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.

Guest Post: Cold of Metal, But Warm of (Animated) Heart

Special thanks to Le0pard13 (aka Michael Alatorre) – the sharp-witted blogger of It Rains … You Get Wet | » Follow Michael on Twitter


I’ve gone to my fair share of animated movies in my lifetime. However, I have to confess when I’ve taken my children to see these, sometimes they (my kids) are really just around for the ride. I’m really the one going to see the feature. And with Toy Story 3 completing the trilogy with a high note last year, I don’t think my children could be more excited and moved than their old man by the time the end credits arrived. For all the years since I was the child, I continue to be drawn to the classic Disney animation pictures of old, and the Pixar (and other modern animation studio) films of late. Some of these, in fact, do not take a backseat to any of the great live-action films I’ve watched. They remain at the forefront in my library collection, as well.

Last year, I discovered that my friend Pop Culture Nerd, fellow PCN-reader (and artist) Shell Sherree, and I share an absolute fondness for a certain animation character and film. Additionally, not too long ago my kids and I revisited another cherished animated feature (easily our umpteenth viewing), which caused something to finally dawn on me. The pair of animated pictures, in question, has more in common than I originally thought. They share some special properties, I believe, even though you could say The Iron Giant and WALL•E are on the flip side of each other in the sci-fi genre.

The Iron Giant

Directed by Brad Bird and released in early August 1999, this animated film is based on a 1968 novel by the late-British poet laureate Ted Hughes. As it happens, the author also was involved in its development and gave approval on the film’s screenplay by Tim McCanlies. Warner Bros. Animation (the successor company to WB Cartoons) produced the film. The feature received rave reviews by critics, which for some unknown reason only seemed to doom it regionally at the box office. Since it didn’t even make back half (barely over $23 Million) of it production budget ($48 Million), it was considered a failure by the studio in the U.S. market. Still, it was a worldwide success since it grossed $103 Million overall. Many media analysts at the time surmised that the WB didn’t know what it had on its hands and mis-marketed the film… big time. The subsequent quick release to VHS tape (remember those?) and disc late in ’99 began its steady upward acceptance among sci-fi and animation fans. It quickly reached cult hit status, and is now thought of as a masterpiece of story and animation.

Synopsis: in October 1957, as the world grows ever deeper into the Cold War with the successful orbit of Sputnik, a giant metal machine falls out of the sky. And while one small town in Maine begins to experience strange and unexplained events, it will come down to a nine-year boy by the name of Hogarth to find the answers.

WALL•E

Released in June 2008, this movie was directed by Andrew Stanton, who also came up with the original story, along with Pete Docter. Furthermore, Stanton performed double-duty on the film as he co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Reardon. This computer-generated film was produced by what still is considered the leading animation studio currently, Pixar. WALL•E was the final story that came from the now fabled brainstorming lunch between Stanton, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft in 1994. The films A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo were the first of the films to come out of that extraordinary group discussion. As had been expected from this studio by just about everyone, the film opened to critical and box office success from day one of its release. It grossed over $223 million in the U.S. and over $534 million worldwide. The film easily surpassed its hefty $180 million production budget. Its subsequent release in November of that year to DVD/Blu-ray Disc only continued its success with audiences (I have to admit, my family also has an soft spot for the BURN•E short on the disc).

Synopsis: in the distant future, since the Earth’s resources have been depleted and ecology ruined by corporate profit and neglect, only a few creatures inhabit the now desolate and deserted planet. The lone organic and artificial life forms remaining will unexpectedly greet a sleek, but formidable, reconnaissance robot sent to Earth to find proof that life is once again sustainable.

Why They Are Distinct Opposites

What is immediately apparent to anyone who views both films is that each production visually reflects their studio’s distinctly dissimilar technical animation philosophies. Pixar is very much a CGI animation house in their product look and feel, while Warner Bros. Animation films retain the classic cartoon appearance (for the most part). The late Steve Jobs-led studio, Pixar, is a relatively young company so it’s no surprise their work is entirely state-of-the-art computer-generated animation. Compare that to the venerable Warner Bros. studio, its name, and its long-time traditional cartoon pedigree with its Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of yesteryear. Yet, WB’s mid-line modern hits, and the DC Comics animation film stable of recent times means it remains a player in this market. Truth be told, there were small segments in The Iron Giant where CGI is well employed. But overall, the two films look nothing like each other; with the exception that each remains a film of moving color drawings.

