real space ship, and certainly not with a wooden table. I'm not that guy. But from the very start of the movie there were just. So. Many. Things. There's an early scene where a bunch of 'unfortunates' tries to sneak into Elysium with some stolen shuttle IDs. Three shuttles go up, two get destroyed en route by a (wait for it) shoulder launched missile system, and the third crashes into someone's lawn. Everyone is rapidly rounded up by adorable droids, except for a mother and her daughter. These two break into someone's house and, using the forged DNA-ID on the kid, use the rich people's health care to cure the girl of something debilitating.

Begin the questioning, sir.

Why are they shooting at this shuttle from earth, rather from the station itself? Wait, how are they going to land when there must be some kind of shield keeping the atmosphere in the... huh. Ok, how are they keeping the atmosphere in the... wait, they caught *everyone* in a matter of minutes? Well what's the point of trying to get up here if literally everyone gets caught? Oh, so this scene is some combination of the voter ID laws, universal health care and white privilege, I guess? Ok... but...

And that's all the stuff that came to me in one scene, and there's one thing I'm leaving out that's *huge* to the plot that, I guess, never occurred to the director. But I'll get to that later, when I'm yelling about the ending. Spoiler: fuck the ending.

This kind of bizarre, poorly thought out inconsistency in the mechanics of the world, both societal and technological, never ends. I kind of hoped it was just some convenient hand waving at the start of the movie to demonstrate the shape of the world and to foreshadow the rest of the plot, but no. No luck. I can't go through every little thing that happened because it's a lot of things, but suffice to say that there's not a scene in the movie where I wasn't questioning some bit of the technology. That bothered me mostly because I'm really, really not that guy. I'm *so* good at suspending disbelief. But for most of the movie, I just couldn't do it.

Ok, so that's the technology/science stuff. Next up, characters. Max is that type of main character who makes mistakes to move the plot forward. I don't like that kind of character. He basically keeps falling forward until everything works out (for everyone except him). Sure, the system he's stuck in is horrible, and he's just trying to make the best of a bad situation, but there simply wasn't a lot of appeal. I won't go into his girlfriend, because she was just a foil for her child. I won't talk about her child because honestly nearly every line they gave that child made me sick to the stomach.

Also, and this is important, the second you meet the kid she tells you she's sick. It's literally the first thing that she says. And you immediately flash back to that early scene I was bitching about, with the mother and the kid and they steal their way to Elysium so the kid can be cured. And now you know what's going to happen for the rest of the movie. The only person who doesn't know that this is the shape of the rest of the movie? The protagonist. And what active role does he take in this forward movement of the plot? None, at least not until the very end. The kid and her mom get up there on the same ship as our hero, but not because of anything specific that he's done. No, they're just along for the ride, and so the antagonist and his pals can constantly threaten to rape the mother. Got it.

There's other character stuff. The antagonist is just a monster. Jodie Foster's character... I don't know how best to say this. She's portrayed as one of these people who will do anything, commit any atrocity, push any boundary to accomplish her goals. She authorizes lethal force against those shuttles at the beginning. When those assets are taken away from her (without being replaced by more humane or politically acceptable systems. I really don't understand why they aren't replaced, or why there's NO APPRECIABLE DATA SECURITY anywhere in this world that apparently runs on data and algorithms) she conspires to overthrow the government by way of a system reboot (as a former helpdesk nerd, I couldn't help but say "Society not working? Have you tried turning it off and then back on?") because the programs that run Elysium apparently function in such a mechanical way that if you reboot the central computer and put your name in the data field labeled "President" you're suddenly the president. And when the homicidal rapist murderer who just got his face shot off and rebuilt does something stupid, she goes down there without any security and berates him. Because who would *dare* try to stop her? But when that same homicidal rapist murderer puts a piece of glass in her throat and throws her into a room with a nurse, and that nurse tries to bandage the wound so that they can get this woman to one of the billions of miracle-laser medbays that are just outside the door, what does this unstoppable force of nature do?

She gives up. She lets herself die. Because...?

Again, these are the most obvious things. There are more things, but I don't want to get into all of them. Suffice it to say that I doubted a lot of the character choices. But whatever.

