Motion Pictures Reviewed: Elysium

Following his hugely successful Apartheid-with-aliens film debut, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp sets his sights on more dystopic science-fiction social commentary with the gorgeous Elysium. Does this tale of futuristic class warfare prove a blockbusting game-changer or another video game-esque blockbuster?

Totally original marketing.

It’s good to be rich in 2154. As the privileged elite took to orbit in their giant, outer-space Mercedes Benz logo, totally inconspicuously dubbed Elysium (FORESHADOWING ALERT!), they took all their fancy cancer and deformity curing technology with them. Left behind were the 99%, now living in a collection of literal shanty-towns that all curiously look like the eponymous South African ghetto full of aliens in District 9. Needless to say, the destitute state of the world the wealthy have all but abandoned leaves the masses looking to the glittering station in the sky for salvation: a salvation the occupants of Elysium are keen on keeping to themselves. That is, until Matt Damon, replete with power armor and a handful of really cool guns, comes knocking.

Introducing the 2154 Model Mercedes-Benz Elysium series…

Within the first fifteen minutes of Elysium, it becomes wholly apparent that Neill Blomkamp has come to embrace Hollywood, as well as its age-old philosophy that successful followup features are built on bigger SFX budgets and rapidly depleting sets of neurons. One needless, goopy origin-story and a couple of eye-popping establishing shots of our respectively glittering and dirt-caked settings later, it’s easy to get the sense that Blomkamp is far more interested in treating his audience to a visual feast rather than a full-spectrum epic. After all, an epic in the truest sense usually entails a smidgen of depth behind its setup, and here all we get is a shiny new matte on a Pinto: sure, it looks like a brand-new, gorgeous, compact vehicle, but it’s really an outdated model practically begging to explode the moment you put the keys in.

Looking classy, Los Angeles: I’m guessing the movie industry tanked around 2050…

Given the wizardry at work in Elysium, however, the Pinto-metaphor is, admittedly, an ill-suited comparison on a technical level. From the dilapidated sprawl of the LA-wasteland to the sterilized office-park paradise of Elysium itself, the film does a fantastic job drawing its audience into the dystopic future setting. Robotic police units patrol seemingly endless barrios with inhuman coldness, while the city’s hapless denizens are forced to take dangerous factory-floor jobs, usually building the various hi-tech treasure-troves that are shipped off world to the wealthy in wait. Design work for everything from cars to spaceships to robocops to Blomkamp’s typically over-the-top weapons of mass destruction are (literally) beautifully realized and believable.

“RIPPIN’ SOMEONE’S HEAD OFF”- Matt Damon does his best Fred Durst impression ( The movie and the song are intellectually made for each-other.

If only the narrative held the same engrossing promise as the film’s look, Blomkamp might make it into the same pantheon of ad-guys-turned-auteurs as Ridley Scott; Scott enthusiasts will undoubtedly draw parallels between Elysium and Blade Runner, as both are visually stunning but flawed story-wise. However, where Blade Runner still managed to tackle relatively fresh concepts using tested, noir-ish tropes, Elysium falls back on tested-tropes without offering the necessary freshness in concept. At its core, Elysium is a messiah story with an Occupy-movement latency: urbane social commentary plastered over a predictable and all-too familiar fable about a hero who’d give everything to even the score. While it makes for a brisk, exciting two hours, it won’t tickle your psyche over any of its ideas.

Spider digs that exosuit, bro!

Convenience becomes Blomkamp’s all-encompassing plot-device, as each circumstance our savior, car-thief on work parole, Max (Damon), finds himself stuck in leads him closer and closer to his childhood dream-turned-nightmare trip to the big Dubai in the sky. On his way to work one morning, he is promptly harassed and beaten by a couple of aforementioned law-enforcing tin men he may or may not have helped build on the factory-line he works during the day. After visiting his equally robotic parole officer in the film’s smartest scene, he just so happens to go to the hospital where his childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) ever-so-selflessly works as a nurse and cares for her leukemia-stricken daughter. Long story short, Max gets blasted with enormous amounts of radiation following a work accident, is given a week to live, and, appropriately, a week to get his ass to space to cure his rampant case of multiple organ failure. Helping him out along the way is a crippled weapons-dealer named Spider (Wagner Moura), a handful of culturally diverse cannon-fodder characters, and a surgically grafted “exosuit” that gives Max the power to rip the heads off robots and deflect blows from a futuristic samurai sword.

Samurai swords are so future.

While Damon plays Max with an understated grace the character barely deserves, his foes bide far less promisingly in the acting and storyline department. William Fichtner’s steely industrialist is about as thinly drawn an antagonist as one can probably fathom, while Jodie Fosters’ inexplicably blood-thirsty Elysium Defense Secretary sports an accent as corny as her motivations are mind-numbingly simplistic. Doing a far better job being bad, Blomkamp’s perpetual partner in celluloid, Sharlto Copely, chews scenery left and right as mercenary Kruger. Holding no love for his two-dimensional employers above, this rampage-prone psychopath is a far cry from Copely’s meek government stooge, Wikus, in District 9. Letting Copely go off-hinge was a smart move on Blomkamp’s part, as Kruger quickly proves the most memorable villain of the film.

