300: Rise of an Empire

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With a single arrow the Greek Themistocles kills the Persian king Darius. This leaves Xerxes, Darius’s son, deeply troubled and determined to take revenge. Rise of an Empire is the follow up to the original 300 which appeared in early 2007. That film was based on a comic book written by Frank Miller. Both this new movie and its predecessor are heavily fictionalized versions of the Battle of Salamis. Where the first movie focused on the battle of Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire focuses on events taking place in parallel at the Straits of Artemisium.

300: Rise of an Empire starts with a long-winded narrative that ends with Xerxes transformation into an evil warlord. This suggests that the movie is about Xerxes and Themistocles, but that’s a deception. Though it is indeed a revenge story, the main antagonist is Artemisia: the Persians’s female naval commander. The conflict between her and Themistocles starts to become interesting when she is repeatedly outsmarted by him. Despite Artemisia having a much larger army, Themistocles uses clever naval battle tactics to defeat her several times. Unfortunately, just when that starts to get interesting the movie takes a completely unrealistic turn. This turn completely flips Themistocles around from capable smart leader to clueless commander with weak knees. From that point onwards the story slides straight downhill.

The original 300 was noticeable for its `testosterone’ visual style. This consisted of overexposed images combined with slow motion hand-to-hand combat. While this style is also used in this new movie, the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is a rather mixed bag. The naval scenes are nicely done, which is quite a feat considering all water was digitally added. However, there is more than a handful of scenes that look like they came straight out of a computer game: not something that appeals to cinema goers. The same applies to the excessive and mostly poor looking slow motion blood spurts, which lack any aesthetic. Rise of an empire also tosses in smashed faces and beheadings like they are nothing. This is not necessarily a problem, provided it is really an integral part of the story. However, when Artemisia calls up a Greek prisoner just so she can cut his head off, I really wonder: what were the writers thinking?

One would think that the underlying theme, the democratic freedom of the Greeks versus the feudal oppression of the Persians, would make for an interesting part of the story. The title “rise of an empire” also implies that this plays a central role. Unfortunately, this is yet an other deception: the movie does not even skim the surface of this conflict. Instead it relies on empty dull freedom rhetoric. Some feeble attempt at military drama is included in the form of an extremely predictable subplot involving a Greek father and son. Perhaps the subtitle should have been “the fall of storytelling” instead of “the rise of an empire”.

300: Rise of an Empire has some decent action scenes and good acting by Eva Green as Artemisia. However, it does not have anything else going for it. Furthermore, both the trailer and the movie’s title are misleading. This is definitely one to skip. If you really like the cinematographic style of 300 your time is better spent watching Starz’s Spartacus.

★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2014 Warner Brothers.

RoboCop

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Nearly everyone is familiar with the original 1987 RoboCop. Exploring the boundary between man and machine, that film became a critically acclaimed sci-fi classic. Hopefully many have forgotten the disappointing successor RoboCop 2 and the even worse RoboCop 3. Not long ago a new RoboCop film was announced: not a sequel, but a remake of the original. Would this be any good? I was skeptical.

It is 2028. Robots are widely deployed to provide security in in other countries that are occupied by the United States. The American public does not want those machines on their own streets. This is legally prohibited. Instead, people want safety and security to have a human element: a machine should not be able to pull the trigger by itself. Playing into this demand, the country’s market leading manufacturer of military security robots, OmniCorp sets out to combine man and machine. The CEO of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars, asks one of his key employees, the brilliant doctor Dennett Norton, to spearhead this ambitious project.

The recently seriously injured Alex Murphy is chosen for the program with the consent of his grieving wife. After waking up in his new body, Alex’s first reaction is to panic. He has major problems adjusting to his new situation, and is also much less effective in combat than the fully computer controlled robots. However, the public loves the man in the machine dubbed RoboCop, leaving Sellars and Norton with a dilemma. Furthermore, RoboCop’s human “Alex” part also wants to take revenge on those that caused his injury in the first place.

There are many parallels between this new version of RoboCop and the original, but I would not call it a remake. It’s a story with roughly the same ingredients: a maimed cop that becomes a cyborg, a vengeful arms dealer and corrupt cops and businessmen. However, the mixture and emphasis is different. This re-imagined version is a more human story, with less focus on technology and pure action. Undoubtedly, this shift is likely to disappoint fans of the original, but it makes the film more accessible.

Strangely, RoboCop himself (Joel Kinnaman) is not the main attraction of the movie. The heated conversations between doctor Dennett and Raymond Sellars give the film its gravitas, with excellent performances by Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. They become tangled in juggling public perception, business interests and scientific goals, and have to deal with their differing moral points of view.

Like other contemporary films, RoboCop also has parts where the viewer is addressed directly. Via newscasts presented by the, obviously biased, news anchor Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson). Though this is good for laughs and intended as satire, it is also distracting. Novak hardly flinches when a machine kills a young child, which seems contradictory to his commitment to safety and security.

This 2014 RoboCop manages to evoke a better emotional connection with the characters as the original, but also manages to mix in enough humor to keep things digestible. Though the film is enjoyable for eighty percent, it suffers from a predictable and too slow cliché ending. Nevertheless, it is certainly not as bad as I expected it to be. A good choice if you enjoy not too serious rough action science fiction.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Sony Pictures.

Ender’s Game

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It is 2086. Fifty years ago the earth was attacked by the Formics, an ant-like alien species. They wiped out a significant part of the Earth’s population before being stopped kamikaze-style by the legendary human pilot Mazer Rackham. Though the Formics have not returned, an attack is still feared. Hence, the people of Earth need to be battle ready: they need a new Mazer Rackham.

