Sunday, August 11, 2013

Linguistic Curiosities in 'Elysium'

Matt Damon's latest hit movie Elysium has a few linguistic oddities worth pointing out. The film takes place in a dystopian future set in 2154.
  • Jodie Foster's weird accent. She speaks French occasionally in the movie, but when she speaks English, she affects a weird accent that is un-placeable, inconsistent, and off-putting. A good director needs to tell a star like Foster that it's just not working, go back to your real voice.

  • Matt Damon's inexplicable bilingualism. His character "Max" is shown growing up speaking Spanish, surrounded by Spanish speakers. The boy inexplicably starts speaking English in one scene. When we meet the adult Max, his English is fluent. One could make the argument that he learned English somewhere in the missing years the movie doesn't show. Here's the thing, we get to hear all of his friends speaking English too, and they all speak with Spanish accents! Max is the only one who manages to grow up in that Spanish dominant culture and yet speak flawless English.

  • Speech synthesis straight out of 1998. Damon has an early scene with a robo-parole officer which speaks with a stilted, halting robo-voice that reminded me of speech synthesis that's already ten years out-of-date. This is the same movie that depicts medical science as being so advanced, a machine can diagnose and cure any disease in seconds. Harumph...

  • Horrible dialogue dubbing (non-linguistic, but worth pointing out.). Particularly for Jodie Foster, the sound dubbing was awful, destroying any suspension of disbelief I managed to retain in spite of the many ridiculous moments in the film. Not gonna win any sound editing awards anytime soon.
Dystopian futures are a peculiar genre in film making. From cheap Aussie films like Mad Max to slick Hollywood blockbusters like Blade Runner, they've been a staple of film makers who want to make a social statement while also giving the audience a fun romp. But, for a dystopian film to really work it needs to care about creating believability in at least three broad areas: 1) visual world 2) social world, and 3) plot. Sadly, most movies devote all their time to 1 and precious little to 2 and 3. Elysium is clearly one of the many that put all their budget into look and feel and none into the story.

While Neill Blomkamp managed to create a visually beautiful world, the story is pure shit. It's the worst kind of liberal stereotype where every rich person is an evil sociopath and every poor person is a good hearted victim. It's too bad because there is a core of truth to the movie. There really is a tremendous wealth gap and there really are tragic inequalities, but this movie uses these facts as little more than a cheap backdrop to a thin beat 'em up thriller while pretending to be a socially conscious movie.

But here's the thing: There are no lessons in this movie. You won't gain a deeper understanding of anything. You won't have an "a hah" moment. It's Fox News for liberals, and it's equally as patronizing and empty. It's clear that Blomkamp put all his energy into the look of the film, and none into the story. There is tremendous nuance and detail in every item of clothing and every object, but the social structure is barely a cartoon and the plot is wafer thin (crucially depending on a series of coincidences like bad action films so often do). Ultimately, it was not really worth it. I'd like my $7 matinee ticket back, please.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another thing, apparently none of the characters in the movie knew that data is in fact plural. This bothered the hell out of me.

Chris said...

You're talking to the wrong guy, Sparky: http://thelousylinguist.blogspot.com/2007/10/data-datum-dati-datillium-datsun.html

Reed Holmes said...

Did a Google search on Jodie Foster's weird accent in Elysium and found your excellent review. You nailed it. I actually fell asleep the first time I saw the movie. Rather than slag the film, I actually gave it second shot. As you suggest, all the effort went into the spectacular visuals and special effects. The story (and logic) was weak.

Anonymous said...

Blade Runner was hardly a blockbuster.

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=bladerunner.htm

Chris said...

Reed, thanks. I'm impressed you gave it the second go.

Anonymous, yep, you are correct. Guess I should have used a term like "classic".

Birdy said...

"Did a Google search on Jodie Foster's weird accent in Elysium and found your" review.

well that is what i would say but in the opposite manner.

i found her voice in the movie to be downright sexy, it was both authoritative and aristocratic and had to have more.

as for the movie, should have replaced year 2154 with 2014, would have been more believable, looked like skid row took over LA. felt the story line dragged on longer then it should have, and the huge botch where one moment little girls arm is extended and the next moment to her side with the wave of the machine.

sorry main point, i want her voice.

