Sunday, September 1, 2013

Future Science Reviews - Elysium

Hello random readerhood

As a lifetime fan of all things science fiction, and a little bit of a scientist as well as an artist, I have decided to start sharing my opinions on movies, games and written stories "of the future!" with the rest of our shared planet, meaning you. It is therefore only fitting that the first review would be a one of a movie that makes a very clear point about all of us sharing the planet. Very bluntly, that is, but let's not get ahead of myself. I shall call this series Future Science Reviews, because this reviewer is not going to pretend that movies are just movies and science fiction is just some science fantasy that may ignore the real world in all of its, as of yet conveniently unknown, splendor. Don't worry though, I am a fan of magic as well. And logic, which applies to science, magic and storytelling alike. Okay, let's review a hell out of this thing and rate its futureality.

We All Float Up Here

I have just seen this movie in a theater once for the first time, so there may be some details that I have missed, but I subscribe to a theory that what wasn't perceptible or memorable enough, might as well not have been put into the movie at all. Nothing against Easter eggs and barely noticeable fan service, but these things will simply not be reflected in my ratings.

But speaking of these things, if I compare Elysium to, say, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Elysium seems to be much less of a mere reference to prior science fiction works. However understandable it is for a Star Trek movie to reflect and reenact the history of an already established franchise, I will always appreciate more any originality in a work of science fiction. Isn't that supposed to be the point of the genre, anyway? I know it doesn't seem that way today, but come on, it is literally the easiest genre to be original in - it is a genre about things that don't exist yet.

Elysium of course does have many sources of inspiration. Fortunately, it does borrow mostly from sci-fi computer games, most obviously the Mass Effect and Halo series, with the Elysium station very closely resembling the Citadel Station as well as the Halo Array. However, I wouldn't hold that against Elysium, firstly because I think that moving some visual ideas from games to the big screen is something that should be done more at this point (until it inevitably becomes excessive, as all financially successful tropes in Hollywood do).

But secondly, unless you wish to invoke magical inertial dampeners or deal with the tough to film (and think trough) zero gravity environment, you are stuck with a spinning circle or cylinder. As Einstein figured out embarrassing amount of years ago, inertia is essentially the same thing as gravity, and the centripetal force will keep you stuck to the inner surface of the said circles or cylinders just fine. Well, it would get trickier with crafts that have not landed yet or an atmosphere exposed to good old vacuum of space on the upside.

I liked that in the beginning, the refugee ships did indeed have no gravity inside, but then I wasn't at all sure how the shuttle of the mercenaries did seem to have normal gravity all the way, or at least before (and this is where the spoilers in this review begin, so turn back ye who wish to be surprised) that shuttle crash-landed on the surface of Elysium.

You see, for the centripetal force to take the gravity faking effect, you need to be standing on the inside on the spinning surface or being in contact with something that does AND *more importantly* you need to be spinning with it at the right speed, otherwise you would crash into it or float off. Not to mention if you are an atmosphere that has no way to stick around, but has a free way into space - something is telling me that it would really suck for the oxygen breathing inhabitants of the station. Or more precisely, blow. Maybe I just missed something, but none of the shuttles seemed to need to blast through any ceiling to land at the Elysium's surface.

As I said before, I will not hold the space station design and shenanigans against the movie, but since it was clearly not given any thought beyond basic plot logic, I will not give it any bonus points for it either. However, to demonstrate that some filmmakers do care (or at least used to care) about the science of space station construction, consider Babylon 5. In one episode, it was a plot point that one important character was stuck in the middle of the (hermetically sealed) cylinder-shaped station, at which point it was explained, that he is in fact weightless, but the "ground" is moving toward him, creating an illusion of him falling.

It may look deceptively like what gravity does, but if he was there inside of a shuttle with zero acceleration, he would float around in exactly zero gravity. Granted, these problems are more than just little mindbending, but if you are a director, you have plenty of time to consider everything. Especially if you have more than enough money to hire or at least consult a scientific advisor. Trust me, real physics in extreme situations will cause bigger wow effect for the audience than any inconsistent fantasy you can come up with.

