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People love action. Whether it’s Pacific Rim, or Man of Steel, big-budget action puts butts in theaters. Action is often simple and even stupid, with less time given to plot, characters, and ideas than time given to explosions, car chases, and tough-guy one-liners. It’s a tall order to add enough intellectual and emotional appeal to an action movie without sacrificing the spectacle that makes them exciting. Director Neil Blomkamp did this in District 9 to much acclaim and attempts this again with Elysium. The attempt is mostly successful, barring a few instances of convenient writing, overuse of a shaky camera, and an almost-cliché plot.

Image

Set in 2154, the world is massively overpopulated, the entire city of L.A. being a slum. Max (Matt Damon) hopes to one day live in Elysium, a space-habitat populated only by the richest and luckiest citizens. For most, life there is just a dream. As the stakes grow higher, Max becomes involved with an underground rebel organization who strive to bring down the bureaucratic government.

This all sounds a bit cliché, and it certainly is at its most outer level. However, the world that Elysium creates is so detailed and believable that it fails to be a real distraction. In particular, Damon does such a good job with his character that you won’t really care that he’s going through the same motions of just about every down-on-his-luck protagonist of all time. He’s convincing as a man that has nothing and is willing to sacrifice everything for his dream. Following suit, the entire cast gives solid performances, even those with shallower characters. The least believable characters are the stuffy rich people, who we’re supposed to hate, and while they are highly unlikable, they’re a little too stuffy and too rich to be entirely realistic.

The movie is beautiful to look at, with the Earth looking depressingly decrepit and Elysium looking so clean and sterile you’d think you weren’t allowed to touch anything. CGI robocops blend seamlessly with real sets and actors, and there are some cool space scenes that should make sci-fi fans giddy. The only visual problem is with the action scenes that make excessive use of a shaky camera. These scenes are intense and exciting, but the camera makes it very difficult to see what’s happening.

Unlike many big-budget action films, Elysium is well paced, providing adequate context for its action. It doesn’t pull a Man of Steel or Avengers, and spend its first half spouting slow expository dialogue before beginning an hour long action climax that ironically becomes boring due to its excessiveness. Actions sequences are short and intense, and characters show actual pain and fatigue as they fight. Unlike so many action films, our characters feel like people who are scared and can potentially get hurt, which adds to the intensity. It’s well done, and keeps the film from ever being boring.

The ending is entirely expected. Nothing about it will surprise you, and the issues brought up aren’t really solved. Earth is still overpopulated, medical supplies won’t last forever, and there’s no way everyone can live on Elysium. So while the movie successfully inspires thought about important issues, it fails to deliver a clear message and call-to-action for its audience. It’s not a crime, but it feels like a lost opportunity.

Compared to District 9, Elysium is far less thought provoking, and perhaps even less exciting. Its gorgeous visuals and pacing are held back by its only slightly above-average plot. That said, it’s more interesting than most action movies and shows that action doesn’t have to mean brainless. It’s important for movies to deliver in more than one way, rather than relying on a single selling point, and Elysium is a good example of how the sum of many good elements can create a movie that, like Frosted Flakes, is more than good.

The Verdict: While it won’t probably be a classic, Elysium delivers a mix of action and ideas making it easy to recommend. Science fiction fans are likely to especially like this one.

Xbox Live Arcade is best known for bringing hit indie games like Braid, Limbo, and Bastion into the world. All of these games have simple gameplay-mechanics, coupled with fantastically tight design, and excellent presentation, and while it was not released to the fanfare of these titles, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet really stands among them.

Box Art

Like many of its XBLA brethren, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a 2D side scroller, though instead of a head stomping, jumpy little guy determined to get from left to right, you zoom around in a little flying saucer, able to equip one tool or weapon at a time. Everything is out to kill you or block your way, and the game is largely about exploration and gathering new abilities to unlock new areas in the manner of Super Metroid or Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Main player character

The little ship you zoom around in

Controls are tight and intuitive, making it easy to use all the weapons and tools you eventually acquire. All equipment is controlled with the right analogue stick, which can be problematic when you must be precise, but overall it’s not a huge problem. The camera is completely controlled automatically, and in this case, works beautifully. There’s a diverse set of enemies, which will keep you on your toes, and while some portions of the game are unforgivingly difficult, there is a generous set of save spots, which double as healing sanctuaries to keep you from getting too frustrated. Levels are punctuated with challenging and truly memorable boss fights, something modern games have largely forgotten. These bosses fit each level’s theme and give you a well-deserved sense of accomplishment on completion before allowing you to move on to the next section.

Boss

Bosses have interesting and terrifying designs and will leave an impression.

 

An exploration-based game is no fun if the world you must explore is boring, and fortunately the game does not disappoint. Unlike many other 2D indie side-scrollers (Lone Survivor, Super Meat Boy), Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet ditches the intentionally retro aesthetic in favor of an almost graphic novel style. The game has six distinct sections, each with its own distinct visual-style. Settings vary from damp, swampy caves, to an otherworldly underwater section, to a messy clockwork area, and plenty more. Otherworldly is the best word to describe the colorful artwork, which is truly imaginative and drop-dead gorgeous.