The unpredictable nature of the Formics makes it highly difficult to combat them. Only children’s minds are capable of adapting quickly enough to defeat them. The brightest children are selected so that they can defend against those feared future attacks. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of these. He was selected based on his excellent reflexes and how he handled being bullied at school. Commander Hyrum Graff sees in him a great talent and enables him to go to battle school.

Ender shows both great tactical insight and leadership in battle school. Though, he also has problems with authority. Nevertheless, Graff’s faith endures. Perhaps, he reasons, Ender is the right candidate to lead a preemptive strike on the Formics.

Ender’s game is the film adaptation of the book with the same name written by Orson Scott Card. I have been told it is fairly faithful to the written version. Graff is well portrayed by Harrison Ford. In contrast Asa Butterfield’s role as Ender seems to be a better fit in the early stages of the movie than at the end.

Ender’s game is a decent military teen sci-fi film. It reminded me of the underrated cult-hit Starship Troopers, though Ender’s game is much less satirical. Because of the more serious tone, I would have expected more explanation about the Formic’s motivations, which are left more vague here then in the book. This would have brought more balance to the movie. Nevertheless, recommended especially for sci-fi fans.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Summit Entertainment.

Thor: The Dark World

2013-12-03-Thor-The-Dark-World2011’s Thor was a welcome addition to the superhero movie genre. Some characters from that first movie, Thor and Loki, also appeared in The Avengers: a decent superhero ensemble flick in its own right. Now there is this follow up movie which focuses solely on Thor again.

Drawing inspiration from the original Marvel comic, Thor: The Dark World starts with an elaborate back-story concerning evil elves, the alignment of the nine realms and the aether substance. The evil dark elf Malekith wants to obtain the aether, which looks like a floating liquid, so that he can dominate the nine realms. On earth, Jane (Natalie Portman) discovers weird gravitational and portal effects near an abandoned warehouse. We learn that this is linked to the alignment of the nine realms. Predictably she shifts into an other realm and contracts the evil aether substance. This sets in motion the film’s main conflict. Thor takes Jane to his home world, Asgard, in order to rid her from the aether. Malekith then attacks Asgard to obtain the aether.

Though nicely depicted, the opening narrative seems contrived and a bit too serious for the superhero genre. The filmmakers stylistically allude to Lord of the Rings, but it never quite gets there. What The Dark World does get right, similar to the first installment, is the depiction of Thor’s world: Asgard. Not in the least because of Loki: Thor’s evil brother, who also brings some, much needed, lightness to the film. Though imprisoned, he is summoned to assist Thor in his quest to stop Malekith.

Though Thor is an entertaining movie with plenty of action, it feels more tired then the first Thor film. There is an odd imbalance between comic relief and overtly dark overtones. For superhero fans there are better movies than this one, perhaps The Dark World is a recommendation only for die hard Thor fans.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Marvel Entertainment

Elysium

2013-11-19-ElysiumThis summer was filled with major science fiction blockbusters. However, disappointments like Oblivion and Pacific Rim left me with little hope that any good original science fiction would hit the theaters this year. Luckily I was proven wrong, twice in fact. The second one will be the subject of an other post. Let’s first take a look at Elysium by Neil Blomkamp who was also responsible for District 9.

For those who forgot: District 9 was about aliens that – for a change – weren’t vastly superior to mankind. They just happened to make a crash landing on earth in a quite unpredictable place: South Africa. Being the polite and welcoming species that mankind is, we relegated them to live in slums. Though Elysium does not involve aliens, it does deliver the same type of social criticism that made District 9 an above average flick.

In Elysium we learn that in 2154 most of humanity still lives on earth, but in poor conditions. The wealthy minority – let us call them the one percent – live on an artificial torus-shaped space station named Elysium. Filled with villas, green pastures and advanced technology, Elysium is the dream of any earthling. However, we quickly learn that it is not easy to actually get there for the vast majority of people.

When three rogue ships carrying refugees approach the station, the minister of defense – an ice-cold lady portrayed by Jodie Foster – ruthlessly orders two of them to be shot to pieces. The third one barely manages to land on Elysium. A young mother carrying an ill child rushes into one of the deserted villas to place her child in a ‘med-bay’. To the mother’s relief, the child is instantly healed. Though a second later both are apprehended by human-form robots labeled ‘homeland security’.

Limited access to resources, like the med-bay which can instantly heal any disease, is what this movie is all about. Max is one of the lucky few earthlings that has a job. He works in a factory where the human-form robots are built. If that sounds good: it really isn’t. He is transported to work by a ramshackle bus, and the owner of the business treats his employees in a manner similar to how he handles robots: as replaceable parts. Getting to Elysium is Max’s childhood dream, and due to unforeseen circumstances he has to make that dream come true sooner rather than later.

In contrast to the other recent action science fiction films mentioned earlier, Elysium really does make you think about the story’s deeper implications. Besides that, it has plenty of action as well, which is at times perhaps a bit too visceral and too much. Luckily, the thing Elysium does gets right is populating its story with a diverse set of characters who all have clear motivations. No character is plain evil just for the sake of it.

Though not as thought-provoking and creative as District 9. With a clear story and good acting work (Matt Damon, Carly Shane, Jodie Foster), Elysium brings back some life to the action science fiction genre, in contrast with the rather lackluster attempts released in early summer. Worth watching, even if you’re not into science fiction.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Columbia TriStar