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we get is a shiny new matte on a Pinto: sure, it looks like a brand-new, gorgeous, compact vehicle, but it’s really an outdated model practically begging to explode the moment you put the keys in.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 (http://youtu.be/ZpUYjpKg9KY). 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.

3.5/5

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Europa Report

In space, no one can hear your hype.

After a near year-long hiatus, I’m turning Sound/Off back on, bringing you some overdue insights into new and upcoming releases that may otherwise float under your radar.

Aptly labeled “hard science fiction” films are occupy an oft overlooked but beloved niche in a time of explosive blockbusters. Drawing from and yearning for a place in the pantheon of every-other-year smart space movies, Europa Report thrives on gritty believability in the face of otherworldly unknowns.

It’s rough not being Avatar. Hell, it’s rough not being Transformers. Trying to sell a science fiction film without the aid of 3D-enhanced explosions, Smurf-cat-people, or, for that matter, hundreds of millions of dollars, requires a certain tenacity and stringent adherence to understatement most movie studios and goers are quick to dismiss. That said, there have been some pretty stellar (HA! See what I did there???)¬†exceptions to that rule over the past few years, particularly out of the independent sector: 2009’s Moon¬†managed to merge space-based hard sci-fi with classic identity-thriller hallmarks, while, that same year, District 9 used a faux-documentary style to further the otherwise action-heavy alien apartheid film’s believability. Taking more than a few hints from both, Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report blends hard sci-fi with found-footage and faux-doc structure to admirable and mostly successful results.

“Houston, we have a movie.”

Set in the not very distant future, the film follows an international team of intrepid explorers and scientists who set off to Jupiter’s moon of Europa in the hopes of discovering life underneath it’s frozen, jagged ice sheets. Predictably, things don’t really go as planned: after an early tragedy, as well as a communications blackout, the space-farers are left drifting towards their enigmatic destination without guidance or the certainty of returning home ever again. Built around the aforementioned framing of a found-footage documentary, Report takes recorded video feeds from the mission and tosses it together with interviews collected from the team’s coordinators back on Earth. It’s an intriguing model to frame the action around, but consistently feels forced to the point that the mission’s actual narrative feels a bit to jumbled at times.

TIGHT.

Luckily, once the comm-towers go down and the astronauts are left to their own devices, the film takes a sharp turn toward the engaging. The faux-doc framework pops up only occasionally after the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, and the rest of the story is basically told through crew logs. Surprisingly enough, the found-footage feel works pretty well here given the claustrophobic nature of the events at hand. Stuck in their proverbial tin-can and left without direction from their Earth-bound overwatch, the team is forced to move past their various personal differences in the name of science and human discovery to carry out their primary objective: to search for traces of alien life in Europa’s icy oceans. Of course, what they end up discovering is far more terrifying and dangerous than any of them bargained for.

Good to go?

The film boasts a pretty strong, under-the-radar cast: Michael Nyqvist (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Swedish], Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) aptly plays a veteran cosmonaut in the thralls of guilt over an early mission mishap, while Christian Camargo (Dexter‘s Brian Moser) and Karolina Wydra (House) are familiar and welcome faces. Lead billing goes to Sharlto Copely, coincidentally revisiting the faux-doc sci-fi niche he helped pioneer with the aforementioned District 9. Interestingly enough, Copely’s role in the film, while pivotal, is fairly confined, his screen-time cut down to the first-half of the adventure.

Copely isn’t in Johannesburg anymore…

While the actors all seem game, sadly, their characters are underwritten, basically boiling down to tropes like hopelessly inquisitive scientist, snarky skeptic guy, space janitor, and survivor chick with short haircut. Nyqvist breathes some life into the hardened yet vulnerable Andrei, though, given the filmmakers’ preoccupations with focusing on the science more than character development, any depth these personalities have are put on the back-burner. It’s a shame, considering the opportunity a claustrophobic environment like a space capsule can offer for inter-character conflicts and complex relationships.

Michael Nyqvist hates this mission.

