Guest Post: Elysium, Her & The Nature of Science Fiction

Special thanks to Conor Holt for this post. Stay tuned for my full review of Spike Jonze’s her coming this weekend!


Well, this is awkward. Science Fiction is my favorite film genre, but in 2013 one of my favorite films of the year and my least favorite film of the year…are both Science-Fiction. How could this happen?

Well, let’s go back to the Science Fiction Genre. The Science-Fiction genre is one of the more difficult genres to define, since it lacks the same visual iconography & story structure of more concrete genres, like the Western or the Gangster film (if I can remember my Science-Fiction film genre class from college correctly). The Western features cowboys, saloons, shootouts – constant, common visual cues that you’re watching a Western. A Sci-Fi film, however, could feature a time machine, or take place on a space ship, or feature a robot – any and all visuals are possible. A Gangster film almost always features the tragic rise and fall of a criminal in the urban jungle, while a Sci-Fi film could be about changing the past, or fighting aliens, or about a robot learning to be human. Science-Fiction is defined by its very diversity – any time period, any technology, any idea is possible. The only requirement is that the story address and think about that possibility.  The “what if?” of the story isn’t just a jumping off point, but the actual crux of the story.

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So, back to 2013, and two very different films. Just a few weeks ago, I saw Spike Jonze’s her, and loved it. Absolutely loved it. A tender, beautiful love story between a man and his Artificially Intelligent computer program, and the complications that arise from that. But this Summer, I saw Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium …and there’s really nothing good I can say about it. Matt Damon does his best, but even he can’t save a severely underwritten, poorly-told, simplistic, heavy-handed action film with some robots and space ships thrown in.

Both of these films are technically Science Fiction, yet I had vastly different reactions to them. Why? Well, of course, no one is going to like every film in a single genre. Hell, not every film in a genre is even going to be good – there are probably thousands of terrible direct-to-DVD sci-fi films cluttering Redboxes across the country right now. But I think an important distinction can be made between her and Elysium that address the nature of science-fiction.  “her” is about how a man could love an AI, how an AI could love a human, and the challenges they face as a couple that cannot touch each other (as well as looking at an overall world immersed in virtual activity and communication). Elysium features a floating space station for the rich, brain chips, and fancy new weapons, but it’s about a man trying to break in to a restricted area to get healed by a magical healing machine (the film never tries to explain how it works). While her makes the technology and the “science-fiction” part of the story, Elysium uses the science-fiction setting and props to dress up an action film, and a pretty silly action film at that.

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Elysium Space Station

Maybe that’s it – the fact that Elysium pretends that it’s a Science-Fiction film, but is really an action film in Sci-Fi clothing is why I hated it so much, that and the fact that it’s a poorly written, hammy over-the-top failure (such a disappointment after the terrific District 9). Good Science-Fiction takes interesting questions about technology, human nature, outer space, and seeks to explore possible answers. They can be action-packed (The Terminator) or comedic (Wall-E) or head spinning (Primer), but they have to explore possibilities in a way only Science Fiction can.

Perhaps the solution to the broadness of the Science Fiction genre is being a little bit more selective about what gets to be called “Science Fiction”. The Action-Adventure genre can have Elysium – we don’t want it. In fact, they can have Gravity too. Gravity is a tremendous film, and one of the best of the year, but nothing about it is scientifically fictitious – everything in it is real, and it takes place today. It’s not Science Fiction – it’s a survival story on a space station.

Science Fiction is a special thing – a creative space for exploring new ideas, possible technologies, unpredicted futures. If other genres want to play around in this sandbox and borrow bits and pieces, that’s fine – but the distinction of “Science Fiction” should be held only by those who truly care about and are defined by their exploration of scientific possibility.

Thoughts about the Sci-fi genre and/or the films mentioned? We’d love to hear what you think!


Conor Holt is the writer, director, and producer of multiple short films. His most recent film, A Better Life, a science-fiction drama about marriage & control, which he directed & co-wrote, played at the 2013 Fargo Film Festival and the Twin Cities Film Fest, and recently won Best Editing & Visual Effects at the St. Cloud Film Festival. He is a graduate of the Minnesota State University Moorhead Film Studies program, and currently lives in Los Angeles, working odd jobs in the film industry and volunteering at film festivals.

For more information on A Better Life, check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/ABetterLifeShortFilm. Follow Conor on Twitter.

Question of the Week: What’s your favorite sophomore directorial films?

Since I just posted a review of Ralph Fiennes’ second film that he directed, The Invisible Woman, I thought I’d turn the focus on other sophomore directorial efforts over the years.

