Classic Review: Serenity

2005’s Serenity, a sci-fi tale of future smugglers getting caught up in a government conspiracy, is something of an odd duck in the film world. Movies based on TV shows are not unheard of, but they are most commonly reboots or parodies in the style of the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson adaptation of Starsky & Hutch, or the Dukes of Hazzard film starring Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott. These films are essentially small reboots, not intended to remain in-continuity with the original shows any more than Batman Begins is meant to be a ‘lost episode’ of the ’60s Batman series. Serenity is unique, in that it was released less than 3 years after the 14-episode TV series Firefly which it acts as a continuation of, and is very much intended as a canon ‘series finale’.

 

But first, the summary. In the year 2518, with humanity having left the ruined Earth behind for a new solar system and terraformed many planets and moons, smuggler Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew traverse space, taking any job they can. When the top assassin of the ruling Alliance Parliament catches up with Mal’s crew – and River Tam (Summer Glau), the psychic fugitive they harbour – they are forced with the choice of running and hiding, or unlocking River’s secrets and revealing them to humanity. This plot stems from the events of the series, where River and her brother Simon (Sean Maher) joined the crew, and viewers learned a great deal about the characters and setting.

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Firstly, do I recommend Serenity in general? Yes, I do. I find it a brilliant, unique piece of science-fiction with a powerful story and an amazing cast. The low budget barely hampers the film, as writer/director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron) applies his funds wisely with a strong mixture of practical and digital effects. The bigger question, to me, is one of the importance of seeing Firefly before Serenity. Does watching them out of order ruin the experience? I would say the experience is not ruined, but is most certainly diminished. Serenity by its nature falls on the side of pleasing Firefly fans, and while it is largely understandable as a standalone tale, much of it would be rather confusing. Beyond that, watching Firefly first will at the very least be an improvement – prior understanding of the characters and setting makes it easier to focus on the tale, and gives greater impact to the twists and turns of the plot. All this, of course, is merely additional to the prevailing opinion that Firefly is an amazing 14 episodes of entertainment, and comes recommended even in isolation.

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Serenity has been one of my favourite films for a long time, and I consider it brilliant. But any grade of the work must take Firefly into account – the two pieces of media are much too strongly connected for anything else.

 

7/10 for those seeing the film in isolation.

10/10 for Firefly viewers.

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Review: Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity was misunderstood by many in the months and weeks leading up to its release. The trailers showed a small amount of the action, but apparently not enough – many online opinions read along the lines of “is this just astronauts floating around in space?” Word-of-mouth and the highest critical praise seem to have resulted in the dissipation of these misconceptions, which is a great relief – Gravity, after all, should be seen by as many people as possible.

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Elysium and the Power Of Isolation

Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium entered cinemas facing controversy. Telling a story of a ravaged future Earth that serves as home to the vast majority of humanity, while the super-rich have fled to the space-station Elysium (complete with Med-Pods that insta-heal any affliction), the film has a message that should be clear to anyone before they finish this sentence. I’ve seen it jokingly referred to as ‘Occupy Space Station’, and not without reason. Elysium has, unsurprisingly for a film that tackles such a controversial topic, received plenty of backlash. Some consider it to be a film that cartoonishly demonises the rich. Some defend the rich, claiming that Elysium attacks those who ‘work hard for their money’. The idea that Elysium‘s exceedingly negative portrayal of the rich – or, more accurately, the powerful – does not match today’s is, indeed, very true. That, however, does not invalidate it. I see as an examination of what happens when powerful people are isolated from the suffering they cause, whether through action or inaction.

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One scene has a CEO, annoyed at having to speak to his own foreman about the matter of a worker being fatally wounded on the job, only caring that the foreman does not breathe on him and that the worker spend his last 5 days on the job. This sort of scene demonstrates the supposed cartoonishness Elysium is often accused of, but selfishness and malice from the powerful upper classes is hardly unheard of. It has been seen around the world for thousands of years. Around the late 19th/early 20th century, prior to the passing of strong laws on business regulation, America’s industrial factories saw crippling wages, long shifts, child labour, company scrip and almost no real health & safety standards (demonstrating how the powerful may act when not forced into treating people with basic decency). Modern-day Bangladesh likewise features lax workplace laws and a giant gulf between the rich and poor. The Citigroup Plutonomy Memos demonstrate an example of ‘equitable sources of income’ being considered a threat by the wealthy and powerful. Studies like the famous Stanford Prison Experiment show the cruelty even average people can be capable of when given power.