I'm going to talk about the ending now, because up until the end I was still enjoying the movie. I know it sounds like I wasn't, but there was enough fun stuff going on that I was able to push most of this behind me. And then we got to the ending, and I was all 'Screw it!' and then there were some credits.

Here are the relevant details. Jodie Foster is going to overthrow the database. I mean government. She's going to overthrow the government with a database. To do this, she employs the assistance of Jerk #1, CEO of the company that builds all of these lovely droids that are everywhere. Jerk #1 does something in a unix shell that, when uploaded to the central computer in Elysium, will reboot the system and make Jodie Foster president.

Let's pause, because while that's ridiculous at nearly every level, I'm going to let it slide. It's the kind of big idea that science fiction sometimes depends on, and since the movie is nothing more than a clumsy metaphor for disenfranchisement, we're going to let it go. After all, in my first book there was a church that was based on strange pieces of machinery that floated down a river, and they built a god by fitting the pieces together even though they had idea which parts went where. So metaphor is a thing I enjoy. The problem, though, is one of plotting. Jodie Foster explains her plan to Jerk #1 while they're on Elysium. He then goes back to earth (with nearly no security) writes the program to carry out this mischief, encrypts it with a 'fatal' algorithm (more on that later) and then travels back to Elysium. Except, of course, he doesn't make it back. He gets hijacked by our hero, who downloads the contents of Jerk #1's brain into his own brain, to steal bank accounts or passwords or something. And instead of bank accounts, he ends up with this program to overthrow Elysium. Then Jerk #1 dies.

Let's talk about that encryption program for just a second. How is it supposed to work? I'm not going to dwell on how encryption actually works, because that's irrelevant in this world, it's just shorthand for 'protected'. So if it's supposed to protect this data with a 'fatal' algorithm, how should that work, if you really want to protect that data? Shouldn't it kill anyone who tries to download it without permission? That's how it would work if it were my head being hijacked. But no, that's not how it works. It kills the person carrying the data, but only after it's been download. Why? Because otherwise the plot wouldn't work, that's why. So Matt Damon is able to download this protected data, and then other people are able to view it, and finally he's able to run the program on Elysium (more on that later) and then tragically die. Very tidy. Almost as if someone wrote it that way.


At the end of the movie, Matt Damon runs this program on Elysium, only instead of making Jodie Foster the president (she's dead, anyway) they make all the people of earth citizens of Elysium. So now the droids can't arrest them, the medbays will heal them, and they all get matching polo shirts with the swell Elysium logo.

Actually, I want a polo shirt with the Elysium logo. I think that would be cool.

So all that happens and Matt Damon dies and the day is saved. All the world's problems have now been solved by universal health care.

Except obviously they haven't. Things are the way they are on earth because of overpopulation, environmental disasters, poor resource management and a general societal collapse. There are no jobs! Resources are scarce! Are you going to solve those things with the fifty or so medbays you just shipped down to earth? No. No you are not. You are going to cause riots, all while disabling the primary security system you've put in place (the droids, who can apparently no longer arrest people because they're citizens of Elysium) oh and now all of those people are probably going to try to fly up to the space station and live there because why not? What's to stop them?

Here's the final kicker? Remember that first scene I was bitching about, where the shuttle crash lands and the people go running out and then get apprehended and deported? Each one of those people had been given a valid Elysium ID, burned into their skin. The medbays scanned them as valid citizens. Theoretically, since it's all one big database, the droids would have too. Oh, and the droids were able to arrest those citizens, because...?

So when they reboot the system on Elysium and make everyone a citizen, those droids are not able to arrest the new citizens even though they were able to earlier. And there's no system in place for reversion of citizenship, or amending the terms of citizenship, or any kind of backdoor anything to undo this act. Because...?

Look. I actually liked the movie, kind of. But it failed on so many levels, in so many little ways. It was lazy in its metaphor, inconsistent in its application of technology, poorly paced (I didn't even get into the movie's structure. Gods, the pacing!), and the characters frustrated me. But that ending! What. The. Hell.


by Tim Akers

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Worth the watch, regardless of if you like sci-fi or not. It’s just a good movie. Nice review Tim.