Armed and Fabulous

If there is one thing that the director of Elysium and District 9 always does exceptionally well, it's guns. I mean, his robots are fine and his cybernetic gear passable, but man, those guns... Once again probably inspired by the better first person shooters, some legitimately creative firearm designs have found their way onto the film screen. As far as I can tell, we are talking mainly about smart programmable projectiles with microchips in them, a handheld rail gun and electromagnetic forces guiding and stopping bullets.

You may not be happy to find out that basic cannon-size versions of these weapons do already exist, and that is not even a secret. The least realistic of them would probably be the rail gun small and light enough to be used by infantry while still offering superior firepower, but that is sort of explained away by labeling it "chem-rail", implying that it is something similar but also different enough. I guess. The only mechanism that I know of where chemicals are used to similar effect (apart from gunpowder exploding) are lasers powered by a chemical reaction. Unlike the mass reducing effect of magical element zero in the Mass Effect series though, this still doesn't even imply away the physics of rapid mass acceleration that prevent miniaturization of powerful rail guns.

Overall, Blomkamp's weapon ideas are definitely fun to watch. So much so that I thought to myself that it would be much more fun if it was a first person shooter and not just a film. But one thing needs to happen before he makes his next movie - please, somebody, anybody, tell him about metal storm technology. Which we already possess. I suppose he may have heard of it, since the guns in Elysium do have synchronized shots being fired. That is the essence of metalstorm - electronically triggered projectiles, but it gets better (or worse, depending on whether your are the shooter or the target).

You can trigger multiple projectiles in the same barrel practically at once. The rate of fire of real machine gun prototypes already exceeds million rounds per minute. A million...per minute. Let that sink in. I have no idea why I haven't seen it in a Hollywood movie yet (not really, even Iron Man can simultaneously shoot a few dozen projectiles at most). Maybe the directors are simply uninformed, or it would be so overpowered that scriptwriters wouldn't know what to do with it. But I'm just saying, it's out there and I would really like to watch that level destruction. Just make sure to address the insane amounts of ammunition needed to sustain fire (make it the ultimate last resort weapon or ambush obliteration weapon or something, I don't care).

As a side note, I did some research online into futuristic weapons (again) because of this movie, and I encountered one really hilarious pseudo-factoid: "The first time we encounter a rail gun used in a movie was in Transformers 2: Revenge of The Fallen which is a cannon-like weapon mounted of Navy destroyers". Right, the *second* Transformers movie, a Micheal Bay movie, is in any way original piece of science fiction. This marvel of wisdom comes from, where apparently nobody is old enough to have seen the Eraser with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wielded two handheld rail guns during most of the action sequences.

And that is just the oldest mainstream example. Which reminds me - most of the things you may see in self proclaimed sci-fi movies and you feel like those are new ideas, are typically incredibly old ideas. Just look into some sci-fi novels from 1930s-1950s, and since I'm not an American, I would strongly recommend even Russian, German or Czech authors of sci-fi. Even movies. For instance, watch Czechoslovakian Icarus XB-1, from 1963, predating both Star Trek and 2001: The Space Odyssey. Or the original Russian Solaris, not the remake with Clooney. All of the above are truly original works of science fiction being merely imitated today - in the actual future. Feel free to weep for humanity now.

I, Robot - You Screwed

Robots, gotta love 'em. Ever since a Czechoslovakian author, Karel Čapek, has coined the term, robots have been the humanity's best frenemy. Originally a symbol of dehumanization and slavery, they continuously devolved into garbage cans without any understandable motivation (except to kill all humans), armed with lasers and constantly buzzing nonsensical synthbabble. Or did you think that Bender wants to kill all humans for a non-satirical reason? It is therefore refreshing that the robots in Elysium are a human instrument, used as a tool of oppression (as well as supposed salvation).

