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Films
by David J. Skal

VIRTUAL GRAVITY


SOUTH African actor Sharlto Copley has become a welcome and reliable fixture of the fantastic screen, beginning in 2009 with his Cronenberg-like transformation into a perambulating prawn in Neill Blomkamp's District 9. He's already completed work on Disney's Maleficent with Angelina Jolie, and will provide the robotic voice of the title character in Blomkamp's forthcoming Chappie. While you're waiting for those, he can be seen this year in two very watchable, if problematic, new films: Europa Report, directed by Sebastián Cordero, as well as Blomkamp's District 9 follow-up, Elysium.

Copley has the sharply hewn features of an old-time stage actor, with the kind of dramatic planes and shadows that are especially friendly to the camera. A technically proficient and versatile performer, he essays wildly different roles in Europa Report and Elysium, and is particularly adept at accents. Like many British, Australian, and South African actors, he has an excellent ear for American English (think Andrew Lincoln, a Brit, in The Walking Dead). American performers rarely turn the tables as well, perhaps because foreign actors are trained to actually listen to other people, while Americans mostly listen to themselves.

In Europa Report, Copley is an American member of an international space crew manning a privately financed expedition to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, where, it is hoped, the presence of water holds the possibility of extraterrestrial life. How this kind of long shot is considered a good bet by Earthbound investors (to the tune of a doomed $3.7 billion) isn't explained, especially annoying since we're told there have been no manned space missions since the Apollo project. Wouldn't the moon or Mars (especially if finding signs of water and life is the objective) offer more commercial possibilities? Mining, maybe? Space tourism? Or have Earthbound priorities become sufficiently broadminded to fund pure science?

We're expected not to ask pesky questions. As Alfred Hitchcock famously replied, when asked why on Earth Tippi Hedren would go by herself up to the bird-infested attic, "Because I wanted her to." The astronauts in Europa Report go to the environs of Jupiter because that's where the filmmakers want them to go.

The film employs the found-footage strategy introduced in The Blair Witch Project, and first imported to science fiction in Cloverfield. The onboard spy-cams don't merely make a visual record of the journey; they capture it all in professionally composed long, medium, and close-up shots from every imaginable angle, as well as extreme macro views from inside space helmets (these being the least plausible). Swallowing this conceit would have been much easier had Philip Gelatt's script simply made a few points about some total triumph of an intrusive surveillance state—entirely plausible by 2061—but it doesn't.

Since an unhappy dramatic trajectory is telegraphed from the outset (and even on the poster, with its portentous tagline, "Fear. Sacrifice. Contact"), it's no spoiler to say that the suspense generated is less a matter of who will survive than who will go next, and how. The gloomy Swedish actor Michael Nykvist, here looking considerably more depressed and weather-beaten than in the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, adds some appropriately Bergmanesque fatalism.

The nonlinear proceedings are grounded and narrated in cutaway documentary style by Venture Europa's CEO Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), who barely suppresses tearful grief, or contrition, or both. Is the author of the film we're viewing Dr. Unger herself? Point of view in narrative, or narrative film, is always an ambiguous business. Except for the case of epistolary novels, where the answer is obvious, exactly how have these words (or images) been prepared for our consumption? Are we to believe Unger has cut the footage as some kind of morbid reality show? Has it been sent from the future? Or have we somehow entered the omniscient imagination, outside time and space, of a Hal-style computer especially adept at Final Cut Pro?

Obvious parallels to 2001: A Space Odyssey are winkingly acknowledged (familiar strains of "The Blue Danube," an astronaut (Copley, in this case) keeping in touch with his Earthbound family by videophone, the bunks-and-bulkhead non-décor, and so on.) Variable weightlessness is effectively simulated through a combination of digital compositing, wire erasure, some slo-mo mimicry by the performers, and at least one shot I was initially convinced must have been accomplished in actual aircraft freefall. In reality, the entire film was shot in Brooklyn.

The extraterrestrial presence here is indicated mostly by a puzzling phosphorescence under Europa's ice, and only in the end is semi-revealed (in faltering video, feeling like a cheat) as an obligatory, tentacled CGI monster. A pity, since the concept of a shapeless, photon-based entity is an intriguing idea that just drifts away. Why was a bioluminescent jellyfish-squid-thing worth $3.7 billion to private capital? It's not much of a payoff, to the investors or the audience. No wonder Ventures Europa LLC seems to be recouping its losses with an elegiac snuff film. Just imagine the lucrative commercial possibilities had there been retrieved cabin video from the space shuttle disaster.

All this said, Europa Report's problems are mostly set on time delay. It plays very nicely while it's playing. The film is well paced, well acted, and well edited. The not-always-chronological story arc serves to provide some engaging mind puzzles, even if we know pretty much where things are going. But the film's unusually quick on-demand cable presence (nearly two months before its theatrical release) may be an unfortunate sign that general audiences still aren't ready for intelligent science fiction that's stingy with its monsters.

