Tomorrowland (2015)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?

Ecclesiastes 3:19-21

 I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time;  it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it;  it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Habakkuk 2:1-4


In between Frank (lft) and Nix, leader at Tomorrowland, stand Casey (lft) and Athena.      (c) 2015 Walt Disney Pictures

Brad Bird, the director of one of my favorite sci-fi films, the animated The Iron Giant, serves up a work crammed with ideas worth pondering. Tomorrowland, like most good films of the sci-fi genre, is as much concerned with the present as it is with the future. What have we lost in this age of deconstruction, irony, and widespread cynicism, and how might that impact the future? A tall order, and if things get a bit muddled in the last half, so crammed with fast-paced action and an earnest  homily from the supposed villain, none of this spoils the fun. And I do mean fun–this film is so filled with the Spielberg sense of wonder that made E.T. so special, making us lose all sense of time!

The theme of “is the glass half full or half empty?” is embodied in the persons of a teenager named Casey (Britt Robertson) and Frank Walker (George Clooney).  Frank is addressing a camera at the beginning of the film, telling their story from his pessimistic viewpoint. He says, “When I was a kid, the future was different.” Casey keeps interrupting him off camera, until he turns and says that she should tell the story. She does, starting with a young Frank ( a perfectly cast Thomas Robinson) who arrives with a bulky backpack at the 1964 New York World Fair. Entering a pavillion for inventors, he marches up to a table where judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie) presides. The boy removes from the pack a strange device made basically from an Electrolux sweeper (perfect because of its futuristic look). After he explains that it is a flying jetpack, he admits to Nix’s skeptical question that it does not work—yet. In a flashback we see the funny mishap when Frank first tried it out.

The judge gruffly dismisses him, but the boy and his invention have caught the eye of a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She hands him a souvenir pin of the Fair. When she leaves the pavillion with Nix, the enraptured boy follows them. They enter a V.I.P. ride, Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” and Frank jumps into an empty gondola behind theirs. In the midst of the dark tunnel he touches the pin and suddenly finds himself in the future where he gazes at a towering utopian city on the horizon. The shape of the city’s skyline bears quite a resemblance to Disney Picture’s signature enchanted castle.

Casey’s own story starts in present day Florida where pessimism seems to pervade all of her teachers, who speak of planetary doom from over population, war, or environmental disaster. She waves her hand to respond, but the first two teachers ignore her. When she does get to pose her question, she asks what can we do about our impending doom, but no solution is offered. She herself does try to do something about her own unemployed father’s (Tim McGraw) sad situation. Once an engineer at NASA, he has been laid off because no further space missions are planned. The massive launching towers are to be demolished, so Casey sneaks onto the grounds at night to sabotage the massive demolition cranes. On her third break in she is caught and hauled off to jail. When released, she finds among her effects that the policeman returns to her a Tomorrowland pin. We see that it is like young Frank’s. She touches it, and instantly she is in the midst of a wheatfield from whence she sees the beautiful city in the distance.

Casey is whisked back and forth as she touches the pin, although she cannot quite control her entrances and exits. In one sequence she wanders through the city, in awe of its tall, narrow towers, sky trains and hovercraft rushing around the buildings (one couple walk by with a floating baby stroller). Like Disney’s Epcot, everything is pristine—no litter or slums. The people are of all hues and dressed in rich clothing that seems fresh off the drawing boards of high fashion designers. And yet she is not really “in” the city because she is able to pass her hand through the images.