The main characters themselves are also quite the contrast. On one side, you have the diminutive, but long lived, Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class machine (WALL•E) — which has known only one home its entire existence. On the other, it’s hard to see it match up with the towering bi-pedal, metal-munching behemoth which lands on this planet in Brad Bird’s fore-running film. Story-wise, The Iron Giant‘s account is told through the eyes of the small town inhabitants, while WALL•E’s tale is his to tell. Additionally, the giant metal creature has no name or descriptor that can be turned into a clever acronym… or a readily determinable purpose, unlike his compact counterpart. Nor does the colossus have a memory (again, as opposed to our little load lifter friend, who practically lives byway of his collections).

As well, the time periods for each of these films differ dramatically. The Iron Giant touches down during the paranoia of the late 50’s, at the end of the second Red Scare chapter where security and vigilance were paramount. And, where Communism was to be feared. Measure that against WALL•E’s future time interval (in the year 2805) where the aftereffects of Capitalism and carefree, wasteful consumption have already reaped a toll on the third rock from the Sun. Here, there’s no one left to convert or subvert. Everyone has long gone, and left a mess behind. Additionally, WALL•E’s visual sensors offer a telling perspective. Thus, it would seem that they (the characters and films) have little in common. However, I submit that appearances are deceiving.

Why They Are Very Much Alike

Key point: no one (real or artificial) who comes in contact with either of these leading characters is ever the same again.

First off, each of these characters is prominently non-human. However, through the course of their stories, they each attain an almost spiritual, aware state. Each embodies, for lack of a better word, nobility in their films. It’s almost insulting to refer to them as achieving a human-like quality since both of the underlying science-fiction narratives take careful aim in criticizing the less than praiseworthy aspects and traits of said species.

For example in The Iron Giant, it is our tendency to overreact based (and perhaps fed on) by fear and mistrust (in this case, spurred on by controlling, authoritative segments of our society) that’s examined. It may not be a sin, but it seems criminal that this cycles back on us with almost clock-like regularity. Hence, Iron Giant‘s story bears repeating. By the way, look closely and you’ll see the Sputnik satellite appears in both films.

In WALL•E‘s prospective future, while you have technological proficiency, it is corporate dogma and malfeasance that are on prominent display (one only needs to look at the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to see how it applies to current times). In the film, the questioning of authority (in response to such wrongdoing) garners a regulated response to sweep such infractions under the rug in automaton fashion (where have we seen that before?). The challenging of convention, and those in charge of stewarding the people and planet respectively, is an underlying motivation in both films. Moreover, both principal characters represent the mechanized tools of their creators — they are the byproducts of genus and scientific success over time. WALL•E and the Iron Giant are utilitarian mechanisms almost in the extreme (with the quality and capacity of self-repair being major).

However, as the story (and audience) reaches the climax in both films, each machine life form evolves into something substantially more than their originators intended. Director Stanton said it best of his film, but it really applies equally to WALL•E and The Iron Giant:

“… irrational love defeats life’s programming”

At the core of these two specific animation films lies a very similar and tender essence. And, it is through the deuteragonist in each of these films where they locate their story’s heart. It is situated with the 9 year-old Hogarth Hughes in The Iron Giant. And it is literally within EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), the sleek and powerful state-of-the-art robotic probe with her role in WALL•E. Brad Bird (who’d would go on to join and develop The The Incredibles for Pixar years later), like Stanton, pushes his film in an identical open-minded (but touching) direction — even though it becomes clear in the story that The Iron Giant was originally intended as a weapon… a rather powerful one. But, it is through Hogarth, after befriending the metal titan, that the creature learns the real-life meaning of friendship and empathy. His revealing use of comic books (featuring Superman and his antithesis robot counterpart) brings an unexpected insight for the metal being. It learns that it can instead choose what it wants to be. The Giant’s choice — it’s not just about being a gun — at the end recognizes all of that.