 

Like District 9, another unabashed socio-political parable (in which aliens are sequestered, apartheid-style, in South African prison-slums), Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, draws on a long line of allegorical science fiction turning on metaphors of class stratification. The overlord/underling theme is a time-honored sf trope that can be traced, with interesting variations, at least back to H. G. Wells's The Time Machine with its upstairs/downstairs layering of the Eloi and the Morlocks. In film, the theme was most famously realized in the labor/capital schism of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

In Elysium, the split between the leisure and working classes is massively literal (or as literal as things get in an allegory): the one-percenters have abandoned the Earth entirely for life on the eponymous Elysium, a giant revolving gated community in space with its own atmosphere and centrifugal simulacrum of gravity. The whole thing is tantalizingly visible to wretched Earthers, even in daytime, hanging in the sky like an unattainable ring. The one thing the rich have necessarily had to give up is oceanfront real estate, and you can bet some of them still resent that, although the orbital views of entire oceans may provide a consolation prize. Every house is equipped with a med-pod, a tanning bed-like contraption that cures cancer instead of causing it, undoes aging at the cellular level, and, if you happen to have your face blown off by a hand grenade, will scan your genetic code and fix that, too.

Damon is Max Da Costa, a released ex-convict scraping out an existence in a repressive world of robotic law enforcement and no future for anybody. Max works on a grueling Los Angeles assembly line, and receives a fatal dose of radiation in a factory mishap. With just a few days to live, his only chance for survival is to access the high-tech health care exclusive to Elysium. He befriends a nurse, Frey Santiago (Alice Braga) with a similar problem: her daughter has leukemia, untreatable Earthside, so it's a perfect match. Max manages to get himself smuggled into Elysium, but only after agreeing to have dangerous digital contraband hardwired into his brain. Frey follows, by a convenient fluke.

It's been reported that Foster, dissatisfied with the kind of scripts usually offered her, has specifically sought out roles originally intended for men that could be played by a woman. Here, the gambit only proves that there's no dearth of thankless, one-dimensional parts written for men. Talking tough and acting butch (stereotypical traits you'd think this particular performer might like to avoid), Foster plays Jessica Delacourt , Elysium's steely defense secretary, who attempts a computer-assisted coup to unseat the current president, who is too wishy-washy to her taste on matters of illegal immigration from Earth. To this end she employs a feral mercenary named Kruger, played with nasty relish by Sharlto Copley, here growling through a thick Afrikaans accent. If Delacourt is the witch in this fairy tale, Kruger's her flying monkey.

Thanks to the med-pod, Delacourt is a hundred and eight years old but looks comfortably thirty-something in an Armani power wardrobe, with the most immobile helmet of blond hair since Callista Gingrich's unsuccessful bid for world co-domination. Foster herself is fifty, and her Stepford-like perfection raises the question of whether she underwent the same kind of digital face-tweaking that enabled co-star Damon (a still-boyish forty-three) to play the role of Liberace's twenty-year-old boy toy in HBO's Behind the Candelabra earlier this year. (As "Mr. Showmanship" himself, Michael Douglas also received some significant facial sandblasting—pixel-lifting?—all, ironically, to give the appearance of fresh plastic surgery.) Until Elysium's rejuvenating med-pods become a reality, I predict we'll be seeing much more of this kind of thing, as long as time and gravity continue to take their toll on Hollywood royalty, male and female.

By the time Max has come into Delacourt's orbit (as it were), the computer code in his head—nothing less than the entire master operating system for Elysium—has been rejiggered to erase Delacourt's treachery and grant Elysian citizenship, travel privileges, and universal health care (evidently including eternal youth) to all the inhabitants of Earth. If it can be successfully activated, a host of social problems will be solved: Income inequality, illegal immigration, and the inaccessibility of medicine are issues all transformed through a classically Hollywood-liberal lens. Watching the film is a bit like toggling very rapidly between Syfy and MSNBC.

For some reason we see almost nothing of Elysium's pampered inhabitants, an odd choice in such a big-budgeted film. We do see the technocrats in their power centers, but in terms of the sybaritic citizenry, we mostly get glimpses of their uninhabited real estate. A pointed comment on the emptiness of materialism? Nice thought, but probably too much nuance to hope for in a summer action film.

The digital effects are state of the art, meaning they integrate so seamlessly into the live action that they barely register as effects. The flaws are all in Blomkamp's script, which, beyond the cartoonish characters, has too many moments in which the viewer is expected to suspend too much disbelief. Delicate brain surgery performed on the fly, chop-shop style? Really? At one point we see Matt Damon take a deep knife-thrust to the stomach. Perforated intestine, anyone? It's treated like a minor flesh wound. The plot is also over-reliant on lucky coincidences and improbable escapes.

Elysium tells a story about people desperately trying to escape life in Los Angeles, but the untold story is about the escape of Hollywood films, not to space habitats, but to cheaper production locales. The sprawling Los Angeles slums were recreated in the run-down outskirts of Mexico City, with the sybaritic enclaves of Elysium in found locations in a wealthy Mexican suburb, as well as in Vancouver. The real story of struggle and economic abandonment in Elysium may be that of unemployed production folk left stranded in L.A.

The film ends on an unconvincing there's-joy-again-in-Munchkinland note (complete with a dead witch) that probably precludes a sequel, though that may be exactly what Elysium needs. The world's radical transition to an even-playing-field utopia would be problematic and bumpy, no? Full employment and eternal youth, for instance, might have an especially uneasy coexistence. The resulting dystopia, more chaotic and scary than anything envisioned here, would make a challenging, intriguing, and truly thought-provoking tale—all the things good science fiction is supposed to be.

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