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.

ElysiumVSHer

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.

ElysiumSpaceStation
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.

DirectorialSophomoreEfforts

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.

The Flix List and a Poll! Vote for your five favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies

Top5AhnuldMovies

The Austrian former body-builder has got 50 titles under his belt…  though the only one stretching his acting skills is probably playing the Governator of California, ahah. But after a decade since he played his iconic role that catapulted him to stardom, Schwarzenegger has reportedly confirmed he’ll be back for the next Terminator movie. I thought his comeback in The Last Stand was fun to watch, harkening back to his action hero roles of the 80s and 90s. Unfortunately it tanks at the box office, earning a paltry $7 mil so far. Don’t cry for him though, I don’t think Ahnuld’s going to let his career go down without a fight 😀

So just for the fun of it, I partnered with my pal Ted S. to list our top five fave of Arnie’s movies all the way back to the early 80s.

Please vote at the end of the post for YOUR top five favorites!

Ted’s Picks

After several years of serving the public as the governor of CA, Arnold’s back on the big screen and as a fan of his work, I’m pretty excited to see him kicking ass on the big screen again. I’ve seen every single one of his films, even the awful Hercules in NY, that’s the film I wish I hadn’t seen, seriously don’t ever see it.

Anyway, here are my favorite films he starred in:

5. Conan the Barbarian

Arnold_ConanBarbarianJohn Milius’ 1982 film is kind of underrated when it comes to Arnold’s filmography. It has everything you want in this kind of genre, magic, swords play and lots of blood. Also, Basil Poledouris’ score was pretty great.

4. True Lies

Cameron and Arnold teamed up for the third time in this loosely remake of a 1991 French film, La Totale! As with most films directed by Cameron, it was the most expensive ever produced around that time, the budget was around $120mil. The film wasn’t as big hit as the studio had hoped but it was a fun action/adventure summer tent pole. Plus Arnold played a super spy and blew a lot of sh*t up; you can’t go wrong with that.

3. Predator

Arnold_PredatorThis was Arnold’s first major big box office hit and it’s one hell of a film. Under the direction of John McTiernan (Die Hard 1 & 3), this modern day telling of The Most Dangerous Game was filled with big shootouts and explosions. Keep an eye out for young writer/director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon series, Iron Man 3), he played one of the soldiers on Arnold’s team and he told a pretty funny and dirty joke in the movie.

2. Total Recall (1990)

Originally David Cronenberg was going to direct this film and Patrick Swayze was in talks to play the lead role. But when the producer couldn’t raise enough money, Arnold decided to buy the script and brought Paul Verhoeven on board to direct it. In an interview Verhoeven said he decided to ditch the more serious tone of the script because he knows that Arnold doesn’t have much range when it comes to acting, so he decided to make the film a little campy yet fun. Filled with shootouts, blood and a three breasts mutant hooker, the film was one of the biggest hits in the summer of 1990.

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Arnold_T2posterJames Cameron’s epic sequel to his first sci-fi hit, The Terminator, is one of my favorite films ever! I’ve seen it countless times and bought many editions on home video, from VHS, DVD and Blu-ray. The film was filled with great special effects, long and spectacular car chases and shoot outs; it’s truly a great summer event film.


Honorable mentions:

  • The Terminator: This one didn’t make my top 5 because well, Arnold’s the villain and he’s hardly in the movie. Originally Cameron wanted OJ Simpson to play The Terminator and Arnold was going to play the hero Kyle Reese, but upon reading the script, Arnold wanted The Terminator part. In a documentary about this film, there’s a funny story of how both Cameron and Arnold agreed that he should be The Terminator, give it a watch if you some free time.
  •  Red Heat: Walter Hill’s version of buddy cop action of the 80s, Arnold played a hard-nosed Russian cop who came to Chicago and had to team up with Chicago detective, James Belushi, to track down a Russian drug dealer who killed his partner. I thought Belushi was pretty funny as the not so friendly side kick and of course the film contained some good shootouts and a crazy bus chase on the streets of Chicago.
  •  Eraser: Warner Bros. thought they could start another famous one liner by having Arnold utter the words “You’ve been erased”, fortunately it never took off because when the trailer of the movie came out and audiences heard Arnold said that line, they bursts out laughing. So Warner decided not to use it as part of the promotion for the film. Besides that bad one liner, the film was actually a lot of fun. Filled with big stunts and shootouts, it’s the usual Arnold’s summer flick. Unfortunately it didn’t do as well as the studio had hoped since it opened in the busy summer of 1996 against heavy weights such as Mission: Impossible, Twister, The Rock and ID4. It was actually the last film of Arnold that earned $100mil domestically.