WALL•E on the other hand has evolved after 700 years of labor into a sentient entity. One that now knows how alone it really is since it is the last of its kind (on the now abandoned Earth). Making a friend of the eternal cockroach only goes so far, it seems. Yet, it is EVE’s introduction into the environment that sparks the chain reaction that liberates and literally saves WALL•E, and humankind. But, it still takes WALL•E’s selflessness to overcome the ingrained ways of others at almost every turn in the tale. For example, it is EVE that learns to find her capacity to feel (beyond her programming) through WALL•E’s acts of kindness and undying love for her (and her directive). If you’re not touched by each of these animation stories (like PCN, Shell, my kids and I), it’s doubtful this post will reach and convince you otherwise. Still, the culmination of watching either of the two films is not to draw the audience to the notion that love is good. Not hardly. Each story emphasizes a greater, more touching affirmation. The real meaning in both films is that it illustrates (beautifully I might add) how one learns to love.

It is that last similitude that continues to hold my interest and increases my fondness for both films. Never more so than because my children seem to hold it in the same high regard as I do (at least I hope so). And if someday, my children’s children find a similar fascination in the stories of the metal characters with the warm hearts, then there is always something to hope for. For these reasons, both animated films, and their commonality, remind me of an optimistic line from another favorite (live action) sci-fi film of mine, which may finally convince the softhearted among you reading this of the point I’ve been attempting to make:

“You have to look with better eyes than that.” ~ Lindsey Brigman, The Abyss


Have you seen Wall•E and/or The Iron Giant? Well, what are your thoughts about these animated films?

31 Days Movie Meme Day #13: Favorite animated movie

I grew up watching Disney Princesses flicks, so to this day I always have a fondness for animated movies. Well, as I mentioned in my Films That Define Us post, one of the movies that left a lasting impression on me is Sleeping Beauty. But I’ve grown out of the fairy tale love story stuff and have since embraced pretty much everything Pixar has to offer, hence my top five Pixar characters list.

Suffice to say, it’s virtually impossible to pick just ONE favorite animated flick. As rules are meant to be broken, I’m going to list FIVE of them instead, as I shared in Peter’s Gimme 5 post series:

  1. Sleeping Beauty
    Gorgeous visuals, beautiful music (I still hum Once Upon a Dream from time to time), enchanting story, memorable villain. What else would you ask for? Briar Rose remains my favorite Princess to this day. The quintessential Disney masterpiece I can enjoy for years to come.
  2. Chicken Run
    It’s technically a stop-motion animation using clay figures, I adore the look of the movie. Based on the movie The Great Escape set in WWII POW camp, Ginger and her friends are imprisoned in the Tweedys chicken farm. Well-written and witty, this movie is pure fun and heartwarming. It even makes me feel a bit guilty eating a chicken sandwich afterward 🙂
  3. The Little Mermaid
    I LOVE Ariel! As far as princesses go, she’s by far one of the most relatable as she is like a typical teenager, giggly and naive… and who hasn’t had a major crush on a guy so much you’re willing to give up everything to be with him? I actually had a bit of a crush on Eric, too. Yeah I know he’s a cartoon but that’s how good this movie is! 🙂 Plus, there’s that adorable lobster friend Sebastian. Oh, and the music, especially Kiss the Girl and Under the Sea, absolute classic and downright entertaining!
  4. Beauty & The Beast
    A classic story with a timeless appeal. Disney REALLY upped the ante with this movie, too. The production quality and the dramatic camera movement, especially in the dance sequence in the chandelier-ed ballroom, was at the time, quite innovative and breathtaking to behold. As with any Disney flicks, the supporting characters are fun to watch, but never distracts us from the heart of the love story.
    ….
  5. Wall-E
    I never would’ve thought I’d enjoy a story about a mute little robot working in the trash department in a post-apocalyptic world. But Pixar’s genius is in creating such a sympathetic character that my eyes were hardly dry throughout the entire movie. I don’t just like this movie, I LOVE it. There’s a believable and sweet love story in this, too. Trust me, it’s even more affecting than the human version in a lot of those banal rom-coms!