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That said, the idea that much of humanity has evolved beyond its past and wouldn’t sink to the selfish depths shown in Elysium is a plausible one. We have become a more overall peaceful society over the past decades. However, what Elysium portrays is a situation where the super-rich are separated from everyone else by both colossal distance and a lack of real visibility. It seems that most of the 60-year-old space station’s residents lack any real interaction with the citizens of Earth on any level. This, to me, is what makes the situation more understandable – while the initial launch of Elysium could have been made by those more willing to assist their fellow human beings once they had escaped Earth, the current era’s people have lived their whole lives fundamentally isolated from Earth, the suffering of the poor ‘invisible’ on a certain literal and psychological levels.

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In conclusion, I do find the tale weaved by Elysium to be plausible, but not for the obvious reasons. On its surface the film appears to be a clear-cut tale of the evil rich and the heroic (or anti-heroic) poor they oppress and drive to violence. However, I see it being, at least partly, an examination of the effects of great physical, mental and financial separation between human beings, and the negative, dehumanising effects this sort of isolation from suffering can result in.

Review: Elysium

Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 came out of nowhere. The low-budget, political, partially-improvised sci-fi epic was a critical and commercial success, winning hearts and minds with its pull-no-punches violence, Sharlto Copley’s comedic and ultimately moving performance, and the apartheid metaphor underpinning the overall tale. It also offered what I found to be one of the strongest-ever arguments against the idea that practical effects are ‘just better’ than CGI. And this was all on a budget of US$30,000,000. So now comes the director’s follow-up, Elysium. Whilst not a sequel, it continues District 9‘s sci-fi spectacle mixed with gritty natural scenery, gory violence at the hands of futuristic weapons technology, and the presence of Sharlto Copley. Yet a more-than-tripled budget, A-list stars like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and an even less-subtle and more current political message make Elysium its own beast. Does triple the budget mean triple the quality?

Well, no. Of course not. But ‘not as good as District 9‘ is not ‘bad’, and Elysium is only a short distance from its predecessor’s quality. The film is set in 2154, where the super-rich live on the glorious space station Elysium (complete with Med-Pods that can instantly cure anything from leukemia to a destroyed face) while the rest of humanity toils below on the ravaged Earth. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is one such human, and his impending death at the hands of uncaring factory management makes a desperate man out of him. He stops at nothing to reach Elysium and the Med-Pods, with the help of some criminal acquaintances and a deadly exoskeleton drilled into his flesh, muscle and bone, making him capable of fighting a billionaire CEO’s security droids with his bare hands.

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The political message of the film should be very clear, and my enjoyment of Elysium comes from me, at the very least, not completely disagreeing with it. Make no mistake, however – if you describe yourself as politically conservative, ‘pro-business’, believe that every rich person became so purely through hard work and believe that poor people are lazy, you’ll likely consider the film an insufferable left-wing screed. I’ll address my thoughts on the political message in my following post, but for now, I’ll focus on the more immediate aspects of the film.

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Firstly, it’s more of a traditional Hollywood film, and this is what made me a little more numb to it. District 9 had an odd, independent quality to it that really worked for me (likely helped by Copley’s improvised performance), whereas Elysium is considerably more straightforward, from the villains, to the plot and ending. The visuals are beautiful – both in the shiny greens and whites of Elysium, and in the dilapidated slum of 2154 Los Angeles. The violence is brutal – the effect of a man-portable railgun rifle on the human body, even through considerable cover, is a sight to behold. The performances are well-done – Matt Damon is admirable as a desperate, ex-criminal anti-hero with many selfish qualities, Jodie Foster plays Elysium’s violent, remorseless Defense Secretary Delacourt with appropriately cold sociopathy, and Sharlto Copley as the homicidal Elysium agent Kruger is the best part of the film. Copley is clearly having immense fun, constantly reminding us how much Kruger adores his job, as he deploys swords, grenades, energy shields, and a South African accent that will hit you like a truck.

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Elysium is an intelligent, brutal sci-fi epic with an uncompromisingly left-wing political message, and it has already divided audiences, with many castigating it for having a cartoonishly evil portrayal of the rich. I greatly enjoyed it, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the above, and if you’re relatively right-wing, well… I just hope you REALLY love your sci-vi visuals and gory violence. See Elysium, but don’t go in expecting ‘the next District 9‘. Just expect a good film.

8/10