Ruth’s Picks

5. Kindergarten Cop

Arnold_KindergartenCopI quite like Arnold in action comedies, he should stick to this genre. Something about his acting style just lends itself to hilarious moments! He plays a tough city cop who has to go undercover as a kindergarten teacher in order to catch a drug dealer. The moment he went berserk watching kids being well, kids, yelling ‘SHUUUUUUUUUUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUP! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’ is quite a hoot.

4. The Last Stand

As you’ve perhaps read in my review, I enjoyed this movie and it’s one I actually don’t mind watching again. Ahnuld is not the usual invincible action hero, unabashedly poking fun at the fact that he’s no spring chicken anymore. Fun action filled with plenty of humor, I thought it was a pretty decent comeback vehicle for Arnold. I really think action comedies suit Arnold the best, I do hope this wouldn’t be his last in this genre.

3. Eraser

Arnold_EraserI know it’s not the most brilliant action thrillers out there, but I quite enjoyed this one. It’s Ahnuld doing what he does best, that is to protect a damsel in distress, even if that means fighting a slew of bad guys… and an alligator? Once again an evil corporation is involved, with James Caan as the villain. The damsel is played by Vanessa Williams, she’s not a good actress obviously, but she was sympathetic enough to make you care. I’m glad they didn’t force a romance between the two of them though. The special effects team was actually nominated for an Oscar, and the shootouts and car chases make for a pretty fun thrill ride. Plus I like the ending… yes the “You’ve just been erased” line isn’t quite as iconic as his other lines, but it actually works to great effect here.

2. Terminator 2 (1991)

This is easily the best Terminator movie of the bunch and perhaps one of the best sequels ever in the history of movie franchises. It’s got everything we love about the first movie and more! I like the relationship between Sarah Conor (the bad ass Linda Hamilton) and her son John (Edward Furlong), and the unlikely father/son bond between John Connor and the Terminator himself. There’s a lot of humor, such as when John teaches him phrases that became iconic, like ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ Plus we’ve got a fantastic and terrifying villain in the form of a more advanced and deadlier T-1000, played in a scene-stealing performance by Robert Patrick. This is one of those classic sci-fi movies that not only entertain but actually make you think. “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.” Sadly, that’s not far from the truth.

1. True Lies (1994)

Arnold_TrueLiesThis is easily one of my favorite movies from the 90s as it’s so wildly entertaining. It’s yet another Arnie’s collaboration with James Cameron. It’s decidedly more lighthearted than the Terminator franchise, but just as action packed and packed with humor as well. Jamie Lee Curtis is perfectly cast as Arnie’s wife who’s kept in the dark as her husband leads a double life. There are tons of memorable scenes between this husband and wife, and Arnie + Jamie Lee share a strong chemistry! Plus there’s Moses himself Charlton Heston as the secret agency’s big boss!

This is a quintessential big, loud, popcorn Summer movie, and it absolutely works. It’s a fun thrill ride from start to finish, even though the terrorist villains are hilariously cartoonish. I also love the Tango he did with Tia Carrere, even though she does most of the dancing, ahah. It remains one of my favorite movie Tangos of all time!

Honorable Mentions:

  • Conan The Destroyer
    This is one of my childhood favorite, I don’t know why I loved it so much. I must’ve watched it over a dozen times! I haven’t watched it since though, but I put it here for nostalgia sake.
  • The Last Action Hero
    The fantastical time travel element makes this a fun action flick, and Arnie’s never been shy of self-parody. It’s a great spoof of his go-to action genre, playing on all the cliches and stereotypes. He plays a larger-than-life action hero Jack Slater, worshiped by a young boy who ends up being transported into Slater’s world where the good guys always saves the day. John McTiernan of the Die Hard fame directed this and it has a similar absurd rock ’em, sock ’em sensibilities that please action fans. I remember seeing this on the big screen with my brother and we both had a good time.
  • The Terminator (1984)
    As Ted said, Arnold didn’t have as much screen time here compared to the second movie. Still, it’s one of the most iconic action sci-fis – full of memorable over-the-top scenes and one liners. “Come with me if you want to live.” I love Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese in this one, and of course Linda Hamilton is just perfectly cast. The idea that humans would be overtaken by the very things they created is intriguing and it’s been used many times over in various medium, but this franchise shall remains a classic even to this day. I haven’t seen this in a while, so I might rewatch this and T-2 sometime soon!


Now it’s YOUR turn! Cast your vote below.


Thoughts on our picks? Feel free to chime in about Ahnuld and his movies in the comments!