Batman: Arkham Origins

It’s scarily easy to make Batman look pathetic.

What’s this fall’s most-anticipated new TV show directed exclusively at nerds? Well, probably the new The Flash show, thanks to its devotion to comic-book style storytelling and reliance on sexy young men as major characters.

But that’s sort of irrelevant right now, since in a clear second place, we get Gotham, another DC universe adaptation, although how much of an adaptation it really is is sort of in doubt. Originally it was supposed to be a cop show based around increasingly more outlandish and supernormal criminals, who would of course be cadet Batman villains, but then it became apparent that this wouldn’t have wide enough appeal, and it became straight up Smallville with Batman instead of Superman.

I mention Gotham because it’s only the second Batman prequel to come out in a year – the other is highly successful video game and Grand Theft Auto V’s lone, audacious competitor, Batman: Arkham Oranges.

…Origins! I mean Origins!

(I’m not reviewing GTA V, by the way. Even if I could have gotten it on PC by now, I’ve never really enjoyed the franchise.)

I’m a giant fan of the Batman Arkham series not just because they’re fantastically designed in both gameplay and visuals, but because they actually have some serious points to make about Batman and the world he lives in, and make those points with that same voodoo that Marvel Stoodoos so well.

I’m generally leery about the concept of prequels in general – like they say, a story should be the most important event in its world, and the entire concept of a prequel goes against that. But with this high standard, I was willing to give it a try – I had been presently surprised by superhero prequel movies before. Well, not many times…well, once.

Anyway, let’s start the game. While the openings of previous games have borrowed imagery from sources like Hammer Horror, H.P. Lovecraft and the freaking Bible to establish the themes and tone of the game, this one starts with… a bat.

I get it! The bat is blind, to show that the people of Gotham are blind to the corruption in the city!

It’s in the Batcave, where Batman is working on his rigid scowling regimen, as he listens to news reports about how it’s Christmas Eve in Gotham City, and everyone should stay indoors because there’s been a prison break. Batman goes to investigate, and finds out that the notorious criminal The Black Mask has broken his army of goons out of prison.

Who is the Black Mask, you ask? Meh, some dude with a black mask and an army of goons. I suppose it makes sense that he’s so shallow and uninteresting, given that this story is supposed to be the beginning of the standard Batman vs. villains dynamic, but it doesn’t sit quite right with me that this requires an incredibly boring dude to be the story’s main narrative force for about half the game.

To this end, after a combat tutorial Batman has to leave, and the Black Mage breaks everyone out of prison, on the condition that they kill Batman. Batman in turn vows not to rest until he can stop all these bad guys from hurting him or anyone else, setting up the game.

Let’s pause here, to say that this isn’t just a bad idea because it’s a prequel, it’s a bad idea because it’s a video game prequel. While prequels have run rampant in films and television of late (was the first example of a prequel TV show Highlander? Can’t be bothered to check), it’s much harder to do with a video game because by necessity a sequel has to advance, has to make its world bigger and denser and in higher fidelity, and that doesn’t usually translate to a story set in the past of an older and smaller one.

After checking Wikipedia’s exhaustive list and subtracting everything that was too low-effort (all the Assassin’s Creed and Castlevania tie-ins), too unconnected to the original (GTA Vice City, Ico: Shadow of the Colossus), too little story (The Sims 3, Street Fighter 4) or too bad (Silent Hill Origins, Halo Reach) I’m left with only a few good prequels to good video games: Deus Ex Human Revolution. Yoshi’s Island. Metal Gear Solid 3. Metroid Prime.

But Arkham Oranges isn’t going on that list, because unlike them it doesn’t really add anything to the world or play-style of the game. In fact, most of the changes it makes are for the worse. For a start, take a look at this here character design:

He’s…pouting! Batman’s cool, he’s got self confidence up to his pointy ears! He doesn’t pout!

For another thing, the damn fine close quarter combat in previous games is treated in a strange way: On one hand we’re obviously meant to have played the previous games before, since we get very little tutorial before the difficulty level ramps up to the same high levels as the end of the last game. But on the other hand, there’s much less actual challenge to the fights – most of the little handicaps put on Batman have been removed, so he can evade goons and knock them out criminally fast (pun intended).