Thankfully, the mechanical aspects of the film are tied together quite nicely. The special effects are admirably effective, from a lander’s slow descent onto an alien moon to a dramatic POV shot of an ever shrinking spacecraft in an endless blanket of black. It looks low-budget in a way that only adds to its plausible aesthetic. The editing is all over the place: structurally, the film crumbles under its jumbled and jumpy faux-doc narrative, though when the action stays within the confines of the mission, the cuts are done quite effectively. Flourishes of “radiation interference” cause color bursts and video noise and act as nice visual touches in contrast to the blue-tinged HD cams the mission logs are mostly comprised of. Every so often, a crew member picks up their own handheld cam, often leading to some of the most intimate and surprisingly touching moments in an otherwise strictly business outing.

On approach to awesome.

Without going into much detail (which, luckily the filmmakers don’t really, either), the extraterrestrial presence bolstering heart of the flick is tastefully and intriguingly presented. The nature of this outside force is kept a cleverly veiled, yet accessible, mystery that will keep you guessing till the last few frames of the movie. Without exaggeration, this is one of the finest portrayals of a third encounter I’ve ever seen. There’s no early reveal, no shadowy figures coming up behind our heroes and heroines, and really no explanation. And it’s cool, because we really don’t need one. Hats off to Cordero for holding back just enough to draw us in completely.

Brian Moser’s in spaaaace….

While it can be a bumpy ride, this trek to Europa is ultimately rewarding, offering not only a delicately reserved and believable look at a deep space search for alien life, but a fresh blending of sci-fi filmmaking styles that pay tribute to those that preceded it, while offering something fresh and understated to the pantheon. An impressive feat for an indie release, and for a genre that relies so heavily on inordinate amounts of money to draw in an audience. It may not pioneer the concept, but, despite its shortcomings, Europa Report boldly goes where few films have gone before and makes it feel like something exciting and new. Cheers to that.

3.5/5

Motion Pictures Reviewed: Prometheus

The wait is over: three decades after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returns to the genre he redefined in Alien‘s spiritual precursor/successor, Prometheus. Does Scott’s bombastic space case make for universal appeal, or does it find him going boldly where every man has gone before?

A few months back I posted a relatively breathless preview of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, the insanely-hyped science fiction creationist epic set before the iconic space-horror visual orgasm that was 1979’s Alien. Ever since 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott’s spent the past 30 years distancing himself from the genre that put him in the critics’ corner, inspiring film students, sci-fi junkies, and popcorn-lovers alike to openly embrace the ideas of subtly dystopic, corporately-controlled intergalactic shitshows. Alien, in particular, broke new ground in removing most of the sheen from futuristic space operas, opting for ethereal, industrial settings full of claustrophobic hallways, junktastic computer interfaces, and VHS-quality video feeds: it was situations and characters were realistic and the horrors that followed them were as strikingly inventive as they were visceral. Flash forward another three decades to 2012, and Scott’s budget (not to mention his ambitions) have become substantially… well, larger, a scale he uses to crank everything in Prometheus to an eleven on the “holy cow”-scale.

How is babby formed?

Scott’s desire to “think big” and “go big” with his artistic homecoming carries over into the main gist and (initially) driving idea of Prometheus: who are we, as human beings, and where did we come from? Scott’s “answer”, at least for the second half of that question, is a giant, bald, blue-pale muscleman who drinks some nasty black stuff in the first minute or so of the movie that causes him to rapidly decay, fall over a waterfall and spread his DNA around a prehistoric landscape, all after watching a gigantic spacecraft silently float away through thick grey clouds, back into the infinite sea of space. It’s an almost poetic hook that begs more questions than it does answers; fitting, given the nature of the ideas Scott aims to tackle here.

What’s with the sci-fi tendency to name spaceships after ill-fated mythological characters???

From there, we’re whisked off to 2093 aboard the Prometheus, a corporately funded deep-space research vessel tacked with uncovering the origins of mankind from the furthest regions of our galaxy. Their destination (with nods to devoted fans of the Alien franchise) is LV-223, a distant moon archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find numerous references to in ancient pictograms they found around the world. The uber-old depictions of humans worshiping giant humanoid figures that point toward a star system lead the two young scientists to conclude that these “gods” were actually prehistoric astronauts, inviting latter-day humans to “meet their makers” (a phrase ironically and a bit too overtly thrown around throughout the flick courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s crack/cracked-up script).