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Interestingly, as I was working on this post, I came across this article that talks about the slump of directorial sophomore efforts in 2013. The article argues that a lot of the second films released this year didn’t live up to the director’s debut. The first thing that came to mind for me was Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, which I thought was just ok, but a downgrade from the excellent District 9. On that list, the writer listed some less-than-stellar second films, but one thing that surely is even better than his first (The Company Men, which I actually like) is John Well’s August, Osage County. Another sophomore film that’s released this year is Oblivion, now I think the sci-fi actioner slightly better than Joseph Kosinski’s sleek–but–disappointing debut TRON: Legacy.

Now, over the years, there have been a ton of great sophomore films that not only beat the director’s first film, but has become a classic in its respective genres. Many of the films pictured above fit that category, some have become my personal favorites. It astounds me what those filmmakers have achieved with their second film, as the level of proficiency makes it seem as though these directors have been making movies for years! Some of these films also launched the filmmakers’ career, proving that they’re a force to be reckoned with. In fact, the likes of Tarantino, Fincher, Cameron, Nolan, etc. have now become cinematic icons in their own right. Now, I don’t know much about sophomore efforts from classic directors, so perhaps you can enlighten me of some of those I should check out?


So folks, I’d love to know which sophomore directorial films are YOUR favorites? Surely you have more than one, so feel free to make a list if you’re so inclined.

Weekend Roundup … Dragon Knight review + Musings on Matt Damon

Happy Monday everyone!

Did you catch anything this weekend? Two R-rated films ended up winning the box office this weekend. ELYSIUM beat We’re The Millers by a slim margin with a little over $30. With a budget of $100 mil (3 times the amount of District 9 which ended up grossing $115 mil), we’ll see if having A-list cast and Hollywood studio back-up actually pays off for Neill Blomkamp. As I’ve surmised in my review, Elysium certainly doesn’t top D-9 for me, which is a far more compelling film IMO.

I opted for home cinema this weekend. A while ago, Revolver Entertainment sent me the DVD screener of Dragon Knight (Red Knight or Rencontre avec le dragon). Here’s the description at the back of the box:

DragonKnightDVD11th Century AD. In a world that burns with the heat of battle, a world torn apart by Crusades, one knight traverses the desolate wastes laid bare by bloody conflict… Prepare yourself for a descent into a brutal hell, where armies clash and blood flows like rivers, and where a sharp blade is the only means of defense against an army of evil.

Now, the film turns out to be nothing like the description or DVD cover that promises relentless battle scenes. Instead of a swords ‘n sandal epic, it’s actually more of a drama with little sword-fighting involved. Aside from the beautiful European setting of lush mountains and countryside, the production values is pretty sub-par. It’s also a rather odd film, with supernatural elements thrown in, that takes a long time to grab my interest. But I’m willing to overlook all that if it weren’t for the horrible dubbing! Most of the dubbed voices didn’t even match the actors, which makes it utterly distracting for me to concentrate on what’s happening on screen. I wish there were an option to have English subtitles instead, a MUST for every foreign film IMO.

I almost turned it off several times but I stuck it out because I was curious about this young boy named Felix who worships this supposedly legendary Red Knight, Guillaume de Montauban. Guillaume himself isn’t a sympathetic nor gripping character, in fact he kinds of irritates me. I think the story actually has potential, there’s even a love story that I totally didn’t expect. Most of the actors are French, the only one I’ve heard of is Daniel Auteuil who’ve won BAFTA and César awards.

I’d say it’s worth a rental if you don’t mind the dubbing. The film is available on Amazon.com.


Now, after having seen ELYSIUM, I thought I’d turn the spotlight a bit on…

Matt Damon

Since his acting debut back in 1988 in Mystic Pizza (which I totally forgot he was in!), the actor has done about 60 films, and counting on IMDb, about 20 of those are leading roles. I wasn’t too fond of him initially, but after the Bourne movies, I started to really like him, though he’s still not the kind of actor that’d necessarily put my butt on the seat. I usually go see his film because of other factors, so not exactly because his name’s on the marquee. Still, I think he’s a pretty good actor who isn’t afraid to mix things up, i.e. working on a role as Liberace’s lover in Behind the Candelabra in the same year as Elysium!

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Damon… in Mystic Pizza and Elysium

It’s clear that the 42-year-old actor gets better with age, no? He even looks better bald than with that dorky mop of 80s hair! He’s certainly one of Hollywood’s elite now, along with his compadres George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt. Now, I don’t usually go for movie stars, in fact, the more famous an actor gets, usually the less I like them for some reason. I’d also be the one to tell you I don’t subscribe to Damon’s über Liberal views, but at least he doesn’t annoy me the way say, Sean Penn does. As an actor he has that everyman quality, plus I respect that he doesn’t seem to have qualms about poking fun at himself! He and Jimmy Kimmel are apparently such good friends that Damon doesn’t seem to mind humiliating himself on his show. This Bourne spoof clip is one of my favorites with Kimmel’s hilarious sidekick Guillermo!