Many of the levels have an underwater feel, but some levels actually take place underwater.

Many of the levels have an underwater feel, but some levels actually take place underwater.

Make no mistake, visually, this is one of the best games I’ve ever played. In terms of its aesthetic, the only disappointment is perhaps the soundtrack, which features an excellent theme song and is otherwise mostly uninteresting. While it’s never bad, it fails to be the positive contributor that the soundtracks of Braid and Bastion were.

Perhaps the game’s biggest shortcoming is its level design, which leaves many areas locked until you get better equipment. This wouldn’t be a big issue if there was a better network of shortcuts, but I found myself backtracking quite a bit to get to locked areas. Additionally, there’s essentially no plot, which isn’t a bad thing (Limbo showed a minimalist plot can be tremendously successful), but also doesn’t win the game any additional points.

The Verdict

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet puts you into a world that manages to be both dark, but colorful, eerie, and beautiful, and ultimately a delight to explore. I’ve been asked how it compares to Limbo, and I think it has Limbo beat in many ways. While Limbo really set a mood, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet does so as well, but with more fun core gameplay, more variation in the aesthetics, and fewer frustrating roadblocks. Regardless of which game you prefer, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a great game to pick up on XBLA for 800 Microsoft Points (~$10 USD), despite its minor issues and relatively short length.

Rating:

Presentation: 93% – Points deducted for uninteresting soundtrack and lack of plot

Gameplay: 95% – Points deducted for minor frustrating portions, excessive backtracking, and difficultly using robotic arm

Extra Credit: +1% – This game includes concept art, a multiplayer mode, and manages to be both unique and throwback.

Total: 95%

Three skeptical Seattle magazine employees investigate a classified ad in which an eccentric man seeks a partner to travel through time with him. Together they embark on a journey that is one part hilarious, one part believing, and all parts touching. If you’re rolling your eyes at this premise, then you are a cynic like me who believes that most movies that are so outwardly quirky are probably also schmaltzy and even pretentious. While Safety Not Guaranteed dances right on that line between offbeat innovation (see Little Miss Sunshine), and too indie for its own good, it ultimately comes out an enjoyable watch that had the potential to be a lot better.

The first thing I noticed when watching this film was that the main character, Darius, was basically the geeky, shy, introverted guy’s wet dream. She’s beautiful but not socially outgoing. She’s smart but underappreciated. And best of all, she makes Star Wars jokes. It’s not a bad thing, as she is likeable and, for the most part, believable, but I couldn’t help but feel that the writers were a little lazy in writing her this way. It’d be like if it was Spongebob’s birthday and you bought him a Krabby Patty. Unimaginative, lacking in nutrients, but he’ll definitely appreciate it. Come to think of it, I think she might have been taken directly from New Girl, which would be appropriate considering it also starts Jake Johnson.

My sarcastic synopsis at the beginning is actually a fairly complete summary of the plot. Besides a few character-building moments of dialogue around campfires, in cramped hotel rooms, or in beds, the plot mostly revolves around Darius getting to know Kenneth, an incredibly strange and paranoid man who thinks he can build a time machine and take them both back to the year 2001. While the plot isn’t complicated, dripping with political intrigue, or brimming with bold twists, it serves to facilitate the film’s excellent dialogue and, which for me was the high point of the movie.

Characters speak in a way that might remind you of real conversations you’ve had, and you actually can feel the friendship building between the relatively small cast of characters. The dialogue lets you really get to know each one, and I genuinely liked all the characters (well except crazy Kenneth) and found them to be incredibly believable.

Around now you might be wondering why I didn’t absolutely love this movie and declare it perfect. If I had to choose one reason it would be Kenneth, the crazy time-traveler the plot revolves around. At first glance, he’s just one brain cell away from completely bonkers, but as you might have guessed, we get to learn about his past and unique perspective on life, and we begin to question if he’s crazy just because he’s different. The problem is that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”. I won’t spoil all the details of the ending, but the short version is we get the super sweet bubble gum ending where he’s not crazy, just misunderstood, and we’re all supposed to go “awwww…” If this doesn’t sound disappointing to you then I can recommend Safety Not Guaranteed without hesitation, but I had hoped for a little more from a movie that’s best feature was its believability and relatability.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to point to specific flaws in Safety Not Guaranteed. The truth is, the things that bothered me about it were pretty important to the film, and I can’t really think of another way to end it. Without the ending they had, I can only imagine anticlimax. That said, it doesn’t really absolve the movie from its easy-way-out, and I would have preferred something a little more down-to-earth. Ultimately, I did quite enjoy watching it, and I suspect most people, especially those that love cute love stories, to enjoy it even more than I did.

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