Brushing up on their history, no doubt…

What follows would be a bit too telling for people looking forward to literally unearthing the mysteries Scott hints at here, but I guarentee you there’s plenty of blood, sweat, and tentacles lurking in man’s cradle once the Prometheus has landed. Alien-franchise fans will have a blast with the impressive mythology-integration Lindelof brought to the table, particularly the shady background dealings of Weyland Industries, the company funding the expedition. Aside from the aforementioned alien nasties, the movie’s primary antagonists are these slippery corporate-types pulling the operation’s strings. Charlize Theron’s appropriately icy expedition supervisor Meredith Vickers makes interesting character-development turns, going from skeptical authority figure to surprisingly desperate woman-wronged; it’s fascinating and impressive that Lindelof could make such a seemingly two-dimensional character as deep as she is, but disappointing how short-lived and under-utilized her potential ends up given her strengths.

She’s as cold as ice…

Most other characters fall under this catagory as well: Repace’s Shaw goes full 360 on her concepts of faith throughout the film and demonstrates jaw-dropping resilience, yet lacks the rebellious punch of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Idris Elba’s role as a blue-collared ship captain is appreciated but underplayed by the action at hand, especially given that he barely leaves the cockpit the entire movie. Marshall-Green’s Holloway character is wasted as a mere foil and romantic connection for Repace’s, leaving his potential impact in the film relatively unrealized.

Elizabeth Shaw’s not quite Ripley, but she still has to put up with some horrific situations in her underwear.

The rest of the crew are unfortunately underwritten, often carrying glimpses into what could have been (Sean Harris’ Fifield, the stoner geologist very much opposed to going down that dark, scary looking hallway over there) rather than what ends up being, which most of the time is a bloodied corpse. Most the blame falls on Lindelof here: he spends far too much time seeking ways to satiate franchise fan-bases without paying enough attention to drawing out his characters and making them act in believable ways. Believable character action, in particular, becomes an increasingly rare commodity as the body-count rises, crew-members often showing a lack of scientific restraint unbecoming of supposed world-class scientists.

Rising above the pack, however, is the ever lauded Michael Fassbender, sporting a fascist-esque blonde hairdo and impressive Peter O’Toole inflection. Playing the ship’s synthetic science officer (again, wetting the mouths of every Alien-franchise fan ever), David, Fassbender wryly takes his familiar role and inventively turns it upside-down, dropping hints at David’s underlying intentions and curiosities lost on the rest of the crew which merely shrugs his being off as pure mechanization. Watching Fassbender’s near-invisible wince when his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under a crapload of makeup), says via hologram that David is “the closest thing to a son he has” despite the fact he “will never have a soul” is as heart-wrenching a display of humanity as any Scott has ever filmed in his near 40 year career. Early parts of the film dedicate themselves to observing David’s routines prior to the rest of the crew waking from their two-year hypersleep: he shoots hoops one-handed riding a bicycle… he studies countless languages and recites them perfectly… he watches Lawrence of Arabia, quoting O’Toole obsessively… he even watches crew-members dreams, a robotic voyeur seeking to understand what makes us tick. It’s creepy and intriguing all at the same time, ultimately trumping the initial creationist tones the rest of the script begs the audience to pay heed to.

Something to behold.

When Fassbender’s not busy stealing the scene, however, the scenes themselves are: despite character flubs, Lindelof and Scott have established a very impressive universe in Prometheus, one that ties into the Alien-franchise without necessarily feeling constricted by its design choices. Indeed, here Scott aims for grandiosity on a level unseen in Alien, dreaming up cavernous structures, gigantic alien creatures, massive action set-pieces, and gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no slouch on the visuals, his framing artful and technique engrossing. The 3D visual effects courtesy of the Moving Picture Company are some of the best realized since (as much as I hate the movie) Avatar, coming across as tastefully immersive rather than gaudily exploitative. Disappointing, to a certain extent, are some of the creature designs, branching a bit too far away from H.R. Giger’s source designs and opting for familiarly fleshy beings rather than distinctly (and bracingly) alien ones. That said, the visuals, as a whole will definitely not disappoint.