    Honorable mentions:
    Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 3, The Lion King, A Bug’s Life, and all Disney Princesses movies! 🙂

So, what about you? What are some animated movies that tickle your fancy?

Top Five Favorite PIXAR Characters

Ever since Pixar released the first Toy Story back in 1995, in just one and a half decade, the studio has produced eleven movies. Most of them are critically-acclaimed, averaging 95% in Rotten Tomatoes and have grossed a collective of over $5 Billion worldwide. Out of those eleven, I’ve seen all but one, Cars, which interestingly enough will be the second Pixar feature film that get the sequel treatment after Toy Story. According to Wiki, Cars 2 is scheduled for release on June 24, 2011.

I recently saw Toy Story 3 and absolutely loved it. In fact, it was no doubt one of the most entertaining cinematic experience in quite a while. If there is such a thing as a ‘flawless’ movie, this one could count as one. If I could nitpick just one though (as Dreher Bear also said in his review), I wish they had given more ‘screen’ time to Mr. Pricklepants, voiced by my fave Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton. It’s amazing how a bunch of toys packed such emotional punch. EW’s Popwatch blog asked the question in a Toy Story 3 Poll: “Did you cry?” Well, suffice to say, I had some tissues going into the theater, but by the end of it I realized I need a whole stinkin’ box! I haven’t got a chance to review it yet, but i case I never got to it, let me say this: Go see it pronto! It’ll make you feel like a kid again and treasure this movie (and this animated trilogy) for years to come.

The beauty of Pixar movies is how wonderful the characters are. They’re so well-written and tug your heartstrings, it’s amazing how we could ever care so much about a bunch of toys, a waste-eliminator robot, or a one-eyed green monster. Within mere seconds into a Pixar movie, I’ve become so emotionally-invested in them right away that make the viewing experience so worthwhile. They’re even more affecting than a lot of real human characters in a life action feature.

Well, in honor of that, here are my TOP FIVE FAVORITE PIXAR CHARACTERS of the past 15 years (in random order because it’s hard enough to pick just five!):

  1. Woody (Toy Story)
    The leader of the pack of Andy’s toys and the emotional core of the franchise, Woody the Cowboy is just so darn likable. That’s why you got someone like Tom Hanks to voice him and let his playful personality shine. Woody is funny, caring, optimistic, and wise almost to a fault. And he’s fiercely loyal, too, even as much as he loves his college-bound owner, he’s torn to be separated from his buddies and a trait he’s carried with him from the beginning of the movie until the very end of the franchise. No wonder he’s Andy’s favorite toy, because there ain’t no Toy Story without Woody!
  2. Flik (A Bug’s Life)
    Firstly, I love Dave Foley, he’s just so cute and funny in Kids in the Hall and News Radio, so maybe that’s why I took immediate liking to Flik. Foley’s voice just naturally suits the geeky, bumbling, but ever-so-endearing protagonist
    . The ‘engineering-minded’ ant always wants the best for his colony by trying to come up with his various inventions (i.e. a dew telescope, automatic harvester, etc.), though they often end up with disastrous results. But as his BFF Dot will tell you, he’s really a nice guy  who really is just trying to help. Like Dot says, “you’re weird… but I like you.”

