Movie Review: Elysium (2013) (IMAX)

August 10, 2013 in Movie Reviews

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Elysium is a thrilling sci-fi action blockbuster with a thought-provoking premise, but it also requires you to partly switch of your brain to fully enjoy it.

I was expecting an intelligent thriller as Elysium is director Neill Blomkamp’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed District 9, which you might recall was a clever and cheeky 2009 sleeper hit inspired by South Africa’s apartheid era. But if you watch Elysium looking forward to the same sharp wit and veiled political commentary you will probably come away disappointed. On the other hand, if all you want is exciting popcorn entertainment, then Elysium will surely satisfy as a violent, white-knuckle thrill ride with a suped-up Jason Bourne.

Towards the end of the 21st century, Earth is overpopulated, polluted and practically in ruins. The wealthy don’t have anything to worry about, because they live on a luxurious man-made community floating above the planet’s atmosphere called Elysium, where there is no poverty, no disease, and presumably, no need for people to commit any crime.

Matt Damon plays Max, an Earthling who dreamed of one day making it to Elysium as a kid but instead grew up to be a crafty criminal — well, ex-criminal, because he now works at a factory manufacturing the same androids that police their sad, wretched, pathetic lives.

I’ll try to tread around spoilers, but of course, Max needs to make it to Elysium at all costs. Standing in his way is Jodie Foster, the defense minister on Elysium, and the crazy South African mad dog she hired to do her dirty work on Earth, played by Sharlto Copley (the protagonist from District 9).

I was surprised that Elysium turned out to be such a straightforward sci-fi action flick (complete with the typical cliches), which may not have been a bad thing had the premise not held so much potential. Yes, there are obvious moral themes that emerge out of the premise, but most of these are only touched upon on the surface.

There are a lot of things left unexplained: How did the world get like this? How did Elysium get built? What’s the political or legal system there and on Earth and between the two? How is it possible that every house on Elysium has a miraculous machine that can cure all diseases (including cancer), perform instant surgeries and even reconstruct body parts — and Earth not even have a single one? Are there no altruistic rich people anymore? I’m not talking about a comprehensive explanation, just some hints. Oh, and I would have loved to have seen more of what people actually do on Elysium — apart from high society afternoon parties and dips in the pool.

And those are just the questions about the background. Elysium also raises many other in-film questions that, if left unanswered, result in Prometheus-sized plot holes. Perhaps I’m being picky, but I had so many questions about what was happening that it became a distraction at times.

If you can put these issues aside and just go along for the ride, however, then you might find Elysium a highly entertaining film powered by near-seamless special effects and inventive sci-fi creations. Watching Matt Damon run around, getting smashed and smashing people and being Matt Damon is never a bad thing anyway.

Elysium has plenty of graphic violence that could shock viewers unfamiliar with Blomkamp’s style, but personally I don’t have a problem with some visceral stimulation every now and then. What I did have a problem with was some of the intentionally shaky camera movements and quick cuts during some of the action sequences, especially the hand-to-hand combat scenes. I just prefer clarity.

The performances were interesting. Matt Damon was his usual steady self, focused and charming and dedicated to the task. He was believable and probably the only character to experience any development throughout the whole movie. Sharlto Copley got to play the cool villain by being a complete nutjob, albeit an extremely dangerous and lethal one. Strangely, it was the dual Academy Award winner, Jodie Foster, who ended up as the weak link. I think she what she could with her flimsy lines, but she couldn’t help that her character was a cardboard cutout who was never as important as we thought she was.