Nothing ominous about this at all…

Aside from somewhat sloppy writing and lackluster character development, the only other glaring problems with Prometheus are the numerous plot-holes and unexplained circumstances that sometimes pop up in the film’s second-act. I feel like the ball’s in Ridley’s court here: he overtly (and, even cheekily) sets up the film’s finale less as a culmination and more as a launching pad for a potential franchise, leaving his big questions mostly unanswered and his remaining characters’ blindly heading again into the unknown. For some, this turn may cheapen the experience, but for others (franchise fans in particular), it will only whet appetites for another outing. Visually stunning but a bit too rough for its own ambitions, this hype-machine grinds metal on literary levels, but proves ample popcorn-potential for most movie-goers. Prepare to meet your makers!

Back to the Future: “Prometheus” and the reclaimation of a genre

After a 30 year absence from the science fiction film scene, Ridley Scott circles back to the genre that made him a household name…

2012 is quickly shaping up to be a promising year for the Hollywood blockbuster: Christopher Nolan is already teasing American audiences with six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, Peter Jackson has every geek wetting himself over The Hobbit, and Joss Whedon is pushing The Avengers harder than your local housing-development scumbag pushes crack cocaine. Yet as exciting as all this may seem, none of it really holds much of a kick: we already know Knight is going to be a knockout and a critical darling, while I’m sure The Hobbit‘s overindulgence with CGI will have every nerd practically bawling over how “amazing” it all looks… and The Avengers? Well, it’ll make a sh*t-load of money, so who honestly cares what it brings to the table? The truth of the matter is that despite the promise, I’m not all that psyched merely because the promises made are not ambitious enough to not be kept. Hollywood’s abandoned risks and it’s a shame.

Yes, Chris... we already know this is going to be awesome...

And yet, from the darkest corner of late-career mediocrity, a challenger appears in the least likely of places: a future courtesy of an iconic past. After abandoning the science fiction genre after 1982’s seminal sci-fi/noir Blade Runner, Ridley Scott took up a number of forgettable thrillers and epics that earned him respect as a capable director, but a reputation for playing it relatively safe considering his ambitious beginnings with genre-defining pieces like Alien. Regardless of how skilled Scott was at conveying action and entertainment on mass levels, his art was never quite as exciting without the wonderment of an fully imagined setting providing an engaging backdrop for his blockbusters. That’s why, in my opinion, the news of his return to the genre that made him with the forthcoming Prometheus warrants the most excitement out of any large-scale industry project next year.

Already drooling over this trailer after 5 seconds...

Part of the genius behind Prometheus is the hype its managed to generate. Is it a prequel to Alien? Can we expect the creepy, atmospheric flourishes that made Scott’s other sci-fi ventures as effective as they were? Will it have enough explosions to keep an audience reared on the Transformers movies interested in its apparently heavy-handed plot? Judging by the incredible trailer I posted above, the answer, thankfully, seems to be a resounding “yes”.

Looks familiar.

The “DNA” of Alien Scott has been hinting at for the past couple months is immediately apparent in both the tone the film appears to take AND the presence of very familiar narrative facets present in the 1979 precursor (the derelict ship, space jockey “gun chair”, and Giger-esque “spine halls”). A schooled fan-boy might even find himself keen enough to catch a glimpse of a distinctive “Weyland-Yutani” logo on the crew members’ space caps in the trailer (particularly on Noomi Repace’s before she’s flung spectacularly by some sort of gale-force space wind). The trailer itself is commendably edited: the title-introduction a noticeable salute to the classic Alien trailer, and the expert pacing capturing contemporary trends in Inception-ized attention-grabbing without sacrificing tasteful shots of vistas and breathtaking color for hyper-stylization.

"Dark of the Moon" my f*cking a$$...

Beyond what I could see, Prometheus is also shaping up to be a very well written movie as well, a quality irritatingly absent in the genre as of late. Damon Lindelof’s presence always seems to do the trick when it comes to effective myth-making, so I had little doubt the magnitude of a story that spans from mankind’s creation through well into our future would be handled with aptitude and grace. The well-balanced cast also seems an effective draw, offering two conflicting female protagonists, a wide array of talented ensemble crew-members, and Michael Fassbender playing an android in existential crisis (sign me the f*ck up).

The great Derelict hope.

With merely a handful of screen-caps and a minute-long trailer to back its cause, Prometheus has already left me convinced it will be the knock-out stunner of 2012. Ridley: welcome back, man. It’s been way too long.