There’s only so bad any of this can get, since it’s still hugely satisfying to spend minutes on end flying around the intricate and masterfully-designed retro-futuristic rooftops, engage in one or two of the huge amount of tiny challenges or side quests, grapple onto a rooftop and take out three dudes before anyone’s realized you’re there, and finish off the last two by jamming their guns and slamming their heads into the exactingly-rendered snow. But the game still reaches that maximum badness level, and it doesn’t deserve any slack for falling as far as it can when that’s not a lot.

That was a joke about how you can hang people from rooftops!

As for the progression of the game (which really needs its own word), it mostly consists of the standard runaround for these games: Batman is dropped into this big ol’ enclosed area with a central goal of stopping all the bad guys and also staying up all night, presumably with the aid of some Sanka in his utility belt. He has to get to the bottom of the huge central plot that’s obviously responsible for everything, but this requires him to parkour around the place to every villain’s goon-filled garrisons.

Every time he comes to a new bad guy HQ, he finds a different bad guy there from the one he was looking for, and has to defeat them in an interestingly-varied boss fight. Afterwards, he gets hit with a sidequest based around yet another villain, which leads to some more journeys around the city culminating in a boring, non-varied boss fight. Repeat six or seven times and you have a campaign!

I’m not underselling it, here – gameplay-wise it’s the same formula over and over, changed only by the boss fights – which I’ll admit get quite a lot of mileage out of the pretty simple controls.

Well, there is one new feature: There’s been an effort to advance the crime scene investigation stuff, where Batman occasionally . I say “an effort” because it fails – these games are designed for the sort of people who are stumped by the Pipe Dream puzzles in BioShock, so there’s only so smart you need to be to figure everything out.

It’s sort of annoying how your Bat-computer does all the work, but maybe you could justify it as a bit of metatextual commentary…oh wait, too dumb for BioShock, never mind.

I’m being mean to start out here, but the only place where the game measures up to its predecessors is the story. Luckily, since I care about that sort of thing, this is enough to elevate it all the way back up to “decent”. Arkham Origins emulates the very wise decision that the ‘80s Batman movie made, but the new Gotham show forgets: That there’s nothing really interesting or even necessary about Batman’s origin story, because the whole point of him is that he’s the axis around which his world revolves – a scowly, pointy-eared rock, that is only of interest when it gets knocked over, or falls down on someone important.

So, like I mentioned, the Black Adder has brought a range of bad into town, and is paying them to kill Batman, who everyone thought was an urban myth until now. Apparently, he wasn’t very thorough about maintaining this secrecy, because no one seems to be very reluctant to believe that you exist, and your regular patrol route brings you into contact with quite a few people who are on roofs, for no reason other than to confirm that you’re real.

(I’ll note that similar real life prizes for proving myths go unclaimed.)

Batman’s first idea is to find the Black Beard and force him to call everything off, but it turns out his home has been wrecked. Supercomputer detection skills reveal that a mysterious dude torched the place and kidnapped the Black Butler after forcing him to kill his family, and Batman has to sneak into the police department to find ouIT’S THE JOKER IT’S THE JOKER IT’S SO OBVIOUSLY THE JOKER.

But they find a way to work with this – it sort of plays like an episode of Columbo, especially with the presence of not-yet-Commissioner Gordon doing his usual well-meaning-but-ineffectual Inspector Lestrade routine. After he tries to fix the corruption problem in Gotham City with his fists, he catches up to the rest of us in realizing it’s obviously the Joker, and heads around town to track the Black Swan.

The environmental design is up to the usual ridiculously high standards of the series – the costume designs have suffered, but these retain that timeless blend of technologies and architectural styles that put me in mind of stuff like Brazil or Blade Runner.

It sounds weird to say, but you get the idea that this is what Joel Schumacher was going for.

Anyway, Batman never finds the Black Mask, because as he sneaks around his inner sanctum he discovers that it’s actually the Joker, wearing a black mask!

Yeah, it’s a pretty nice twist. I like how it’s sort of the same as the opening of The Dark Knight, and I didn’t really see it coming – I thought the Joker would take over the story, not that he would be in charge since the beginning. Way to exceed my low expectations!

