Thursday, September 26, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium - Self-indulgently Macho Sci-fi Satire

Elysium stands as an excellent example how to fashion a brilliant setting welded to a political statement and then largely waste the effort. While Neill Blomkamp succeeded in social commentary via sci-fi in his previous outing, Distrinct 9, his new movie Elysium failed to convince me that this splendid society of economic inequality was created for something more than furistic gunshots and exo-suit powered fist fights.

The story takes place in 2154. Matt Damon is the Earth-bound Max, a man with a criminal past just trying to make his way on a planet that has long since been abandoned by the wealthy elite. This patrician class has fled the desolate and ruined surface to a luxurious man-made habitat satellite in the sky called Elysium. When he finds himself with only a few days to live, he makes it his desperate mission to travel to Elysium where his solution awaits.

With Jodie Foster playing homeland security chief for the satellite promised land, the two soon find themselves at odds. Max battles an agent in her employ, Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Kruger is amoral, lives for combat, and has a terribly confusing accent. And of course, he has a major case of JWD (Just Won’t Die).

This conflict steals the show, but not for the better. The brutality of their back-and-forth devours the intended satirical effect of the movie. I was left longing for more exposition about the fascinating state of Elysium, or the day-to-day toils of those down on the surface of Earth. Instead, I got explosions, guns, and fistfights. These could have been lifted from any number of movies you’ve seen before. For example, within the whole fascinating world of Elysium, Blomkamp chose to put a protracted ten minute fight seen on a barren patch of dirt. Not only are the fights nothing special, they aren’t even performed on the proper stage.

With a premise as promising as Elysium’s, every punch thrown and shot fired felt like another wasted opportunity. It seems to me like Blomkamp might have taken the wrong lesson from his previous movie, District 9, ascribing its success to the action-packed bits at the end. What made that movie splendid was its attention to world-building and the characters that lived there. On the other hand, Elysium teases a dystopian future with depth to spare, yet barely dips a toe in the pool and fails to deliver characters that can carry the story. Perhaps next time Blomkamp ventures back into the realm of bleak sci-fi as social commentary, he’ll give his viewers a bit more credit.

#18: The Showdown Effect - Carnage and Cliche

The Showdown Effect is a mish-mosh of action movie tropes proudly assembled in the form of a 2.5D action sidescroller. Surprisingly, it focuses on fast-paced multiplayer matches with several unique game modes, with no true single player mode. These games are no longer than your average session of Call of Duty, with an equally impressive body count. Competition is fierce, and the skill required to be the best is deceptively high. If you're into skill-based multiplayer games and have a hankerin' for something fresh after you've exhausted Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and Natural Selection 2, then The Showdown Effect delivers.

There are two basic varieties of weaponry: ranged and melee. Ranged weapons hit the opponent only if you click directly on the opponent, not behind them, a task that can be more difficult than expected. Melee weapons, on the other hand, deal massive damage and can be used to deflect incoming damage but are by their very nature more difficult to touch an opponent with. Add to this mix some dodge rolls, dives, bandaging, special moves, customized loadouts, wacky game modes, and active reloads a la Gears of War and you've got a Showdown.

Why shoot while standing when you can shoot while wall-jumping?
The basic deathmatch mode did not impress me. I found it to be relatively slow paced and uninteresting. With no single-player to speak of, the choice cuts of Showdown Effect lie in the less-played modes of One Man Army and The Expendables (referencing this). One Man Army is a different take on the classic FPS variant called Juggernaut. Everyone gets one turn per round as a super-powerful character while everyone else gangs up on them. The One Man Army who gets the most cumulative kills during their turn is declared winner.

My favorite, however, was The Expendables. Both teams are the same size, but one is stronger, spawns with their loadouts and special abilities, and can self-heal. How could the other team possibly win with their weaker characters and randomized weapons? Simple: they have instant respawn times while the super-team respawn timer gets longer and longer. Then teams switch. A sample game:

I join a game and choose Dutch McClone, whose terrific and intentionally generic backstory involves having no memory, being a clone and trying to figure out who took away his memory. My loadout has me using dual hand-crossbows, a rifle, and a golden ax. I load in on the overpowered team, where we fend off the henchman hordes for about twenty or thirty points. Suddenly, things go downhill: two team members fall, with respawn times above forty seconds.
Blue here is on the "Heroes" team, so if he dies to that rocket, he's got a long
respawn timer ahead of him. 

I flee from the marauding hordes of rocket-toting rabble. They outnumber my remaining teammate and me, and we both know our only hope is to run, try and pick them off one at a time, and stall until we can re-assemble. The tension of holding out against the endless henchmen as long as possible is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer moments I've had in recent memory, made even better by playing on a team with a few friends.

I do doubt the long-term replay value of the Showdown Effect, but I would have also said the same about games like Call of Duty. Many gamers continue to play the franchise with only glacially slow modifications to the formula, so what's fun may stay fun.

There is also the issue of map variety and the amount that player skill can be tested by awareness of surroundings. There are limits to how much these factors matter in a game that only moves from side to side. Bringing some buddies will drastically improve your mileage; when you get tired of gibbing folks with your shotgun, you can always get into a healthy diving-enemies-off-of-cliffs competition.

Its shortcomings aside, the Showdown Effect is a kitchen sink-salad of disparate game genres that shouldn't work nearly so well as it does. The simple deathmatch I first jumped into underwhelmed me, but my experimentation with the novel game modes alongside my friends made it clear that the risks Paradox took making this were rewarded. As I often find myself saying in my reviews, for $2.50 on sale or $10 full price, it's a worthy purchase. I'd more strongly recommend a 4-pack though; this is a game best played on a team with three friends.