Athena connects with Casey, setting her on a journey that will lead to the now grownup Frank. Along the way a squad of androids with pasty smiles belonging to an overly friendly quiz show host (the screening audience laughed aloud at this) try to end their journey, one of the bizarre encounters being at a toy store devoted to games and action figures from sci-fi and horror films (it’s a fan’s dream store!). At last Casey finds her way to the isolated farm house which is filled with the high tech gadgetry of a Frank who has given up hope for the future. However, she has little time to argue with him because their pursuers burst onto the scene. Quite a thrilling chase before they arrive at Tomorrowland where David Nix is now in control, and not happy at seeing Frank, who apparently had been sent away in exile. There follows an exciting climax that will thrill those viewers too young to understand the more cerebral parts. The special effects are truly awesome, especially the episode in Paris where our heroes blast off in a rocketship that has been cleverly hidden in the Eifel Tower! By “cerebral parts” I mean such scenes as the rant by Nix, the man in charge of a now ruined Tomorrowland. No longer is it the beautiful utopia that Casey had first observed. Nix (isn’t his name intriguing?) sorrowfully bemoans a world “of simultaneous obesity and starvation.” (Adults might explain this later by having the children think about the many overweight people they know or see at the mall and pictures on TV and magazines of hungry and homeless people.)

On this morning after the film as I write this review, Frank’s statement, “When I was a kid, the future was different,” brings to mind one of my favorite songs from “the good ole days,” Judy Collin’s verson of Joni Mtitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” * This is a song in which the singer nostalgically reflects upon the way she had during her youthful days looked at clouds—filled with “Rows and flows of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air/And feather canyons everywhere”—but now that she has supposedly grown up they “only block the sun.” This describes well what has happened to Frank, his pessimism, his losing of faith in the future serving to bring about the dystopia he fears. Those who discuss this film with others might want to play the song and see if others think this describes what has happened to Frank.

Some critics have seen the film as a critique of Hollywood sci-fi films, as well as of our society. During the past few years the majority of films of this genre have looked at the future as dystopian. Their vision of humanity’s future is the polar opposite of the Disney inspired 1964 New York World’s Fair. Science itself is pessimistic as to the future of humanity, seeing the universe either as winding down or blowing up. Little wonder that the Book of Ecclesiastes, written by a jaded man who has seen it all, is well received today, though not the writer’s belief that nevertheless our sad world is still in God’s hands.

On the other hand, the concept of the squeaky clean future utopia, “Tomorrowland in this film, so beloved by the Disney-led people also is worth examining, especially by people of faith. Is this vision of the future a myth that needs to be taken with a pound of salt? Years ago an ecumenical convention of Christian educators met in Orlando Florida, with the registration fee including a day’s pass to Disney’s Epcot Center. There we were impressed by the architecture and well-manicured lawns and shrubs and the clean paths and streets free of litter. We enjoyed the ride through the history of humanity in the giant geodesic sphere known as “Spaceship Earth,” which featured great civilizations and their breakthroughs in communications. However, noticeably absent was that of the Hebrews and their gift of the Ten Commandments. Later also, when Parker Palmer led us in reflecting on the experience, he pointed out how secular the Epcot future is, indeed, how devoid of an interior life its citizens were expected to lead. “Even the bushes by the park benches are wired so that music is always being played,” he observed. Thus how difficult to find a quiet place just to meditate, the logical extension of a culture where even in elevators we are surrounded by sounds. Is this vision of a future we make without any need for God realistic, that is, does it take into consideration fallen humanity’s tendency to “screw up”? Frank talks about gathering together “the brightest and the best” who will create a good future, but should we not recall that once an admirable US President gathered such a capable group, and one of the results was the Vietnam War?

In regards to Frank’s giving up hope for the future there is for people of faith what at times seems to be the uselessly archaic line in the Apostle’s Creed “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” Whatever form Christ’s Second Coming might take, the affirmation is the ground for hope. Our future is not entirely in the hands of optimists like young Casey, though it will be influenced by people like her who cling tenaciously to hope and work to fulfill it. But even she needs the kind of faith exhibited by the prophet Habakkuk.

I know the above is not as organized or as full as it might be, but I hope it will convince you not only to go see this remarkable film, but also to share it and discuss it with others. Brad Bird’s film is more fun than any of the rides at Disneyland!

*To see the lyrics go to Search further, and you will find it sung on YouTube.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.

