August 12, 2013
The Short Review: I was in a Cyberpunk RPG campaign in 1994 that went pretty much exactly like this.
The Long Review:
Oh dear lord. Neill Blomkamp’s previous effort, District 9, was a bit heavy handed, but at least it had a really slam-bang adventure story to go with it. This thing — we have a new measure of heavy handed. Elysium is more heavy handed than Soylent Green. You want allegory? I got your allegory. See, the Earth is Mexico and Elysium is Arizona, except they speak French there for some reason, and Jody Foster is Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Matt Damon is the only white guy left on Earth so of course he’s the hero, and it’s all about immigration reform and homeland security right up until it’s all about socialized medicine. And all of it set in a world that makes no damned sense at all.
I almost got through it by realizing the whole thing is basically vintage cyberpunk — dystopic wasteland, corporate overlords in a space-based paradise, and this was before they started actually jacking in with actual head ports and cords. But that’s when I realized the movie borrowed a big chunk of its plot from Johnny Mnemonic. (The movie, not the short story.) OMFG.
But you know what really pisses me off? When people look at something like Pacific Rim and accuse it of bad acting and bad dialog, when really, it has exactly the acting and dialog it needs. It’s simple, straightforward, perfect. There’s exactly one way to say “Kaiju, category three,” and they nailed it. Then you get to a movie like this that takes itself so damned seriously, and the acting is excessively over the top and the dialog is all ridiculous (“Tell Matilda I know why the hippopotamus did it…”). There was one character I liked, because the actor played him straight and not totally melodramatic and cliched like everyone else did. That would be Julio, played by Diego Luna, the only believable character in the entire movie. But because this is a “serious” movie, no one’s going to accuse it of having terrible dialog and say that both Jodie Foster and Matt Damon did awful jobs. And yet, somehow, Pacific Rim is the “dumb” movie. There’s no justice. (Well, Pacific Rim still has a higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe there is justice.)
Writing 101 (spoilers)
And if that isn’t enough, the story is terrible, and I’ll you exactly why. The basic premise of the story: oppressed people in a horrible world want to get the promised land, Elysium, where all the rich happy people are. What the story should be: give main character a reason to bust out of his terrible life, give him a way to get there, present obstacles, he either succeeds or fails. Nice, straightforward, right?
Not content with giving Max one reason to get up the nerve to try to break into Elysium, the movie gives him about four. Any one of these four would have made for a fine story. Instead, we juggled them all, which made the whole thing a complicated mess. Max has a crap job building robots and gets caught in a blatantly telegraphed industrial accident involving radiation poisoning and he has five days to live, unless he can get to the magical medicine on Elysium. He goes to his fixer from his old car-jacking days who has a mission for him — they’re going to hack an Elysium executive for entry codes to take over the whole system. But because Max is so sick we also need to install an exoskeleton so he’ll be strong, because it turns out we didn’t think that radiation poisoning thing out well enough. The radiation story pretty much takes a back seat for the rest of the movie, but this way we get that rocking fight at the end, that no one will be able to see anyway because TOO MUCH SHAKY CAM DAMMIT. The entire story is now the classic cyberpunk corporate espionage fights in the street battling the system thing. But apparently even this isn’t enough for a story, because Max’s old girlfriend has a daughter who is dying of leukemia, unless she can get to Elysium. (If I ever do a “how to write book,” there will be a whole chapter about how if you have to add a small child with leukemia to motivate your characters, your plot has gone horribly, horribly wrong.) Okay, that’s just three, but I’m pretty sure there was something else in there I’m missing.
But it turns out none of these motivators is even important because the bad guy just up and loads them on his ship and takes them all to Elysium anyway. Getting to Elysium? Not actually a problem, it turns out! The heroes never have to get themselves to Elysium, which was the whole point of the story we were promised at the beginning. The story isn’t a story — it’s a series of MacGuffins, all of which stop being important just as soon as the next MacGuffin comes along. Writers — don’t do that.
Also, do you know that we have wireless information transfer to orbiting space stations right now, in 2013? Did I mention this thing makes no damned sense? Argh. I’m just so frustrated.