After the Joker blows things up, he sics one of his brand new bad guy buddies on him – Copperhead, a Latina lady who injects Batman with snake venom which makes him have hallucinations of his fears. The trouble is, Batman having hallucinations of his fears appears to be the new “player character death in a Modern Warfare game” gimmick – hollow, ineffectual, and completely expected so all the shock is lost. It looks like the next game is doing its damndest to stop this by setting the whole game around the Scarecrow (now looking like the Dishonored dude, and played by Dr. Walter Fringe), but until then you have to suffer through a really boring boss fight, where we’re treated to the profound revelation that Batman feels guilty about not being able to save people’s lives. How would I ever have guessed?

Batman recovers ridiculously quickly from this hallucinogenic neurotoxin after a trip to the Batcave. Oh, right – you can visit the Batcave in the game. It’s…the Batcave. Not much else needs to be said. It has Alfred in it, I guess that’s something.

Pictured: something.

After that siesta, Batman tracks down the Joker, who’s converted an abandoned hotel…wait, an abandoned hotel? Okay, I guess…an abandoned hotel into an amusement park obstacle course, purely for Batman’s benefit. “It’s funny”, the Joker says. “I’ve managed to accomplish more in a few days in this town than you have in two years!”

I like this sort of “Deadpool, but way scaled back” version of the Joker,especially since he isn’t as overexposed as he is in the other games. As the Clown Prince himself might tell you, if you get exposed to something for long enough it stops being funny. Of course, he’d probably go on to say that the laughing gas he’s currently pumping into the room is the exception to this rule, and then blow up your house…but I’m getting away from myself. The Joker has (sigh) an ace up his sleeve: There’s one of his cronies he hasn’t told you about, and who he sics on Batman when he bursts in the room: Bane.

You know, you hear about how popular movie adaptations change the original work, but this is the first time I’ve really been able to see the full progression of that: You see, as someone who became a comic book nerd the second I stepped out of the theater for The Avengers, I got into the scene just before The Dark Knight Rises came out, and thus I was introduced to Bane as a strange sort of Jekyll and Hyde figure – he was presented as having intelligence and determination to match Batman’s own, but he feels much more of a brute, Solomon Grundy type – his vast intellect usually just means he bursts in at a crucial moment to announce that he’s deduced all of Batman’s plans, and proceeds to duke it out with him, in full Strong Bad gear.

Of course, in just a couple months, Rises proceeded to portray him as a Kingpin-style figure – an ass-kicking mob boss who relies on a huge information network the same way Batman hacked into people’s phones in the last movie. So now this has become the default mode of his character: He appears here as a sort of Mexican shogun, bound to a code of honor which he upholds in his army of goons. This code presumably has allowances for crazy clowns offering money to kill vigilantes, since he’s all about killing Batman.

Bane and Batman have a long, very hard fight on the roof of the abandoned hotel, which is one of the only really bad boss fights – the lack of creativity compared to skill meant I had to listen to it over and over. Bane has been beaten, so it looks like he’s gonna have to jump! 

Yeah, I’m happy Homestar Runner’s back.

The final straw is that you don’t even really defeat him – but you get the next best thing, since Batman calls the police and presents them with the Joker. He tries to pull Batman and himself off the roof, but he manages to save them both, and the Joker is fascinated with him.

In a much better hallucinatory fear sequence than the venom thing, the Joker sits in his cell and ponders his backstory, which is exactly the same as in The Killing Joke. Sort of ruins the whole fun of the Joker, probably the most popular comics character with no origin story at all (eat it, Donna Troy!), but it’s well-executed and has some genuinely scary moments in it.

Back in the realm of sanity, Batman tracks down Bane to his lair, where there are lots of his samurai goons, talking about honor and revenge and so forth, even though they’re using some pretty underhanded tactics to counter all of Batman’s tricks. Whatever – even Bane’s completely dropped the whole shogun thing by this point, and is up to his old tricks again: He’s found out Batman’s secret identity using methods, and is currently looking for ways into the Batcave. This is an effective surprise, but the impact is lessened because it’s sort of obvious Batman will find a way out of it. This goes against the idea of consequences, which has been central to this series since the beginning. Batman’s choices matter, and he needs to accept that by not turning down help or advice, the games say. And yet here, a solution will present itself almost immediately, and without too much fuss.

