22 August 2013

Elysium Review


Sci-fi is something of a painfully neglected genre of late. Whilst there's no denying that your Iron Man Threes and your Man of Steels and your Star Trek In Darknesses are all very technically accomplished films and enjoyable films, there's a common theme throughout them - they're all modern updates of already existing franchises. The dearth of originality in this genre on the silver screen is perhaps more glaring than in others, with the last decent attempt - Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion - lacking the heart that made, say, Logan's Run or Silent Running such masterpieces, and lost amid the aforementioned swathe of franchise films.

Step up Neill Blomkamp - having fully recovered from his stalled Halo project, and leaping off the back of the magnificent District 9, with Elysium, he's shown that there's life in the old genre yet. Not just that, he's crafted a story that's got Oblivion's clarity of vision, but instead of a cold, soulless centre, you have sets of fully-formed human eyes staring back at you.

In the mid-22nd century, the rich elite of Earth have fled from a planet that's become over-crowded and over-polluted to a giant orbiting space station named Elysium, where the wealthy can live forever, and the riff-raff are murdered on sight if they even dare approach. On the ground, an ex-vagrant named Max (Matt Damon) is trying to turn his life around, working on a production line which provides the station with it's all-powerful security force. After a horrifying accident leaves him with fatal radiation poisoning, and with neglectful leadership denying him readily available life-saving treatment, he resolves to get to Elyisum however he can. But all is not as peachy as it seems aboard the station, and as his plan progresses, he accidentally becomes embroiled in a plot engineered by the Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster).

The story, whilst perhaps not quite as impactful as D9's apartheid allegory, is still well crafted, and examines in detail various problems facing the contemporary developed world - exaggerating them to their logical conclusion, 150 years down the line. It also succeeds in keeping you guessing as to exactly how it's all going to pan out - though a side effect of this is a couple of story threads that seem a little stalled. The flipside of that coin, however, is a commentary on quite how interesting every facet of the story is.

Then there's the action, and Blomkamp has outdone himself in this department. His penchant for exotic weaponry is on full show - the air-burst rounds are a particularly brutal stroke, but there's small touches everywhere, and they're integrated seamlessly into the world building. This is Blomkamp's true strength as a film-maker - his attention to detail allows him to construct a world that feels like it's been lived in: Earth is a breathing, stinking slum, and Elysium is Homeric in its execution. The special effects are a joy to behold too - particularly the intricate autons that police Earth's surface on behalf of those on high.

The cast do a superb job of it too - Matt Damon's performance is subtle but brilliant, but we should expect nothing less from a man who hasn't put a foot wrong since those amnesiac spy movies. Jodie Foster - despite sporting one of the strangest accents (a mish-mash of French, British and American) this side of Gerard Butler's Irish - presides over Elysium maliciously, sneering through her teeth at those that question her questionable actions beautifully. The real, gems, however, are Wagner Moura and Sharlto Copley. The former plays an outrageously fast-talking people- and data-trafficker, and he's a joy when he's bouncing off Max's literal and figurative outer shells. Copley, on the other hand, belies his previous efforts to deliver a chillingly horrid villain - merciless, psychotic and seemingly impossible to kill, the tension between himself and Damon gives their scraps a sense of urgency and purpose that is most satisfying.

If there are problems with it, it's two-fold. The allegory is a little on the nose, and some may come away with a bad taste in the mouth from its scathing skewering of America's current healthcare and immigration issues, despite it making an entirely valid argument. Most sad, however, is that whilst the action is still entertaining, it's curiously bloodless this time around. That the film carriers a PG-13/12A rating tells you all you need to know, and the result is a softening of its bite.

But truth be told, it's impossible to not overlook these in favour of the other strengths on show. It's such a complete film, bucking the trend of everyone and their dog setting up for a potential sequel that may or may not transpire. The world it creates is believable, the actions sequences are fantastic (and on occasion even darkly humourous), and the performances top notch on all counts. There's even a curt nod to Halo which brought a smile to this gamer's face. Blomkamp has now proven himself to be a major player in the sci-fi scene, and you owe it to yourself to see this.

