The Habitrail Critic Wishes To Drink From The Lethe

The after/underworld of the ancient Greeks — the realm of Hades — is a pretty interesting place. There are places of punishment there (in Tartarus, according to some accounts not in Hades but beneath it), places for the souls whose lives had been sort of meh (Asphodel Meadows), and places for the best of the best (Elysium, within which the super-duper-special folks end up on the Blessed Isles). Its uncertain geography is bounded by strange rivers and managed by judges.

Elysium is bounded by the river Lethe (forgetfulness, oblivion, unmindfulness) — and I totally crossed it after watching Neil Blomkamp’s latest film. Elysium is a far cry from his District 9, in terms of both technique and message. It’s not a bad film, but…well, it is eminently forgettable.

Technically speaking, I found the film annoying. The wacky, unsteady camera work (especially in the fight scenes) didn’t add tension or energy to the scenes in which it was used — it made them nearly unwatchable. I’m not against the ol’ shaky cam as such. It can be used to great effect when it’s done well. That wasn’t what happened here, though. Even more unpleasant than the camera work, though, was the sound. It’s possible that some of the problem was the theatre’s sound system, but I don’t think so. It didn’t sound like bad speakers. It sounded like the mix was just bad. There was a persistent low hum or growl in most scenes, connecting music with machine sounds in such a way as to make the dialogue extraordinarily muddy (which I imagine would be especially unpleasant to people who find some English accents difficult to hear clearly). The dialogue, when audible, wasn’t anything to be too excited about anyway. The whole affair was a criminal misuse of decent actors, mostly because there really wasn’t any character development time to spare for anyone other than Max (Matt Damon).

The film’s politics may be laudable in some ways, but because the narrative of it was woefully underdeveloped, what could have been deep became flat and obvious. There was too much in it that was unnecessary and not enough in it to make it work. The early bits of the story, in which we see the lives of the well-to-do in the sky contrasted with the lives of the suffering on Earth, had the potential to belong to a much more personal story about a utopia gone wrong. Instead, we got just enough setup (dragged out too long for the payoff) to promise something and not enough satisfaction.

While there’s an obvious comparison to be made between Elysium and District 9 in terms of what went wrong and what went right, I think there’s a more interesting connection worth making between Elysium and Kathryn Bigelow’s not-too-successful but ultimately slicker and more effective Strange Days, which did a much better job of letting its visual and auditory elements work with its plot and message.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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