Unfortunately, Batman has more immediate problems: The last of the Joker’s bad guy buddies, a huge sci-fi fan named Firefly, has threatened to blow up the Gotham Bridge unless Batman kidnaps Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion for him. After finding out he’s too late, since the former is off in the Marvel universe and the latter is in space playing Green Lantern, Batman has to do an extended platform battle sequence on the destroyed bridge. It’s my favorite sequence in the game because even though the platforming and destoryed building fights are such a departure from the norm, it’s designed perfectly: Always straightforward, never too hard, and all the voiceover is done by not-yet-Commissioner Gordon, who’s probably the only person I’m willing to listen to for more than about ten minutes (Yeah, I said the Joker was used sparingly, but he gets annoying when he’s doing public address as you murder dudes).

But all too soon, Bane also manages to hack into your radio, with the clever technique of the writers saying he’s really smart, to say that he’s stormed the Batcave and has almost killed Alfred, intentionally leaving him alive so that Bruce will be there when his last family member dies, and his grief will take him over the edge and make him a worthy opponent. You know what, I take it back: Bane is smart enough to know that the only way he could ever hope to have Batman die is to kill an important hero and hope like hell this is an imaginary story.

Unfortunately, he didn’t consider the possibility of the Deus Ex Machina. You see, remember how I called the combat “unchallenging”? That’s mostly because in the middle of the game, you get an upgrade to your gloves that gives you electric powers (ironically turning this close Batman prequel into a distant Batman sequel). Part of these electric powers include your fists turning into a defibrillator – which, as we all know, is code for “Phylactery”.

“LIIIIIIFE, DAMN YOU! GIVE MY CREATION LIIIIIIFE!”

Batman saves Alfred’s life by punching him in the gut with his fis’ fulla loitnin’, and decides to finally get over his prejudice against the police by calling in not-yet-Commissioner Gordon to help transport Bane to jail.

When they get there, they find (of course) that Joker has taken over the prison, sending Batman through a gauntlet of goons as he sends cheery messages over the creepy PA system. I get what they were going for here, trying to tie this to the rest of the series by doing the exact same thing as Arkham Asylum, but it just goes to show that  on the whole, the entire thing was a step forward and two steps back.

One last fight with Bane, where he creates and takes the Captain America serum from the first game in an effort to beat you, which has the side effect of wiping his memory about who Batman is. This is that lazy solution I was complaining about to set everything back to normal – Batman never really had to do anything about his secret being out, other than punch a guy he liked and a guy he didn’t like. Joker realizes they’re going to be doing this forever, Gordon gets a promotion and realizes that there are lots more supervillains on the way, and decides to ask Batman for help in stopping them, and roll credits.

I’m not as disappointed with Arkham Oranges as I am with lots of other prequels, but it still doesn’t live up to the first two games in any respect – although it pleasantly surprised me how close it came. Don’t bother with it – especially since chances are you’re reading this after the big finale has come out.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: The part on the bridge, that deal with the Joker

THUMBS UP: The environments

THUMBS DOWN: The character designs and the story

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The gameplay structure – again, about as bad as it can possibly be

Gravity

gravitywhip

I’m sorta in two minds about popular sci-fi filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (full name ‘Alfonso Ka…koo…how do you say it?’). One the one hand, his two American-released movies, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, were among my favorites as a child and adult respectively.

But on the other hand, no one likes admitting that he’s a sci-fi filmmaker. I mean, quite aside from the movie about time-traveling teenage wizards, or the feature-length Twilight Zone episode, there’s his latest movie, the space-action blockbuster Gravity. Critics up to and including the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who has the unparalleled honor of having his reviews at the top of every Rotten Tomatoes page he’s on, try to avoid the guy’s genre-movie roots.

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Agents of SHIELD: Pilot

Well, you try thinking of a better acronym.

Yeah, I like the Marvel movies.

But yeah, I also don’t like quite a few things they represent – like how commercialized they are, the ouroboros storytelling method that means the movies won’t stop even if everyone wants them to, and so on – but the fact remains that the actual movies are still in a golden age because of their post-modern storytelling sensibilities and an imaginative visual style coupled with archetypal storytelling…man, those were long words.

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Futurama

You might have heard about the just completed quote-unquote “television event” on one of the Fox Network’s unruly children, where every single one of the 550-plus episodes of The Simpsons was shown in broadcast order.

I really don’t feel anything particular about it. I’m blessed to live near a wonderful relative who has every single Simpsons DVD there is, so I still treat myself to a classic episode every now and again. Seriously, I was struck a couple months ago with an urge to watch “King-Size Homer”, and I just…did. I felt like a god, I don’t mind saying.