17 August 2013

Random Film Round-Up

 John Carter (of Mars)

I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about this; terribly reviewed, and shunned by audiences at the time of its release, it's...really not that bad. It's by no stretch of the imagination great but it's not the dud that it was reported to be.

The world-building is top notch - whilst maybe not a born-and-bred action director, Andrew Stanton's eye for detail is second to none - Tylor Kitsch is actually bearable in the central role, and Mark Strong continues the proud British tradition of Hollywood villainy, along with adding to his own hand of intriguing villains played. The action sequences are a little flat and lack any real oomph, but the story carries it along, despite some turns towards the odd. Lynn Collins is most ill-served by this, her character skipping between warrior maiden and damsel in distress whenever the plot deems it appropriate. It's a shame, because the warrior maiden part is surprisingly well played - the damsel in distress is not.

Overall, it's clear that it ultimately suffers at the hands of itself - John Carter is, after all, one of the archetypes upon which most superhero- and science-fiction is drawn from. Moments that may well have been original back in the late 19th century here feel derivative of the very things derived from them, in a spectacular moment of circular logic that is nearly impossible to get yourself out of. Still, for what it is, it's fun enough, and there's just enough interesting about it to have kept me watching until the end.


Odd one this - ostensibly adapted from a book, it comes to us by way of director Oliver Stone to craft a tale of murder, drugs and treachery. It's got Taylor Kitsch in it (apparently I'm on some sort of Kitsch binge...disaster) and he's...not bearable in this. Neither's Aaron Taylor-Johnson - they're both playing unlikable young drug dealers who stumble upon a particular intense strain of that there crazy pipe weed. They're also both in love with the same woman, here played by the ever-terrible Blake Lively.

She gets kidnapped because reasons - mostly because they refuse to work with a Mexican drug cartel, who aren't willing to simply accept having their plants and distribution network under their control. Oh no, they want the two's 'expertise' (of which they have none) to help grow and sell the product. It more or less escalates from there, with double-crosses, corrupt government agents (John Travolta, continuing to fuel rumours that he's had something done to his face - I vote all nerve endings removed), and an utterly stupid ending that plays out twice. The first one would've actually been a decent place to leave these 'savages'. But no, that one was just in the girls head, and the real ending is an abrupt, deus ex machina moment that is just...dreary, really.

If there is good about it, it's Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek doing seedy villains, the former delightfully sleazy, the latter sultry yet intimidating. If only the rest of the piece were as good as its antagonists, we might've seen a better film. Alas, actors making hamfisted jobs and heavy-handed writing abound, and this was not an enjoyable experience.



Seeing as Henry Cavill is now part of the Superman pantheon, I thought I'd finally give this a go. Coming from the stable of Tarsem - who previously gave us the shallow but visually striking films The Cell and The Fall. He bucks the trend somewhat here with a surprisingly interesting take on the Theseus legend from ancient Greece.

Cavill is decent if a little stiff in the central role, but it's made up for by some excellent supporting work from Stephen Dorff, Mickey Rourke and Luke Evans, all in slightly over-the-top mode, as is appropriate for a story that features gods fighting among men.

The story does some interesting things, trying to figure out what in reality might've inspired the legend, whilst at the same time allowing for the flights of fancy so common in Greek mythology. All of the battles - aside from exhibiting a curious beauty within the chaos - showcase same excellent fight choreography, and the set and costume design are wonderfully intricate. All of this gives rise to the film's best part - its interpretation of the Minotaur part of the legend. A vast, impossibly strong henchman of the evil Hyperion who wears bull-shaped helmet, it's a neat twist and the battle it produces is spectacularly brutal.

It does plod along at times, particularly at the start, but once it allows itself to get going, it's a great ride.