Final word: Viewers expecting Elysium to be Blomkamp’s allegorical portrayal of the world’s growing wealth gap in the same way he tackled apartheid in District 9 might be disappointed. But who says all of his movies need to have a potent political message? In many ways, I actually enjoyed Elysium more than District 9. With a considerably bigger budget (US$115 million vs US$30 million), enhanced star power and an enlarged scale (seeing it on IMAX was particularly stunning), Elysium is one of the year’s more exciting and aesthetically impressive action blockbusters. It might not tick all the boxes, but the film is never boring and should keep audiences completely engaged for its apt 109-minute running time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Monsters (2010)

November 12, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Monsters commences across Australia on 25 November 2010

Tell me this is not an awesome premise for a film:

To find alien life in the universe, NASA sends a probe into space.  The probe crashes at the US-Mexico border upon its return.  Six years later, the US and Mexican military are still struggling to contain the “creatures” in a sealed off area dubbed the “Infected Zone”.  And now, an American photojournalist is entrusted with escorting his boss’s daughter through Mexico back to US soil as the mayhem continues around them…

If that synopsis got you a little interested, then you might understand why I was super excited to catch a screening of Monsters, the low budget British sci-fi written and directed by special effects master Gareth Edwards.

Unfortunately, Monsters doesn’t come close to living up to its promising premise.  There were some good moments, but the main problem is that Edwards decided to place the focus of the film on the relationship between the two central characters, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), the photojournalist, and Sam (Whitney Able), the boss’s daughter.  While the two actors have chemistry (they were dating at the time and are now married), neither character came across as particularly likable, making it a bit of a stale romance in my opinion.

Consequently, Monsters became a bizarre hybrid between an alien sci-fi and road romance movie — kind of like a mix between District 9 (or Cloverfield) and Before Sunrise — except neither aspect was done very well.  There were moments of genuine tension and excitement whenever the “creatures” were nearby, but they were too often overshadowed by the tedious glances and conversations between the leads as well as the long montages of them travelling through Mexico.  This doesn’t mean those things weren’t done well, but man, I just wish Edwards took a different path with this film.

Having said all of that, Monsters does have a lot of positives.  The visual effects were magnificent (as you would expect from a writer and director who specialises in it), despite the fact that the entire film was made on a budget that would ordinarily only be enough to cover the catering expenses of most Hollywood blockbusters.  The acting was solid, as was the cinematography.  Much of the dialogue was apparently improvised, and I think it shows (in a good way), coming across as natural and unforced, for the most part.

Clever idea, intriguing premise, good performances, wonderful special effects, and when it wanted to be, pretty exciting.  But at the end of the day, Monsters was not what I wanted it to be.  That’s really my problem, but it is what it is.

2.5 stars out fo 5

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

August 20, 2009 in Movie Reviews

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District 9 is a film that I really liked but wish I liked more.

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp (previously best known for his 3D animations), the film has an original and fascinating premise with a political message – aliens stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa and segregated by an apartheid government into the titular District 9 (a reference to the infamous South African ‘whites only’ District Six of 1966).

However, the film was not as political as I expected – while it may have started off that way, before long it morphed into your more typical action sci-fi film, complete with an impossible mission, robots and alien blasters.

Stylistically, the movie was also somewhat uneven.  It commenced with a documentary-infused style which utilises a mixture of news footage, interviews and a ‘live’, nausea-inducing hand-held cam (which made my wife ill).  It was fresh but after half-an hour of it I was beginning to get sick of it (both mentally and physically).  But as the film started to become more personal and action-oriented (and for where news cameras would not have been available), it started to return to more traditional film-making and story-telling techniques.  Strangely, it was at this point that I began to really enjoy the movie.  Perhaps it was because characters finally started emerging and plot started moving.  Regardless, it was fun.

Speaking of characters, the human actors are largely unknowns (to me anyway), and they put in credible performances.  The lead actor, Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus van de Merwe, really annoyed me at the beginning but he grows on you as the film progresses.

Needless to say, the special effects were seamless.  So was the make-up.  I especially liked the alien design, a far cry from your slim, grey-skinned extra-terrestrial with the big black eyes.  They were funny (and provided much comic relief) but human enough for audiences to relate when required.

So overall, an unusual, solid film – one that I’m likely to remember a few years from now.  There were some glaring plot holes and inconsistencies, but District 9 is impressive enough in most other areas for me to recommend it.

3.5 stars out of 5!