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Elysium

District 9, the turtleneck and shades-wearing alternative to the Yankees cap and cargo shorts of Avatar, was a good movie. But let’s be honest here: it wouldn’t have been called “The best sci-fi movie of the decade” without the well-known Cinderella story of its creation.

That story is one of Afrikaner and film geek Neill Blomkamp, who made a short special-effects reel with his friends that impressed overgrown nerd Peter Jackson so much that he signed Blomkamp on to help make his planned movie of the Halo games.

Now, a quick side note: A Halo movie, even done by these guys with undeniable passion for the series, would have been dumb and bad. In fact, now that they’ve got Ridley Scott signed on instead, it’s looking to be equally dumb and bad as the last sci-fi movie he made – seriously, check out that fake Idris Elba – but at least it looks to be more harmless than that other movie he’s been threatening everyone with. So yeah, one of the many reasons District 9 is so good is that it prevented another, much worse movie from being made.

But to go back to my previous point, the reason all the critics are still head-over-heels for it 5 years later is that it’s full of things movie critics like to see in SF’n’F movies these days: A director [Blomkamp] from a faraway land, set in another faraway land [urban South Africa], an unknown actor as the lead [Sharlto Copley], a sad ending [where the hero is put in a concentration camp], which leads to a message most people already agree with [Apartheid is bad] driven home by Nazis/ Nazi analogues [the aforementioned concentration camp].

Children of Men, Lord of the Rings, Avatar itself, the list goes on. These are all good movies, sure, but they don’t get the same sort of respect without these check marks. And this is shown by Elysium, Blomkamp’s latest movie. It’s about the same level of quality as District 9, but it wasn’t nearly as popular because it doesn’t quite get them all.

Elysium starts out with opening text, something you don’t see a lot these days. I like that – film is a visual medium, and you shouldn’t just put up text when you can’t come up with a clever way to get the information across. But if we must have it, I’m glad it’s this terse.

Yeah, that’s right. I like economy of language. Never said I was any good at it.

We meet our hero, Max. He’s surprisingly white-bread for future Los Angeles, a place where almost everyone else we see speaks Spanish as a first language. In fact, Matt Damon had to shave his head for the role, to hide his blond-itude – it’s not the brightest casting decision.

Max does the whole Winston Smith deal: Being punished for mouthing off to the authorities, having idealistic friends who want to topple the class system, and working at a job that helps keep that system running. It’s all okay, though, because all this is done more brutally than usual. For instance, the first point – his punishment – consists of breaking his damn arm, and the friend he has is a doctor-lady who fixes him with two-century-old medical tools.

Our hero established, we turn to our bad guys, who all live on the titular space station. It’s well designed, looking very Raman, but it doesn’t really make sense as an actual location. You see, District 9 was good because it had verisimilitude  -everyone and everything felt like they actually could have existed, and every character and location was littered with little personal touches to this effect.

Elysium, on the other hand, looks like an ad for air freshener or floor cleaner – lots of white people in spotless pastels, having garden parties, visiting magic medical pods filled with SCP-500, and not doing much else. We see exactly one place of work in the whole thing: A government office, where Defense Secretary Cruella de Ville presides over a room full of compudinators who shoot down a spaceship attempting to enter Elysium, with help from the bloodthirsty Earth operative Agent van der Beard (which doesn’t make a lot of sense other than to show that he exists – the ships are already in space, after all).

Pictured: compudinators.

It turns out the spaceship was full of people from Max’s town, who were trying to CROSS THE BORDER between EARTH AND SPACE in order to GET BETTER HEALTH CARE for their CHILDREN.

AHEM, ahem.

Yeah, this is, like District 9, a social justice polemic disguised as a sci-fi adventure. And you know what? I have no problem with that. So long as the message remains in the subtext, and works to serve the narrative rather than the other way round, there’s nothing wrong with it.

But Elysium doesn’t follow this rule nearly enough, and as a result the actual narrative is much too thin for my liking. Hence my previous point: To paraphrase the immortal words of Richard Scarry, what do these people do all day? Like I said, all we see is garden parties, magic healy-pods, and a single administrative facility. It’s said that these are the wealthiest of the wealthy – how do they earn that money? For that matter, who does it go to?

