Today wants to be summer. It has aspirations, but it will fall short. I think we'll see mid eighties. Yesterday it was warm, but there was an utter deluge. Utter.
Complete. Absolute. Entire.
But equally so: To utter a howl.
The subject of expectation is in my head. More precisely, how expectation affects perception. For example, I see a movie by a director of whom I've never heard, because, turns out, it's his first film, and I find it brilliant. So, upon the release of his second film, I expect what I got the first time, which I judged – issues of subjectivity may or may not apply – to be brilliant. I arrive at the theatre laden with these expectations. High hopes, as we say. However, this is not what I expected. This is less.
Or different. That's where it gets tricky. My expectations are so high, it's possible, at least possible, that I sabotage more objective perception (and, granted, this whole matter of objectivity and subjectivity may only be illusory, but whatever). If a director makes a very good film, then only presents me with a merely good film, I may perceive it as a mediocre or even bad film. Because I expected more.
If you haven't yet seen Neill Blomkamp's Elysium and you don't want spoilers, STOP READING HERE. If you do not care, continue on.
Yesterday, we saw a matinee of Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. I loved his first feature-length film, District 9 (2009). Oh, and yeah, I know it's all very hip and what not to say that Blomkamp's Alive in Joburg (2006) is much, much, much, much better and that only idiots think otherwise. I know that. Now be quiet and go sit over there where I can't see you. Anyway, I was saying: I saw Elysium. Based on my reaction to District 9, I expected "greatness." Instead, I got...something else. Now, being a victim of my own expectations, and being let down, and having paid fucking $18 to see a matinée, it left me annoyed. This is when most people rush right out and give something one star or whatever. Tweet to their friends as the movie is still playing "elezium sux so hard dont see lol."
The film's opening shots are beautiful. Breathtakingly, horrifically beautiful. My first impression was that I was seeing the opening panorama of Blade Runner by daylight. The film begins very good. Then it seems to get lost in another film, one that isn't a post-Katrina, post-911 parable about government indifference, the loathsome state of healthcare, and the dangers of overpopulation and the inevitable ecological collapse that follows. At this point, Elysium becomes a summer blockbuster action flick, a Matt Damon action flick. Here's the thing. I have nothing against summer blockbusters or action flicks. They're good. They have their place. But not at the expense of all else. Anyway. Yes. About half an hour in, the film derails. And stays derailed. Fight sequence follows fight sequence, and characterization is virtually nonexistent. It's almost possible to forget there is a story in there somewhere, much less any intended messages. Jodie Foster tries very hard to play against type and deliver a chilling fascist villain. With the right script, she could have done that. The film itself, visually, is beautiful. No one has ever put a space station (actually a "ring world") on the screen that's half as easy on the eyes as is the great, terrible wheel of Elysium. The contrast between it – white and green, clean and filled with life – and a brown, dying Earth, that's pure gold, enough to bring tears. The art direction and SFX, top notch. Ryan Amon's score is so amazing that I bought a copy about half an hour after we left the theatre.
Unfortunately, that score belongs in another film. Actually, it's so intense and so dense, it belongs in two or three other films. Much of what derails Elysium is that it's desperately trying to be at least two films. It wants to be as thoughtful and relevant as District 9, but it wants to be as popular as, say, The Avengers. Indeed, some of the tiresomely long fight sequences put me in mind of one of the Iron Man films (take your pick). After that first half hour, Elysium struck me as too fast, too loud, too bright, too much. Partly, this was undoubtedly the result of being in the fourth row of a digital screening (on a large screen). But I fear most of my impression was born of the film itself. Elysium wants to be one of the smart SF kids, like District 9, Moon, Prometheus, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Instead, it's Matt Damon as a cyborg kicking the ass of this other cyborg who talks like an Outback Steakhouse ad, while Jodie Foster looks as if she wishes she were elsewhere.
Up front, I said this review is colored by expectation. It is. Obviously. With a budget of ~$100,000,000, Elysium had to hit the masses (and the viewing we saw was packed, on a stormy Friday afternoon, first showing). Most people going to see it aren't looking for smart and thoughtful SF. They're looking for Jason Bourne in spaaaaaaaaaaaaace, and that's what they get. Now, District 9 cost only ~$30,000,000, and so it didn't have to work nearly as hard to make the investors happy. It could be a critics' darling. It could afford to do that.
I was left with the feeling I'd seen a bad film. But I was also left with the suspicion that my expectations were getting in the way, and I'd actually seen a good film – not anywhere close to great, but good – but just not the film I'd expected. So I was disappointed. Humans dislike disappointment.
I went home and watched Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.'s The Thing (2011), the "prequel" to John Carpenter's 1982 classic The Thing (which is one of my favorite films ever). When I saw it in the theatre, I was enormously disappointed. And I went away thinking I'd seen a bad film. Last night, wanting to test my hypothesis regarding how expectation might have colored my overall impression of Elysium, I gave it another chance. Turns out that while not as effective as Carpenter's film, it's actually quite good. I'd have preferred old-school, in-camera animatronics for the creature effects, but that's mostly because I got them from Botin and Winston in the first film. There are many SF films that rely on CGI creatures (Avatar, for example) that I adore. But, the point is, expectation had colored my initial reaction to van Heijningen Jr.'s film.
It wasn't a bad film at all. Just not the film I'd wanted it to be.
When Elysium shows up on DVD, I'll watch it again, and I'll have greatly reduced expectations. And we'll see.
Now...gotta make the donuts.
Postscript: By the way, the "social media activists" and suchlike are no doubt screaming about "Mighty Whitey" and the pitfalls of myth cycles that revisit the "chosen one" theme. They're probably even kvetching about imagined misogyny. To which I can only say, really people. Grow up. Please.