That’s probably one of Damon’s best acting role, ahah. So far, I’ve only seen about a dozen or so of his films, and if I were to list my top five favorite roles it’d probably go like this:

  1. Jason Bourne (The Bourne Trilogy)
  2. Good Will Hunting
  3. Contagion
  4. Invictus
  5. The Talented Mr. Ripley

I was initially anticipating his upcoming film that Clooney directed, The Monuments Men, but the first trailer was rather meh IMO. I’d probably still see it for Cate Blanchett though.

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So folks, what did you see this weekend? And what’s YOUR favorite Matt Damon role(s)?

FlixChatter Review: ELYSIUM

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As a big fan of District 9, I had been looking forward to this for some time. I erroneously thought this was the follow-up to Neill Blomkamp‘s sci-fi thriller set in South Africa when I did this post but by the time the trailer came out, obviously this is an original story that doesn’t involve aliens from another planet.

This sci-fi fantasy takes place in 2154, where the gap between haves and the have-nots have reached astronomical proportion. 99% of humanity’s population are still slumming in a ‘diseased, polluted and vastly overpopulated’ earth, whilst the 1% of the elite and wealthy folks live in the lush and green ELYSIUM. It’s the ultimate ‘gated community’ aboard a lavish space-station where every mansion is complete with robotic servants and magical medical beds that can heal ANY ailments, yes including cancer and a full facial reconstruction surgery in a matter of seconds! Ok, so there’s no superhero in this movie but heck, who needs one when you’ve got a SUPER healing mechanism at your beck and call. Unfortunately, the machine only works if you’re a citizen, and Elysium’s border patrol is equipped with rockets ready to fire at illegal aircrafts entering its airspace.

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Elysium VS Earth – It’s definitely better up there!

Matt Damon plays a down-on-his-luck Max, a parolee who’s dreamed of leaving in Elysium ever since he was a little boy living in an orphanage. There’s one comedic moment in the entire movie where Max had to see a mechanized parole officer, as the rest of the law officers and other service workers are in the form of robots. Things just gets bad to worse when Max gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory. With only 5 days to live, he’s desperate to get to Elysium. In order to get up there, Max has to somehow download crucial information from an Elysium citizen’s brain straight to his. That’s what those exoskeleton stuff you see on the film posters are for. The surgery scene is brutal, I have to shut my eyes as metals are drilled and screwed into Max’s body as if he’s a car in auto shop. When he finally comes out of it, Max practically looks like a robot with powered metals attached all over his body and a computer implanted into the back of his head.

I enjoyed watching all the fantastical futuristic elements, and Blomkamp surely isn’t lacking imagination and ambition. What this film also lacks is subtlety, just like D-9 was an allegory for apartheid, Elysium’s political and sociological themes on class warfare, healthcare and immigration are sure to divide audiences. He cites that growing up in South Africa is the main inspiration of the class division theme in this film, and despite the seemingly obvious commentary about border security and universal healthcare, he said that there’s no political agenda here. Even the über Liberal and politically vocal star Matt Damon downplays the political overtone. I think how much those stuff bother you depending on your political views and interest. For me, this is just another big Summer thrill ride that gives us a bit more food-for-thought amidst some bombastic (literally) action sequences.

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Speaking of Damon, I think he acquits himself well here though I didn’t really have as big of a emotional connection as I did with D-9’s character Wikus, who I think is a far more tragic character than Max. I also think that though Max is played out like an action hero (Bourne meets Terminator?) instead of a truly desperate and ruthless character hellbent on saving his own life at any cost. I read that Blomkamp originally wanted Eminem in the role, now I’ve never seen him act before but I wonder if he’d actually do a more convincing job. Jodie Foster as Elysium defense secretary Delacourt is distractingly awful here with her robotic acting style and absurd accent. Yes I know that Blomkamp intended the accent of Elysium residents to be an amalgam of different languages but it just makes me laugh! I wonder if having those residents speak multiple languages (like in the underrated sci-fi drama Code 46) instead of with a myriad of accents might’ve been more realistic.

It’s also too bad that Sharlto Copley is reduced to this sadistic special ops agent whose killing method of choice is blowing people up into pieces. His character can’t be more dissimilar than his debut in District 9, which proves he’s a capable actor, but his villainy role is written like a caricature.  I like the International cast here, Brazilians Wagner Moura and Alice Braga, Mexican Diego Luna, Pakistani-descent Faran Tahir, as well as veteran character actor William Fichtner made up the supporting cast.