Psalm 9.18

Surely there is a future,
and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs 23.18

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13.13


Katniss and Peeta, thanks to their costumes designed by Cinna,
prove to be the hit of the audience watching the parade of tributes.
(c) 2013 Lionsgate Films

In this, the second of a projected four dystopian film series based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy (leave it to Hollywood to get four films out of three books!), the two winners of the Games of the first film return to their families in District 12.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has kept her supposed lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) at a distance. As winners they now live in special, lavish quarters set apart from their always hungry fellow citizens, but Katniss cannot enjoy the fruits of her victory. This really is Katniss’s story and, this time, the story gets far more help from the no-longer-green actress Jennifer Lawrence, giving us by far the most interesting heroine to be found in any of the adventure films of this or recent years.

Katniss really is in love with her longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but at the climax of the first Games had pretended to be in love with Peeta so that the vast audience watching would believe that their threat to commit suicide if both of them were not allowed to survive was real. While out hunting for a turkey in the forbidden forest, her PTSD that has disturbed her sleep now ruins her shot, and later when someone speaks of her fame, the conscience stricken girl responds that it came from killing people.

She is surprised when the dictator of Panem, euphemistically known as President Snow (Donald Sutherland), pays her a visit to tell her that she had better convince him that she and Peeta really are in love when they make their Victory Tour. He is concerned that she is becoming the focal point of a growing resistance among the people of the 12 districts. His fears are not groundless, she and Peeta discover as they ride the luxury monorail and stop to make their speeches in each of the districts. She sees rebellious graffiti on walls, and in District 11, home of the young tribute Rue whom she had befriended in the first film, she pays tribute to her dead friend and seeks to comfort the family. Out in the large audience an old man raises his hand in a defiant salute not approved by the state. Soldiers push through the crowd to seize and kill him, this cutting short their visit.

At the Capitol President Snow is definitely not happy with the Victory Tour, which has revealed the restlessness among those in the outer districts held in bondage. He talks with the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who replaced the one in the first film—that worthy had been forced to commit suicide because of his failure to completely control the outcome of the Games. Plutarch opposes the President’s plan to have Katniss killed right away, suggesting a more elaborate scheme. This will be the 75th Hunger Games, known as a Third Quarter Quell. In the past a new element had been added to the 25th year: this time it will be to enroll all of the past tributes, thus returning Katniss and Peeta to what he assures will be certain death. Not only that, but in their struggle to survive, he tells the President, the people watching from all the districts will see her scrambling for survival so that they will then turn against her.

As in the first film there is a period of training and appearances on national television. Their coach Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is his usual lost in an alcoholic haze self, though more supportive this time. Their ditzy chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) acts and dresses her usual frivolous self at the beginning, but when they part reveals a more serious and loving nature that has been hidden deeply within. Cinna (Lenny Kravit) comes up with an even more spectacular costume for the pair as they ride in a chariot around the vast hippodrome before the huge crowd—their clothing emits tongues of fire, that, like the fire in the story of Moses and the burning bush, flames brightly but does not consume them. Stanley Tucci is as over-the-top as ever as Capitol TV star Caesar Flickerman, schmoozing with the pair.

Watching on TV, the President is not pleased when all the tributes aligned on stage take the unprecedented step of joining hands when they lift their arms in farewell to the audience. Haymitch again introduces Katniss to a patron who will offer crucial help during the games. All too soon Katniss is transported to the tube that will lift her to the arena. She and Cinna say their emotional good byes, and then as she is raised upwards, there is a terrible act calculated to throw her off balance emotionally.

The second act of the film is as exciting as the Games depicted in the first film. Katniss and the others find themselves on their perches set in a large circular lake, at the center of which is an artificial island and the cornucopia with supplies. At the signal, Katniss and Peeta dive into the lake and swim frantically for shore so they can flee into the forest. During the preparation period the two had arranged temporary alliances with the inventive tech geek Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), his partner Wireless (Amanda Plumber), the very angry young Johanna (Jena Malone), and the gladiator-like Finnick (Sam Clafin). They will all need each other because of the hazards that Plutarch has cooked up– invisible force fields, a poisonous fog, a band of aggressive mandrills, the voices of loved ones emitted by birds, and of course the other tributes out to eliminate them–all this in a tropical habitat.