[And who makes these elaborate catering arrangements? Robots? No, their fingers are too big!]

I know that these questions aren’t important for the movie, but that’s my problem – this is sci-fi, and it’s supposed to stand up to this sort of scrutiny. Other stories like this are able to get a lot of mileage out of playing with their own logic, whereas this barely considers it at all.

But back to our story. Max works to make the robots that serve as combination corrupt cops, sleazy politicians, unfeeling bureaucrats and overmedicating pharmacists for the people of Earth – all the actual people in power are on Elysium, since no one wants to live on Earth if they can help it. This is exemplified by William Fichtner, who you might recognize as “man in authority who is defied” from every movie ever. He plays Max’s Elysian boss, who callously forces him to repair a problem manually, leading to the Wrath of Khan situation, and thus a dose of radiation poisoning.

Now, as “The consumption” was the flagship disease for fictional characters of the late Nineteenth century (and still is, in various other forms – see The Fault in our Stars for how popular it remains even today), I think “radiation poisoning” has the same potential for movies today. Think about it – just getting it implies you’re a desirable person: smart enough to be near a nuclear power source, and brave enough to be near a nuclear power source.

It’s sorta sad how this scene is only the second-most-famous moment from the movie.                                You know what else is sad? This whole scene.

Then there’s the symptoms, which are perfect for action heroes: Initial dizziness and vomiting (always good for movie stars), followed by an asymptomatic period (perfect for finishing up any necessary plot-related stuff), followed by severe “green around the gills” discoloration, lots of blood, shortness of breath (although not enough to stop you from choking out last words) and finally death.

Max enters that asymptomatic period after he visits his idealistic friend I mentioned earlier. Once he’s back on his feet, he realizes that the only way for Max to cure himself is to get to Elysium, and so the goes to their old friend, Miles Morales. He’s a crime boss who operates that most baffling of services, secret space shuttles. He complains how many hundreds of people want to go take advantage of the literal universal health care, leading to an altercation with the idealistic friend before he relents.

Considering both of their roles in the story, I’m pretty sure the idealistic friend sealed the deal by offering to die first.

Meanwhile (or not quite meanwhile, considering the time-dilation effects of prolonged space travel) we check back to Elysium. Cruella de Ville is undergoing something along the lines of a court martial for using Mr. van der Beard to shoot down the illegal immigrants. The prosecuting officer is played by Faran Tahir, and…hang on. You know how I said William Fichtner always plays the “outclassed dude in authority” role? Well, he’s got nothing on Faran Tahir. He’s a long-standing TV actor, but he’s only got 4 major film roles to date, and in every single one he plays a really cool, capable dude who gets murdered after only a few scenes. Must be a tough break, especially considering he seems to be a really thoughtful and nice guy in real life.

Anyway, this casting bodes well for Cruella, who tells him that Elysium needs to BE HARSHER TO ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS before recruiting Fitchner, the representative of THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, to take part in A COUP ATTEMPT ON THE PEACEFUL PRESIDENT.

Sorry about that. I don’t know what COMES OVER me sometimes. It BORDERS on scary.

Sorry, Mr. van der Beard. I’ll stop now.

Back on Earth, Max and Miles come to a deal. Miles agrees to secure transport to Elysium, but to do so he’ll have to do a very risky job for him – a space heist!

You see, this is how to do “messages” right in movies like this. We see the bad guys, and we hear their hateful point of view. We’ve seen what’s so bad about it, so next we turn it into a MacGuffin for the hero (specifically, maintenance codes for all of Elysium, which the rebellion needs…sound familiar?), which forces him to dress up in an awesome video game-style robot exoskeleton so he can work in space.

Once Max has some FPS guns to match his FPS armor, he starts the mission, selecting Hard difficulty. He’s robbing William Fichtner for revenge purposes, but because he’s helping out in the coup attempt, the data Max needs is protected by a firewall which means a really slow upload time.  This means there’s a turret section, and a quick-time event to get rid of some robots that come attack him.