In terms of special effects and production quality, clearly this film delivers, thanks to a much bigger budget of $100 mil. But having more money and A-list cast don’t always translate to a better film, in fact, D-9 with its uniquely organic style is still more compelling in terms of my the emotional connection I have with the protagonist. Plus, Elysium is decidedly more ‘Hollywood’ in that it’s more predictable and comes with a feel-good and simplistic ending. Yeah as if it were THAT easy to solve such an extreme class warfare. Seems that Blomkamp ends up being preoccupied packing the third half with relentless fight scenes and stuff blowing up that the finale feels rather out of sync with all the sense of realism and intriguing ideas that preceded it. At a relatively brisk 109 minutes, there’s barely room for character development either, the villains are just evil for evil’s sake with no real motivation.

Final Thoughts: Now, even though I think Elysium is a bit of a downgrade from D-9, there are still many things to appreciate. As I mentioned before, the futuristic space stuff are fun to watch and the story also gives us something to ponder even if we don’t necessarily subscribe to the idealism being presented on screen. It could’ve been a more in depth and compelling film though, alas the the typical Hollywood happy ending keeps this from being a notch above a cool Summer sci-fi escapism.

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


UPVOTE please


What are your thoughts on this movie? Did you like this more or less than I did?

Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi thriller ELYSIUM’s Poster & Trailer Spotlight

Boy oh boy! I’ve been looking forward to this film for quite some time now. In case you didn’t know already, I’m a huge fan of District 9 which was a surprise to me as I didn’t even know much about it when I saw it on the big screen. Well, it’s been over three years since I saw that film and finally, South African director Neill Blomkamp and actor Sharlto Copley are re-teaming for another sci-fi thriller.

I was kind of hoping that Copley would have the leading role this time around, but I understand that with a much-bigger budget, they’d need a movie star. So we’ve got Matt Damon in the lead instead. Check out the awesome poster of him with all that robotic stuff attached all over his body!

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I originally thought this was a follow-up to District 9, as I’ve outlined on my Upcoming Flix Spotlight post a year ago. But now it’s clear that this film has a new storyline that’s not related to D-9 universe, though it still carries a similar social issue theme. Now, this film was first scheduled for release in March before being pushed back to August. I don’t think it’s a sign of trouble though, I think that’d give Blomkamp to release some viral marketing for it like he did for D-9 which was a smart move.

Now finally, a trailer!!


WHOAH!! I’m even more intrigued now after seeing this. I really like the look of this and the apocalyptic story looks very promising and thought provoking, with all the visual and thematic elements every sci-fi lovers would love. Blomkamp is working again with Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital so it’s to be expected that the special effect is going to rock! Even right off the bat, I like the stark contrast between the perfect world of the Elysium space station and the left-behind slum that is the Earth. I read that Blomkamp shot the Earth footage in Mexico City, and everything on Elysium in Vancouver.

Per IGN, like Blomkamp’s previous film, this one has a similarly impoverished and segregated society, but this time along economic lines rather than species. Where District 9 was a sci-fi allegory for racism, Elysium is about economic disparity.

In the year 2159, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Rhodes, a hard line government official, will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn’t stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.

Here are four more details I learned from this HitFix article, which summarized the SONY press preview event in L.A. with Blomkamp, Copley and producer Simon Kinberg:

  • Damon’s character is Max, an ex-con who’s working a factory job on Earth. A radiation leak prompted him to be cast off by the authoritarian government. He knows the only way to get rid of the toxic radiation is in Elysium, and he has to find a way to get there.
  • The robotic stuff on his body, and that data port on his head is the result of self-modification Max did as a mechanism to hijack security information from an Elysium citizen.
  • Sharlto Copley plays the bad guy, Kruger. He is an Elysium operative who lives on Earth, waiting to be activated. When an attack on an Elysium citizen occurs, he gets the signal.
    CopleyFoster_Elysium
  • Jodie Foster plays a Senator, as Foster herself described in Movieline as “… the person who controls who gets to come in [to Elysium] and who doesn’t. She’s methodical, her antagonism has a point.” She also mentions that Elysium is an international place, as its residents comes from all over the earth.
  • Blomkamp said that 2/3 of the film would take place on earth and 1/3 in Elysium to emphasize further that the space station is truly a fantastical place every human being aspire to live in.

Elysium is out in theaters on August 9, 2013. I can hardly wait!


On a related note, two years ago, I wrote this post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama pitch where some humans live in another planet whilst the remaining earth population struggle to survive.
Check it out and let me know what you think 😀


Are you as stoked as I am about this one? What do you think of the trailer?