During the ensuing struggles Katniss’s archery skills are crucial, but so is a gift parachuted to them at night by their patron, this enabling them to obtain water when they are away from the lake. Most puzzling to her, however, is the life saving sacrifice for her of a tribute whom she did not know. This and other questions concerning the defiance evidenced in the various districts are revealed in the surprising climax of the film—no, anti-climax, this being really a bridge film leading to the last two. If you have read the books, you know what this is, but in case you have not, I won’t spoil this by going into the details.

The new director Francis Lawrence handles the action and actors with great skill. As mentioned earlier, Ms. Lawrence is better this time as the conflicted heroine, completely believable as a teenager pushed to the limits of her mental and physical endurance. Her wrestling with the demons created by her forcible killings lift this film above the far too many other escapist adventure tales pouring forth from Hollywood. In them the hero knocks off people by the dozens but suffers no pangs of remorse or other effects. Unlike the Japanese film Battle Royal, which is somewhat similar in that a class of adolescent students are forced to kill one another until only one survives, this film focuses upon one participant so that we get to know and admire her. And—slight spoiler here for those who haven’t read the books—she remains throughout the series, a teenager, not becoming an unbelievable master leader of the rebellion that will threaten the tyranny of the Capitol.

Praise also is due to the Art and Set Decoration teams (John Collins, Adam Davis, and Robert Fechtman) and Costume Designer (Trish Summerville) for their great skills in showing the contrast between the grim world of the districts and the sensuous, selfish world of the Capitol. The outlandish dresses and puffy hairstyles of Effie Trinket and the denizens of the Capitol ought to remind one of the extravagant styles of the corrupt court of France’s court of King Louis XV. So do the overly ornate candelabra and lavish plates of food and drink consumed at the party held for the tributes and the influential citizens. I would not have been surprised if one of them, referring to the half-starved and raggedly dressed inhabitants of the districts, had said, “Let them eat cake!”

As with the first film, and indeed for virtually all sci-fi stories, my main criticism is that the secularized writer has no understanding of the resilience of the Church, and thus presents a dystopian society devoid of its presence and the prophetic role it has so often assumed. Both the Russian and Communist regimes thought they were eliminating it, but failed in their sometime ruthless persecutions. In such countries as Poland the Church was a rallying point for the resisters and a source of hope for those seeking a just society.

I do appreciate that, in this film, hope is a central theme, first voiced by Prim when she says to Katniss,  “Since the last games, something’s different. I can see it.” Her sister asks, “What can you see?” to which she answers, “Hope.” Even in the totalitarian society of Panem President Snow cannot extinguish it (nor Hitler, Stalin, Mao, nor going way back, the conquerors of the Jews and the later persecutors of the Christians). Katniss will need hope as much as her archery skills in order not just to survive, but to thrive—and best of all, she and her sister show by the way they relate to others that they possess something even better, well expressed by the conclusion of a famous poem by the apostle Paul quoted above, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.

Ender’s Game (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 54 min. Our advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 2.5

 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Mark 8.36


Col. Graf promotes Ender, making him the head of his own team or “army.”
(c) 2013 Summit Entertainment

Director Gavin Hood’s science fiction film is both interesting and disturbing. Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s book, it is set in the not too distant future when earth’s combined military known as the International Fleet is getting ready for the next fight-to-the-finish war. Some fifty years earlier ant-like aliens known as the Formics had tried to colonize earth. They killed tens of millions of people, but were finally driven off when a fighter pilot named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) discovered their weakness and destroyed their mother ship, causing the other ships to flee back to their home planet. This is the interesting part: that which is disturbing is the IF’s program of separating gifted children from their families and teaching them in a harsh setting to become killers—all, of course, in the good cause of saving humanity. Nothing has been heard from the Formics, nor have any Earth authorities tried to contact them because neither were able to understand one another. Earlier the Formics had made no overture to deal with humans—they had simply attacked the planet.

Ender Wiggin, a preteen (he has been described as 10, 11, and 12 in various reviews, and “No,” I haven’t read the book), has been chosen to go to Battle School, a large space station circling Earth, on the basis of his skill at video gaming and the decisions that he makes when bullies try to take advantage of his slight build. When attacked he goes into over-kill mode, his reason being that he wants to hurt his opponent so much that he (Ender) will not just win this fight, but also cause the attacker to cease and desist from any further provocations.