The level’s boss is Agent van der Beard, who ends up dispatching all of Max’s allies who aren’t wearing power armor (including the idealistic friend, of course). The developers mix things up a little with him – because Max doesn’t have the item which can depower force fields yet, he needs to do a stealth section where he hides from van der Beard’s scanning bots before the level ends. You get an achievement if Max hides in his doctor-lady friend’s house/clinic, but I didn’t really…

…what’s that? This isn’t a video game? Oh right, almost forgot. Anyway, Max actually does go to his best friend’s house, while van der Beard searches for him from his chopper. Yes, it’s funny that the good buy from D9 is playing the bad guy from D9.

At doctor-lady’s house, we meet her daughter. You see, she’s dying – she has the consumption (see what I’m talking about?), and she tells a cute little story to Max about how she wants him to feel better. Ain’t it irresistible, folks?

…No, no it’s not. I really don’t like really over-the-top sentimentality when the film’s tone has been so bleak and serious otherwise. I suppose “over-the-top” is sort of the name of the game when it comes to this movie, but I just think it’s out of place. Maybe it’s just me, though – I’m not a fan of adorable sidekicks in general. A bit of an early look for me, but I’ll say I didn’t even like the snowman in Frozen.

Pictured: The snowman in Frozen.

Luckily, before the sick girl has time to sing a poignantly dissonant lullaby, van der Beard finds the house, and Max has to run before doctor lady and her daughter get captured, and taken back to Elysium.

Meanwhile, Max heads back to Miles Morales, who downloads the information Max got in the space heist, and realizes that it’s the Death Star plans. He goes into a nerd-conniption at this, which is pretty fun to watch. Eventually, he starts talking sense, and says that the MacGuffin can be used either to save or doom everyone on Earth, that the bad guys want the latter, and that everyone will want to keep him alive because the master copy is now in his brain.

Armed with this information, he proceeds to point a gun at his head and shout at the air until Agent van der Beard finally decides to stop the supreme embarrassment and take him on a ship to Elysium. On the way up, there’s a fun zero-gravity fight scene, which end with van der Beard’s beard being blown off…along with the rest of his face.

The movie suddenly just got a lot better.

The ship crashes on Elysium soil, disrupting everyone’s busy schedule of shaming the audience. Red alert signs go off, and Cruella de Ville starts mouthing off to Faran Tahir, before she captures Max and straps him to a table. She neglects to take him out of his robot suit, though, and he escapes.

Cruella, meanwhile, is completely unfazed by van der Beard’s face being used as wallpaper, putting him into a magic healy pod which fixes it in seconds – man, now I see why everyone on Earth wants one. He’s obviously become pretty unhinged by the experience, though, so he stabs Cruella to death, and dumps her body in the same cell where he’s put Doctor-Lady and her sick daughter.

Now, this all happens pretty fast, and it’s a bit difficult to keep up, but this is okay – I really like this part, especially since now we’ve got that verisimilitude. van der Beard is behaving like most people would after someone blew up their face – single minded rage. He straps on a next-generation version of Max’s power armor, and prepares to face him for the final boss fight.

Well, they say it’s a next generation version, but it looks about the same. I guess there’s only so advanced you can make a freaking robot suit.

Meanwhile, Max consults with Miles Morales – who’s come to Elysium for some unfathomable reason – and finds out he needs to go to some place or other to upload the MacGuffin, and flip its switch from “Evil” to “Good”. Along the way he meets several flavors of goon, but luckily one of them had a rail gun.

Now, for those of us who don’t play video games, two things. First, I’m sorry for how opaque a lot of this must be, and second, rail guns work by essentially creating a super strong, really small magnetic field at the back of the gun and using it to propel the electrified, heated projectile. In practice, this means anything you point it at will be essentially obliterated.

And thus:

Hey, didn’t there use to be something about illegal immigration or class struggle in this?

The final fight between Max and Agent van der Beard goes completely off the rails, filmed entirely in bullet-time with cherry blossoms flying everywhere for some reason. It would be wonderful to watch if it wasn’t just a bit too confusing in terms of all this unnecessary artistic stuff, but I suppose it’s a nice action climax.

Then comes the real ending, where Miles Morales uploads the MacGuffin from Max’s brain into the main computer of Elysium. As a result, all class distinction everywhere ends instantly. The huddled masses yearning to breathe free start getting medical care and robot friends, and Max gasps out some tearful last words to Doctor-Lady as she fixes her daughter, before he succcumbs to his radiation poisoning.