Anonymous said...

I was trying to find out why the hell Jodie Foster was speaking so strangely and I came across this post. That accent was more than weird. I sincerely thought she had some sort of stroke that makes her talk like that. weird indeed!

Anonymous said...

+1 on the horrible dialogue dubbing.

Jodie Foster's French was very impressive ... her English very odd.

But worst of all was the feeling that I was paying to sit through a trite parable about the inequity of the world today.

Anonymous said...

Bad dubbing + weird inconsistent accent.... The two are likely related. Other articles have pointed out that comicon trailers showed Foster speaking with a pronounced French accent. I'm sure there will be a Starlog-style interview with Neill where he blames studio meddling.

TLM said...

Another odd linguistic feature was President Patel. He had an Indian accent. Yes, he is Indian by race, but since he would be a Elysian national and it would be 140 years in the future, how likely would it be that he retain that colonial accent?

Anonymous said...

spanish accent = flawed english? false dichotomy lol. so much casual racism here in the post and in the comments. stop being such an asshole, man. nobody cares if you're a 'lnguist' or who you work for.

michaelant said...

Jodi Foster's accent was indeed very odd. But I don't think it was a case of, as an example, her trying to sound British and failing. I assumed it was something deliberate, in that either she had an "Elysium" accent (after all, it's pretty far in the future) or that it was a stylistic affectation of her upper class, that she and her peers intentionally spoke differently as a means of further differentiating themselves. The main problem with this of course is that if that were the case, everyone on Elysium should be speaking this way, and I noticed only one other person with an odd accent, though it was subtle - the plant owner guy who was on Earth. Anyway, I'm guessing the filmmakers were trying to go for something future-y with her accent. That she would have a different sound because of how many years had passed, and the mix of cultures on Elysium.

Jack Newby said...

Chris,
I agree Jodie Fosters voice wasn't very easy on the ear, but isn't it possible that in an advance society of mixed cultures new accents may well have been formed over 150-odd years (probably an advance mixed of English and French in this case.

I agree the story line is weak, slightly disappointing as so much effort obviously went into the visuals.

so much potential wasted in my opinion!

Chief Chief said...

What about the Krueger guy every time he spoke it seemed as if he was mumbling?

Unknown said...

Linguistics? How about Foster in opening sequence in an all white Armani textured cloth suit then immediately walking into command central in a metal gray satin or shark skin suit. Continuity 101 folks. I thought the makeup people, who made the implanted tech gear look plausible, saved the movie.

Wes Gleeson said...

There was nothing racist in this article. Racism is about showing prejudice, a bit like what you're doing with this silly comment.

Wes Gleeson said...

Yes! I found this by googling "Jodie Foster voi" and it autocompleted "Jodie Foster voice Elysium". Ruined it for me. Unwatchably bad dubbing. Not seen dubbing like that since On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Wes Gleeson said...

It was funny when she pronounced it "datta" and then immediately after someone pronounced it "dayta" :)

Mrls said...

Well, I'm not so impressed with the dystopian XXII Earth, I live in México (the country, not the city) and when I go to México City I see the southeast zone of it and looks much like the movie, improving it as one reach the historic center.

About mr. Damon's spanish lines I just can say that he say all words correctly, but with an obvious english-speaker accent and for me that is acceptable because many other movies has terrible spanish lines from english-speakers actors.

Anonymous said...

"What about the Krueger guy every time he spoke it seemed as if he was mumbling?"

Sharlto Copley is actually a South African actor playing a South African in this movie, so in this case I guess we must all bow Down to the truth being stranger than fiction.

Anonymous said...

I think you're missing the point with regards to Jodie Foster's accent.

I took it to be the native 'Elysian' accent. Everybody up there is probably well educated and can speak a few languages - maybe this is the result.

I thought it came across as a sort of bastardised version of received English. Maybe the british accent is trendy up there or something.

I also think its a clever choice for the film as it really makes Jodies character feel alien and different to us, which is fitting really.

Wes Gleeson said...

That is a good point. The fact that her lips didn't match her voice made me hate her, and people are supposed to dislike the antagonist, so it worked in that respect. It's a bit like Alanis Morissette "Ironic", which tried in vain to define irony many times in the song, the failure of which being in itself ironic, with many people missing that point. You win, Mr Anon.