  3. Mike Wazowski (Monsters Inc.)
    Oh, who doesn’t love the one-eyed monster, voiced with wisecrackin’, smarty-pants sensibilities by Billy Crystal. He’s got more expression with his one giant eye than most characters with two. His green round shape is quite possibly the cutest, most adorable Pixar creation yet, not to mention his toothy grin. And he’s charming and smooth, too, just as Celia Mae (Jennifer Tilly), his girlfriend with Medusa-like hair and high-pitched voice. The minute he sang, “you and me… me and you… both of us togethaaa…” I’m done for! LOVE ya Wazowski!!
  4. Buzz (Toy Story)
    Starting out as a main rival turns BFF, the spaceman action-figure is the perfect complement to Woody even if Buzz’s delusional self sometimes exasperates his more-grounded friend. The Tim Allen-voiced character initially thinks he’s the real Buzz Lightyear, not a mere toy like the rest, which explains his extra gung-ho attitude that’s so fun to watch. I thought the duel scene with Darth Vader-like Zurg at the end of the first sequel was my favorite scene of Buzz, but no, it’s when he’s accidentally reset and becomes the Spanish Buzz that had me in stitches. The pent-up feelings he has for Jesse is now on full display as he’s become unabashedly romantic Don Juan. The tango sequence with Jesse is priceless and sooo much fun. Te quiero señor Buzz!
  5. Dory (Finding Nemo)
    The blue tang fish that steals every scene she’s in is voiced by the inherently likable and goofy Ellen DeGeneres. From the moment Nemo meets Dory, something is just a little off. Soon we realize she’s suffering from short-term memory loss, which makes for a one riotous scenario after another. Dory delivers the biggest laughs and her compassionate and gentle spirit makes you wish she’s your best friend. There are too many favorite scenes of Dory but when she imitates the whale with that slow, deep voice I just about fell off my chair!

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class)
    I’m not ashamed to admit that this movie not only make me tear up, but I was practically sobbing! The small trash compactor robot that barely said a word is so affecting that within minutes of seeing him on screen, I want to run over there and gives the lonely robot a big hug. In a dismal, silent post-apocalyptic world, Wall-E is a beating heart that gives such hope amidst all the gloom and doom. When he falls for a far more advanced robot Eve, he goes to great length to woo her. Believe it or not, it’s a genuine love story that is as heartfelt as any human connection.
  • Rex (Toy Story)
    The hilariously hysterical t-rex is a minor character but every time he comes on, it’s always a hoot. Remember the Jurassic Park nod in TS2 during the car chase in the toy barn? ‘Object is closer than they appear‘ Ha! He’s supposed to be menacing but Rex is such a wimp that gets agitated by even the slightest hitch, but I love him best when he starts squealing like a little girl.
  • Russell (Up)
    I absolutely adore this 8-year old kid and his endearingly exuberant charm. Determined to obtain his final badge to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer, the chubby munchkin ends up being swept off his feet (literally!), up, up and away with Carl in his balloon-hoisted house. Nothing seems to dampen the kid’s buoyant spirit. He and the gloomy and disillusioned makes an unlikely pairing that’s as odd as they are delightful.

I have expanded this Pixar Character List to TEN, and now you can VOTE for your favorites.
CHECK IT OUT »


Ok, your turn, folks. I’m sure you’ve got your own favorite Pixar character(s). Let’s hear it!

Oscars broadens Best Picture list to 10

Oscar

Perhaps in attempt to get the early buzz out for next year’s Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just announced they’re adding an extra FIVE flix to the Best Picture list. Or perhaps an attempt to make amends to excluding the immensely popular (and critically-lauded) The Dark Knight from a list of nominees? Apparently it’s been over 60 years since they had 10 nominees (the last year they did was 1943 when Casablanca took home the gold bald dude).  Hmmm, that darn show is already 4+ hours long, perhaps next year we should just have winners’ acceptance speech be done via Twitter? They (or their publicists) are going to do that anyway so why be redundant? Either that or they ought to plan on having an Oscar slumber party within the Shrine Auditorium.

In any case, does this mean more unlikely-but-otherwise-first-rate flix would have a better shot? Something like Star Trek, Avatar, a musical like Nine (with Daniel Day-Lewis singing & dancing), or perhaps the slick comedy The Hangover could end up being short-listed. Oscar’s long been out of touch with the public’s taste anyway, nominating flix nobody actually paid to see (In the Bedroom, The Hours, Capote). Then they wonder why the show’s ratings keeps going down every year? So I see this is a positive move in the right direction.

I’m curious to see what’s the Best Pic nominees next year. Well as long as they don’t nominate Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I mean what’ll be left for the Razzies to nominate then? =) So folks, start your predictions now.