Yeah, so this happens… Sharlto throws a BBQ.

Despite it’s exhilarating chase-scenes, bullet-ballets, and inspired environments, Elysium‘s storytelling disappointingly takes a backseat to its displays of artistic carnage. Had Blomkamp and his writing team taken more time to flesh-out the denizens of this twisted, promisingly dark future, the film would have evoked its desired conversations about contemporary wealth-gaps rather than inevitable whining about its blunt narrative-shortcomings. A treat to watch, but a bust to analyze, Elysium plays it safe with its formula, yet triumphs with its aesthetic. While I can hardly wait to see what Blomkamp offers up next, I’m less stoked to eventually “engage” with it.


Motion Pictures Reviewed: Star Trek Into Darkness

Setting all phasers to stun, J.J Abrams’ bombastic sequel to 2009’s Star Trek revamp ups the stakes, casting the now not so fresh-faced crew of the U.S.S Enterprise into a titular Darkness. Does this deep space boldly go where no one has gone before, or is it stuck in orbit over the same old content?

Keeping my fingers crossed this movie doesn’t crash and burn…

Star Trek is smart, but, man, it can be a real snoozer, too. For all its scientific credibility, expanded mythology, and hamtastic cast members, the series’ preoccupation with phaser-based space operatics have always left it playing second-string to Star Wars‘ lightsaber enhanced smorgasbords of destruction. Ever the intuitive auteur, J.J Abrams set out to reboot the franchise back in 2009 to great results: both a critical and commercial darling, Star Trek proved a cleverly reworked envisioning of the original series that pleased Trekkies and newcomers alike. Four years and a two hundred million dollar budget later, Abrams takes to the captain’s seat once more with the heavily-hyped and awesomely titled Star Trek Into Darkness.

Boldy going where they’ve all gone before.

Into Darkness finds the ever impregnable Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) doing what impregnable interstellar wunderkinds do best: saving the world(s) via increasingly daring and roguish means, a habit that puts him at the wrong end of the Starfleet’s good-side. Not helping things are Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) inability to tap into human subtlety, Dr. “Bones” McCoy’s (Karl Urban) negative Nancy-ing, and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura’s troubled love-life (dating an obsessively logical being can be a real drag…). As Kirk finds himself chewed-out of the fleet and his crew flies dangerously close to soap-opera melodrama, in comes a mysterious white guy with an English accent blowing up Starfleet assets with reckless abandon for human life. Pretty soon, Kirk and crew are back on boldly going where no one has supposedly ever gone before, zapping baddies and zipping around space in spectacular fashion.

PEW-PEW! (Chris Pine as Captain Kirk)

Hamming things up in the right way, BBC alum Benedict Cumberbatch puts on his very best annunciation face, taking every opportunity to come across like an outer-space Voldemort with giant guns and a nose. Despite admirably imbuing his character a not-so-subtlely terroristic tone, Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison ends up more of a half-hearted wink-wink at the one of the original series’ (admittedly) best antagonists than a truly terrifying embodiment of genetic supremacy. Peter Weller is a welcome newcomer, begging the line “Dead or alive, John Harrison’s coming with me”, while Alice Eve, as (FAUX-SPOILER ALERT!!!) his daughter, basically plays a platinum-blonde Kirstie Alley and vague love-interest for Kirk.

Totally a necessary addition to the Enterprise crew. Totally…

As with its predecessor, Star Trek is less about villains and romantic subplots than it is about high-stakes action sequences and brisk, hilarious chemistry between key players, and, boy, does Into Darkness deliver. The film (literally) ignites with an opening volcanic rescue scene, and only continues to up its game as the Enterprise races across the galaxy in pursuit of Harrison. Expect chase scenes galore: a particularly fantastic set-piece set amid a bustling 23rd century London in the movies final act will leave you breathless. Lightening the mood, Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Anton Yelchin’s navigator hastily-turned engineer Chekov make for some well-cast comic relief, while Pine and Quinto’s effervescently amicable bickering does a decent job developing the antagonism the two had in the first film into an endearing friendship.

It’s got spark… and Spock!

That said, much of the film lacks the distinct freshness Abrams brought to the table four years ago. Phoned in cameos by Leonard Nemoy, for example, seem more forced than necessary, while the updated Enterprise non-characters, featuring, amongst others, a bald android/Data stand-in and that equally bald lesbian mom from Under the Dome, come across as purely-aesthetic attempts to diversify the command-deck rather than flesh it out. These hitches, while minor, are glaringly apparent throughout Into Darkness, as are the overly overt and predictable shout-outs to the 1982 classic this sequel was basically birthed from.

Cumberbatch, big guns, and overt Wrath.

Visually terrific and a breeze to watch, Star Trek into Darkness proves an excellent popcorn affair, brimming with enough references to the old-school to keep fanboys happy and enough lens-flare enhanced action scenes to keep the rest engrossed. It decidedly lacks the same wit and narrative gusto the first entry in the reboot thrived upon; however, Abrams and Co. still offer up a remarkably fun and well-rounded blockbuster bound to leave you dazzled in the darkness.