Jeremy said...

What language did Jodie Foster speak when you was talking to John Carlyle as she was walking away?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post.

One of the best parts of the film was when the way over acted Jodi Foster character was bumped off. Kind like an really bad attempt to do a British accent by a little girl at a play tea party. Incredibly annoying. Where was the accent coach? Too much went to special effects?

Since the Dick Van Dyke "really missed it" Cockney accent in Mary Poppins was recorded on film, I would have thought the film industry learned something.

Anonymous said...

"What language did Jodie Foster speak when you was talking to John Carlyle as she was walking away?"

That was French.

daveak said...

Exactly......

daveak said...

Yes, i agree.

daveak said...

NLP: so basically you are a rodney dangerfield of your 'career field'?

Fen said...

I assumed it was something deliberate, in that either she had an "Elysium" accent (after all, it's pretty far in the future) or that it was a stylistic affectation of her upper class, that she and her peers intentionally spoke differently as a means of further differentiating themselves

I am wishing that were true. Just finished the movie and was so confused by Foster's speech that I (as others here have said) was motivated enough to google it. I also thought maybe she was recovering from a stroke at first.

But she's my fav actress, and is one of the smartest. So maybe she was trying to create an Elysium accent. Except for her poor acting. That's not her, the delivery was disjointed, almost as if she was ad libbing each scene.

Something was off there, I hope she is okay.

Jesus Tapia said...

Jesus Christ. French = Haute Classe, the point is to emphasis size that she is better than everyone else. That's it. The fantasy is sound and rather incredibly appropriate alongside her nouvelle accent. The French have always held dear leisure. That's it. Les français seront toujours les propriétaires de le luxe, de la vie haute, de la bonne vie. Ce n'était pas forcée, c'était une chose que vous ne comprendriez à cause d'une manque d'expérience.

nowhereman said...

Wow, how this comment section evolves before you eyes. Though the amusing article overshot a little but vindicated my curiosity, comments took me ( in inaccurate order here by my flawed memory)... on a ride through unrealistic assumptions as to why accents should or shouldn't be somewhere, somewhen, from which individual surrounded by whom, even when we don't know that character's home life (if any) or years let alone hours, off screen. Then after an accusation of racist journalism based on said accent origins (!), a disagreement about Jodie Foster's voice which included somebody thinking it was sexy. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but whomever thinks Foster's accent in Elysium was sexy needs to stay away from me, children, and farm animals.
With a few tangents including on about Krueger, a South African confusing somebody for having an accent that is... South African (please leave your home sometime), we drift form the original study of Foster's oddly morphing accent to the grossly predictable, inevitable, defense of Foster. Some had to actually point out that maybe, just maybe, her accent was all in the plans because it's (gasp!) the future! Thanks for the tip.
The ideas about the three areas you "must get right" in dystopian sic-fi films is interesting, however the article is a bit rough on the film (and others) in that sense. Assumed to be a shallow approach, I believe if you're working with sic-fi, especially the future, getting the visual to be special and detailed IS more important than getting a story to fir each person's exquisite taste. After all, the hardest thing to believe about what hasn't happened yet is how it will look, but behavior and where it will take you in the future will likely be impossible to predict or follow. It could be stranger than we can imagine, and very much dictated by our surroundings, or, visuals. This comes all the way back to accents but the way; I believe we've seen enough for a few hundred years to know we can't assume anything about how long somebody is going to hold to an Indian accent or if somebody should sound a certain way because we saw a lot of their friends.
Lastly, "Fen" brought it home for us. Though "Jesus" tried to pass Foster's accent as simply Haute, "Fen" and many of us that don't have enough sugar to coat the world can actually stomach that somebody as smart and talented as Foster, somebody that has so many people cheering her on... can still screw up. That accent is inconsistent, awkward, forced, forgotten, revised, and nearly causing her to run out of breath and choke at times. You can admit it just sucked. It's okay.

mafiagurl said...

Her accent was so odd I began to wonder if i was the one having the stroke. Every time she spoke I cringed. ..a lot. I love being able to sit accents when i hear them, this one had me baffled. Especially when no one else had anything similar. Kind of ruined the show for me

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