Col. Graff (Harrison Ford), in charge of training the young soldiers-to-be, likes Ender’s thinking beyond the moment and believes that Ender might be the military genius they are looking for to lead the interstellar war they are sure is coming. His assistant Major Anderson (Viola Davis) is concerned as much about what the harsh training methods of Graff will do to the boy as she is to turning out the next Caesar or Napoleon. Thus the two clash at times over how to treat the boy. Graf’s theory behind this emphasis on children leading the war is that they have quick reflexes and are not bound by adult learning that gets in the way of those reflexes. (Hmmm. But then, we must remember that the book was targeted to teens.)

Ender is “a third,” born into a world that has restricted parents to two children. His distant father, a Battle School washout, and his more empathetic mother had to apply for special permission to have him. His older brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) is very hateful toward him, jealous because he also washed out of the school for being too violent. His sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), with whom he has a close relationship, also was dropped because she was more pacifist than soldier. Wherever he goes the boy’s third status is held against him.

At Battle School all contact with family is cut off, which upsets the Major. The children are divided into teams or armies. From what we see Battle School seems like a fascist version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, but with Ender facing far more bullying than Harry. He perseveres, moving from beginning stage up to the point of heading his own team or army. He is able to choose those who had befriended him along the way, including Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld), the token female teenaged character.  In a training exercise against the army led by his former tormentor Bonzo (Moises Arias), Ender devises a clever stratagem that defeats his opponents in an elaborate laser tag game fought in a large spherical arena, thus convincing Graf that Ender is “the chosen one.” He turns over to the boy and his companions the Command Center Battle Simulation Room.

In the final simulation game Ender leads his team in a pre-emptive strike that calls for the decision to wipe out all life on the Formic’s planet, a move similar to his continuing to kick and beat the aggressive bullies long after they are prostrate upon the ground. Although I little understand all of the jargon and video game moves of Ender’s team, Graf and other military officers observing the youth at war are pleased, with the destruction of their enemy’s planet now assuring the safety of Earth. (People of faith might be reminded of the prophet Samuel’s instruction, supposedly relaying the command straight from God, to Saul that he completely destroy his enemy, women, children, livestock, as well as soldiers.)

Afterward Ender, reflecting upon the act of genocide, visits the ravaged planet. In a scene that could have benefited by the inclusion of some more details (I’m trying not to include too many spoilers) we see that though he has committed a dark (and necessary, Graf insists) act, the boy might not have lost his soul. The empathetic trait, so outstanding in his sister, persists in him as well. The director who gave us the far better Tsotsi, winner of a “Best Foreign Film” Oscar, brings us a film that rises above the usual sci-fi computer enhanced films, one that deals with ideas as well as action. It could have been far better had the characters been developed more, but for getting viewers to think about violence and our reaction to our enemies, it can serve as a good launching pad. Jesus suggests that we absorb the violence and try to transform the relationship: how does Ender and Graf’s dealing with violence compare? Is a pre-emptive strike and genocide acceptable? And at what cost to those who perpetrate them? Not bad for a film based on a book written by a professed homophobe.

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.

Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5


Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.



        Rated R. Our ratings: V -7; L -6; S/N -2.  Running time: 1 hour 49 min.


Max with Frey and her sick daughter fighting to
reach Elysium where there is the promise of healing.
(c) 2013 TriStar

 O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:17-18

  … learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

     Isaiah 1:17

 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free…

Luke 4.18

 I remember from my boyhood the definition of science fiction as the extrapolation of present trends or developments into the future. (I think this was from either influential editor John W. Campbell or an author such as Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov.) South Africa-born director/writer Neill Blomkamp obviously understands this, as evidenced by his second film in this genre. Set in a Los Angeles that in 2154 looks more like a Third World metropolis with its overcrowdedness, clogged streets, and befouled air, this dystopia is the  result of today’s trend of the 1 % becoming more and more richer—reportedly they now control 32% of the wealth—at the expense of the middle class and poor. Earth has become so over-populated, diseased, polluted, and overcome by crime that those with the means have retreated into a huge donut-like satellite named after the Greek Elysian Fields, where all is fair and bright. A semblance of order is enforced on Earth by robot cops programmed to deal harshly with anyone on Earth who even looks like he/she might resist the strict laws imposed from above.

