Yesterday I spent much of the day unsuccessfully trying to fix a dripping tap. It was awful. The fittings were corroded, it took me ages to get the stopcock to turn, the screw-thread on the cylinder of the thing was shot and no matter how many times I tried different washers the problem just kept getting worse. I was a jangled wreck by the time the decision was taken to give up on it and call the plumber in.
Later on though I went out to see the much-heralded Gravity, which turned out to be a big help in putting my problems with hardware, and indeed everything else, in perspective. This movie, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play space-walking astronauts whose mission to repair components on the Hubble Space Telescope is seriously disrupted by a random fly-past of Russian space debris, is right and properly awesome in a way that I can’t remember seeing on screen since HAL 9000 refused to open the pod bay doors way back in the day. It takes place in a vast and implacably indifferent environment that’s rendered so well you’re made to feel as insignificant and vulnerable as one of the little nuts or bolts you occasionally glimpse drifting off into the infinite blackness and much of it plays out in daring near-silence and in unbroken and fiendishly complicated takes lasting minutes on end. It is however despite all the extraordinarily well designed and realised space stations and equipment and detailed views of the Earth not really a science fiction film. It’s more like the worst day at work ever, which just happens to have taken place in space as opposed to on an oil rig or at an airport or in an installation at the bottom of the sea.
I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens in this film because the thing is so immersive and gripping and thrilling and vivid that it would be like trying to describe a bungee jump or a rollercoaster ride that somehow managed to include sections in zero gravity. I will say that at ninety minutes it’s admirably streamlined and focused, with Clooney’s tiresome know-it-all wisecracking and an overly contrived tragic backstory for Bullock the only minor elements to distract you from the extreme and gruelling peril you find themselves in the midst of. There are sequences that are stunning for the degree with which you find yourself identifying with the astronauts’ fear and disorientation and there are moments that are still and quiet and beautiful. I’m not sure if it adds up to anything profound or revealing about the human spirit but the ingenuity, care and skill with which it’s been executed means that anyone planning a movie set in space is going to have aim high or risk looking hopelessly outmoded. Director Alfonso Cuarón is some kind of visionary, with an enormous facility for overcoming technical challenges (this is, apart from anything else, the first film I’ve seen since Avatar that really demands to be seen in 3D, and I can imagine it being absolutely overwhelming in an IMAX cinema). I wonder if he’s good with bathroom taps?
If you prefer a side order of dystopian grime with your summer sci-fi shoot-em-ups you’re not going to do much better than Elysium, written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, whose previous film District 9 was a rare and successful blend of satire, body horror and military hardware that also managed to comment insightfully on the plight of the disenfranchised in South Africa. His new one’s not quite as distinctive – with the increased budget a Hollywood studio brings comes an obligation not to stray too far from the standard action movie template – but to his credit he still manages to get over the bones of a Marxist message about elitism in a piece of work that’s significantly earthier, punchier and (hooray!) shorter than your average “things explode” blockbuster.
Elysium extrapolates the accelerating inequalities of today’s society into a future where the Earth is so over-populated and under-resourced that the richest 1% have physically re-located to a fabulously opulent orbiting space station where their every need is attended to by robots and they can devote their attentions to keeping the great unwashed beneath them in their place. It’s not exactly a subtle allegory but the top-notch rendering of both the luscious environment on the wheel-shaped satellite (all verdant lawns, villas and swimming pools spread over the inner surface of the wheel and depicted on screen in shots that play clear tribute to 2001 A Space Odyssey) and the horrendous slums that comprise the future Los Angeles help distract one’s attention from the well-worn premise. Our identification figure is Matt Damon’s Max, a reformed car thief who’s content to toil away in a demeaning manual labour job until an accident at work compels him to find a way to get to Elysium by any means necessary. The trials and indignities he suffers in pursuit of this end leave you wincing as he’s opposed both by the callous administrators above (Jodie Foster is really nailing the Ice Queen thing these days) and some highly unsavoury mercenaries below.
