Great Film Expectations met and missed

Every now and then, a film pops up that has a really interesting pedigree, and actually lives up to all expectations. Stoker is one of those films. Elysium isn’t.

Let’s talk about the second film first. Elysium is the follow-up to South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a sci-fi film that was highly original and caught everyone by surprise. This is his first big budget Hollywood film, and while there’s some weight in the presence of Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in the cast, ultimately it all feels quite thin.

Come on, I had to include this gratuitous shot of Matt Damon undressed...

Come on, I had to include this gratuitous shot of Matt Damon undressed…

Elysium starts off promisingly enough. It’s the year 2154, Earth is overcrowded, and the rich and beautiful have created a lovely new life for themselves on the space station Elysium, while the poor and common struggle to live and work in overcrowded conditions with little in the way of money or benefits. As a vision of the future, it’s both fresh and not as far-fetched as many other celluloid scenarios. Blomkamp’s uncompromising gritty and grimy representation of the future does carry some credibility, and the concepts are reminiscent of quite a few Doctor Who stories. I was reminded of 1971’s Colony in Space, 1975’s The Ark in Space; there were echoes of the Cybermen, a touch of 1984’s The Caves of Androzani, and the David Tennant stories New Earth (2006) and Gridlock (2007). And Elysium was remarkably similar stylistically to the setting of The Girl Who Waited (2011).

RoboCop, Terminator, Borg or Cyberman? Take your pick as Damon gets ready for the big shoot-em-up finale.

RoboCop, Terminator, Borg or Cyberman? Take your pick as Damon gets ready for the big shoot-em-up finale.

The trouble is that the actual plot of the film doesn’t hold up to extended scrutiny. Max (Damon) and his story arc, exposed to lethal radiation and forced to don a computersied exo-skeleton to carry out a perilous trip to Elysium in the hope of ridding himself of the radiation (they have machines up there that diagnose and cure or heal humans of all injuries, diseases and conditions, naturally), are so heavily sognposted, it’s more like a Join-the-dots puzzle. And Foster, as the cold and ambitious Delacourt, is wofeully underused. But most disappointingly, the film’s climax is a full-blown CGI chase and fight sequence filled with numerous explosions, plenty of gunfire and an alarming body count, and what started out as an intelligent and intriguing premise ended up just as another Hollywood sci-fi action film. Which is disappointing.

Jodie Foster's looking good, but criminally underused.

Jodie Foster’s looking good, but criminally underused.

Not disappointing at all is Stoker, which is great news, because on paper, it sounds too good to be true. With the Ridley brothers Tony and Scott as producers, a script from newly-out Wentworth Miller and directed by Korean Chang-wook Park – his first English language film, it stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, with a small part played by Jackie Weaver.

Grief-stricken Evelyn and India at the funeral. Evelyn's grief is short-lived once Charles arrives...

Grief-stricken Evelyn and India at the funeral. Evelyn’s grief is short-lived once Charles arrives…

Essentially it’s a psychological thriller, an American Gothic tale that has more than a touch of Hitchcock about it, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and a shower scene reference to Psycho (1960), and a whoile lot of style. At the funeral of her much-loved father, India (Wasikowska) metts her far-too-charming uncle Charles (Goode), who she never knew existed before that day. India’s mother Evelyn (Kidman) takes a shine to Charles, but the truth behind him, and the sudden death of his brother are shrouded in mystery. Of course.

Evelyn has trouble coming to grips with her brother-in-law Charles.

Evelyn has trouble coming to grips with her brother-in-law Charles.

We may have seen variations on this theme before, but the style, the storytelling, and the performances in Stoker make a formidable combination. It’s interesting that for a standard American story, all the key players are not. A Korean director working with two Australian and one British leads are detached enough from the cultural and stylistic baggage than an American cast and director would have brought with them.

Wasikowska is mesmerising as the introverted and troubled 18-year-old, Kidman is statuesque amnd jaded, and makes good use of her own looks and icy reputation, and Goode’s smooth elegance works perfectly and makes his character a truly complex beast.

The very suave but mysterious Uncle Charles.

The very suave but mysterious Uncle Charles.

So thank goodness for films like Stoker, that demonstrate how remarkable collaborations can work, and show up films like Elysium that just miss the mark. But then, that’s the nature of filmmaking – there is no real and idiot-proof rule book. And that’s a good thing.

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