Max (Matt Damon) had been raised at a Catholic orphanage where a nun had often assured him that he was special, created for a worthy task. That must seem long ago to him now, working at a factory run by Armadyne, a defense company that planned and built Elysium and all of the robots serving it and enforcing its laws. At this sweatshop-like factory he is brow beaten by a harsh foreman. Once a car thief, Max is trying to put his criminal past behind him, but then comes the day when he is exposed to a high dose of radiation on the job.

Given just five days to live, Max contacts old crime associate Spider (Wagner Moura), who is similar to the coyotes of today’s Mexico in that he sends off ships loaded with desperate people trying to reach Elysium where every lavish home is equipped with a healing bay. Equipped with a MRI-like scanner, a bay can quickly cure virtually any ailment known to mankind. But only citizens of Elysium have access to it: not one of Earth’s hospitals is so equipped. In a poignant scene we see Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) coldly order three approaching ships filled with illegal immigrants (who paid dearly for their berths) to be shot down. Apparently word of the fate of those trying to escape their wretchedness has not reached the masses of others clamoring to leave Earth.

Max and Spider have a plan—to equip the former with a cyborg frame that will greatly enhance his strength, and to kidnap Armadyne’s CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner).  Carlyle has a chip embedded in his brain that has all the information about Elysium and the program that controls the robot police. Max is to link to the kidnapped CEO’s brain and download all the information into his own modified brain; travel to Elysium; and overcome its defenses with Carlyle’s computerized information. Along the way Max meets Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse whom he had known as a child back at the orphanage. She has a daughter dying of leukemia, a disease easily cured by a few minutes in a healing bay, so there are now three reasons to accomplish his mission—for himself, for the mother and her girl, and for the oppressed of the Earth.

Matters of course do not go smoothly, one of his chief obstacles being the vicious mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Cople), employed by the Defense Secretary as an undercover agent on Earth to ferret out any opposition to her plans. There is an overly violent series of fights and battles before any kind of a victory can emerge for the poor. Indeed, the ending is very simplistic; so it is best not to think too much about this, except to rejoice that the good guys win.

While reflecting upon the film I not only thought of the director’s excellent District 9, also a dystopian film, set in the director’s own country South Africa, still suffering from the effects of apartheid, but also of Tsotsi, the 2005 film directed by Gavin Hood. Mr. Hood, also born in South Africa, shows that even though apartheid has legally been destroyed, its effects still infuse a society terribly divided between the wealth and the poor. His film chronicles six days in the life of a gang leader named Tsotsi who accidentally kidnaps a baby during his car jacking of a wealthy white couple’s RV. Tsotsi and his friends often sleep in drainage pipes and such places, while the whites live in splendor behind their high walls and gates. Tsotsi can touch the walls that separated him from wealth, whereas Max must look up to see the gated satellite, and yet it is just 19 minutes away by space shuttle.

Elysium thus resonates with issues currently being debated—the growing separation between the rich and the less well off; the desperate desire of the poor to cross illegally into America and the attempts of defenders of the status quo to keep them out; the lack of access to health care that plagues so many; and more. This is a film well worth seeing and discussing, though the convener might have to reign in the passions of some members. It is refreshing to find at last a summer blockbuster that is not all CGI-enhanced sound and fury, but has a little more substance to it, even a recognition that the church has a contribution to make to the lives of  “the least of these.” However, I would have loved the film more if there had been shown a church or its leaders working with the poor. Wim Wenders depicted this beautifully in his post 9/11 film Land of Plenty in which his young heroine works in an inner city church that feeds and houses street people. Surely there will be such churches still around in the next 140 years.

The full review with a set of 6 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.