That Blomkamp is clearly fascinated by guns and vehicles and bio-technology is not that unusual in itself but his skill in making the hardware on the screen feel convincingly practical and worn in is definitely notable, as is his unflinching dedication to showing the sometimes gruesome bonding of man and machine. At one point Damon’s character is required to wear a pretty inelegant metal exo-skeleton and the sound of the bolts being screwed into his body is so effective that gory special effects aren’t needed. Which is not to say they’re not deployed with gusto elsewhere – it’s never dwelt on, but when people get shot in this movie it’s with particularly high impact bullets and they tend to end up in several pieces. This David Cronenberg-like emphasis on the abuse of the human form marries well with an underlying strain of black humour and makes Elysium worth watching despite its by-the-numbers plot and surfeit of gun battles. This is no classic, but it sure delivers on its promise of spectacle and action and gets extra respect for not extending its climactic scenes beyond the point of endurance (see pretty much every superhero movie made in the last twenty years).
So what was all that about then?
This season’s chin-strokey arthouse must-see would seem to be Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, which has been provoking both awe and ridicule since it was unveiled at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. It’s clearly a labour of love and a deeply personal project from the legendarily reclusive and enigmatic (ie doesn’t do interviews) writer and director, and it’s certainly very rare to find something this defiantly highbrow made on what must have been a considerable budget. I can’t see this one making its money back any time soon.
Why the controversy? What’s so difficult and challenging about it? Well, for about three-quarters of its running time, nothing really. The bulk of the film is a small-scale, closely observed domestic drama seen through the eyes of the eldest of three young boys growing up in a suburban American environment in the 1950s. The conflict arises through the stern authoritarian attitudes of the boys’ father, who insists on them calling him “Sir” and impresses a “nice guys finish last” message on them at every available opportunity. Their mother is by contrast loving, supportive and long-suffering and rarely stands up to her husband. There are one or two significant incidents, but the flow of these sequences is for the most part easy and unforced, with the emotions and development of the characters being revealed more through the camerawork than through the dialogue, which is hardly ever expository and absent completely for long periods. This section of the film is deftly made and often quite moving, with the sense of both the exuberance and the frustrations of youth being effectively conveyed. It’s energetically shot, with a lot of handheld camera and a particular focus on the natural world, and it’s skilfully edited, with a striking montage dealing with the births and early childhood of the boys and some occasional jumpcuts that underline moments of tension. It’s almost well-made enough to let you forget that the father is being played by Brad Pitt.
So there’s a neat and touching ninety minute family portrait here. The trouble is that surrounding, and sometimes interrupting, it is the rest of the film. And this stuff is frankly bizarre. Early on there’s a long passage that reminds me of nothing so much as a live action remake of the “Rite Of Spring” sequence in Disney’s Fantasia: lots of Hubble-style imagery of distant galaxies and star formations giving way to fire and lava, which are in turn replaced by primeval life forms and surging oceans before we end up with rainforests and fully rendered CGI dinosaurs, all set to a stirring operatic soundtrack. It is in its own way quite magnificent, but it’s more like God’s own screensaver than anything that relates to the Brad Pitt stuff. And the dinosaurs must have cost millions. Then there are the bits with Sean Penn, who’s playing the grown-up version of the oldest son. Now Penn’s a damn fine actor, but he doesn’t get to do anything here other than look wistful and regret-struck, initially in a succession of soulless steel and glass skyscrapers and then in a desert and on a beach (presumably to make a nature-good/business-bad point). Finally there’s an extended bit involving hundreds of people wading around at low tide looking worryingly happy-clappy that might well be pitched to a plane somewhat higher than the one I tend to inhabit.
Anyway: it’s weird. But not completely without merit. The other things it reminded me of were Andrei Tarkovsky in general, and Mirror in particular (though that, despite being deliberately collage-like, somehow seemed a lot more cohesive than this), and the trippier bits of 2001 A Space Odyssey, which confused the hell out of me when I first saw it at age eleven. I grew to love 2001 in the end, so who knows? Maybe this tree is a grower…