So, that was Elysium. It isn’t anywhere near the classic of our times that District 9 was, and part of me wants to say that it’s because it sold out: Working with major movie studios, having a much more traditionally “cinematic” storyline, themes and characters, and so on – but in truth, I think it was almost the opposite problem.

You see, it’s never easy to tell what will and won’t succeed at capturing the attention of pop culture, or geek culture for that matter. For every surprise hit, there’s a big-budget flop. Remember the sad story of Sean Connery, who passed on the roles of Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore AND Morpheus from The Matrix, only to try to hit it big as Some Old Guy in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Having actually read this lunatic’s opus masquerading as a comic book, I’m sort of relieved it didn’t get more popular.

Anyway, my point is that to be remembered in the annals of culture, you have to strike the right balance between the familiar and the unique. While District 9 hit that mark pretty much perfectly, Elysium was just too out there to be accepted as the action blockbuster it hoped to be.

Looking forward to that thing with Wolverine and Ellen Ripley doing the Gigli deal, though.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: The action, Agent van der Beard
THUMBS UP: Most of the character stuff
THUMBS DOWN: The adorable little girl
TWO THUMBS DOWN: The heavy-handed message that dragged down the plot

Pacific Rim

Whatever I have to say to praise or criticize it, I have to admit that Guillermo del Toro’s Sino-American nerd-pleaser Pacific Rim is no Star Wars. Star Wars was just the biggest thing on the planet for months, whereas Pacific Rim never even cracked the #1 spot in the box-office rankings. [Yes, I’m still sour, whyever do you ask?]

And anyway, Star Wars’ gigantic success was due to a dozen unrepeatable factors, not the least of which was that there was jack-all else in theaters at the time – the #2 spot at the box office in 1977 went Smokey and the Bandit. A decent movie, I guess, and one which definitely had some cultural impact, but definitely not anything close to George Lucas’ genre-defying and genre-defining space opera.

But in many respects, Pacific Rim is cut from the same cloth as the third-most popular film of all time (numbers one and two should be obvious). Both are very personal and childlike pieces, almost autobiographical in their obvious inspiration from the writer-director’s childhood favorites from Japanese and American entertainment. They both have a simple and direct narrative arc, with a minimum of plot or character development, and an emphasis on relationships between the characters driving the action.

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Deus Ex: The Fall

A bit more of a conventional review today, folks…insofar as that term can be applied to several pages of discourse on a glorified expansion pack for a cult video game, prepared eleven months after anyone anywhere cared.

That said, let’s talk about that cult video game. Deus Ex, a 2000 RPG game, is the Gone With The Wind of video games. For ages it’s been frequently cited as one of the capital-letter Best Ever, and it features broad entertainment in perennial genres mixed with some seriously deep ruminations and excellent character development. For all that, though, it isn’t popular with modern audiences at all because of how mired it is in the bygone age when it was made.

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Man of Steel

Woah, mama. Man of Steel.

Since the whole point of this blog is being a year behind the times, I’m no stranger to repeating the sentiments of others, or being beaten to the punch. But even with that, I am pretty darn late to the party on this – this hasn’t only gotten detailed analyses from the usual nerd suspects, but from some of my fellow feet-draggers and whiners like Doug Walker and Matthew Corey, folks whose analysis usually comes with the full benefit of hindsight…more hindsight than li’l ol’ me, at any rate.

And so, I’m in the rare position of having the last word on the subject. And I’ll use the first words of that last word to tell you about a little comic book series called Tangent Comics.

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Year Late Reviews

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Hey, I like it.

THUMBS UP: Having an outlet for my opinions has been more therapeutic than you can imagine

THUMBS DOWN: I wish a few more people would read those opinions, though.

 

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor

Those of you who keep up with my Doctor Who reviews are probably rolling your eyes at this point. “Yeah, we know that this guy has serious issues with the direction Steven Moffat is taking the series. We get it.” Well, that’s the thing. Though I only review the key episodes of the show, there were quite a few parts of the 2013 season I really enjoyed.

“The Rings of Akhaten” had some interesting character stuff in it as well as some nice higher sci-fi concepts, and “Nightmare in Silver” shows us that whatever issues I may have with it, Who is probably the closest modern equivalent we have to those groundbreaking ‘60s shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone – a show where respected sci-fi writers can just drop in to write episodes every now and again (John Scalzi, you listening? We know you’re a Whovian who has experience with writing dumb TV shows).

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