These robots are what we have made them to be, and their AI is limited to their particular task. A surprisingly realistic take. The realism is also being helped by making them look physically tangible and believable in motion. Like in the Real Steel or Pacific Rim, no fake CGI here. Realistic however doesn't equate creative or exceptionally clever. For one thing, humanoid design is not the only option (and most likely not the most efficient one in combat) and also - who would be needed to work in a world of fully dexterous, super-strong and resilient humanoid robots?

The way they are being all controlled is also not very clever. The whole reason why the internet was invented is the simple realization that whenever you centralize your command, you are extremely vulnerable. A single strike (or takeover) can paralyze your forces or even turn them against you, which of course happens in this movie. As it happened in I, Robot (the movie), or in the Phantom Menace. You need robots that are either autonomous or manually controllable when disconnected (like the Terminators), or capable of dynamically reorganizing the command structure through parallel channels (like the Geth from Mass Effect - I'm really starting to appreciate how far that game goes to explain things).

But I suppose I can suspend my disbelief here and say to myself "hey, who says that the rich people also have to be smart". Defeating a robot army however shouldn't be that easy. Defeating them should be through human creativity, not built-in safety switch (which is boring) or through direct confrontation and sheer force (which should be where the advantage of combat robots lies). In a real shootout with autonomous robot, you would be shot before you even know you are in a firefight - humans simply cannot react even as fast as contemporary machines.

At this point I could branch out to other cybernetics. The exoskeleton is okay, but it wouldn't offer almost any protection to the wearer from concussion, not to mention projectiles. I'm also pretty sure that when you get punched by an enhanced human into anything else than the structure of your own exoskeleton, you are dead. Sorry Matt, but you really shouldn't have made it more than once. Not to mention the convenient time-bomb irradiation by whatnot, which instead of getting progressively worse just kills you instantly...after five days. The magic pills keeping Matt fine for that time do nothing for me in terms of explaining this plot convenience either.

On the other hand, I did enjoy how realistic the software and computer interfaces seemed throughout the whole movie. It may look like something easy to do, but it really isn't. Most movies have either too-good-to-be-true visualizations of supposedly practical programs working in real time, random thingies meaning nothing cluttering the screen or too crappy interfaces to be ever actually used by anyone. There are also more subtle nuances - you need to make sure that you understand how computers compute, process information or show things on screen (like showing discrete strings of texts instead of gradual reveal of letters), as well as having gadgets that look actually used and appropriately worn. Here Elysium shines, once again enhancing its reality.

The Safest Place in the Universe My Balls

It is no accident that I left the plot of the movie to the end of this review. As much as I like the movie, its plot, including the characters and their development, is just lame. As opposed to the plot of District 9, actually. The main character there had a very interesting arc and was quite relatable. The actor playing that role is coincidentally the only character that works in this movie, if you don't think about it too much. But the motivations of the main protagonist in this one are just confused, no matter how much you don't think about them, and the supposed love of his life is largely irrelevant to what he actually does.

The scheming villain gets a very dumb death following a very thinly justified plan and the end resolution, oh man... That is actually the greatest sin in terms of science fiction. Imagine you have an overpopulated planet. Now introduce a perfect cure for all diseases. Bam! Planet saved. Then I suppose you go find five to ten other habitable planets, or just let all the people kill each other over food and water. I'm sure they'll figure it out somehow. The ending is unfortunately only the icing on a huge cake of director's naivety, which is reflected in the shallowness of all the symbolisms and metaphors he employs.

In many ways it is similar to the aforementioned old eastern-European science fiction. It is like the classic silent film Metropolis, the socialist black and white parable of the two worlds - rich people living in a secluded paradise, while the proletariat masses are slaves, working and living in inhuman conditions in the underworld. Once again, very old ideas with very little added value in this installment. Granted, it is still relevant, perhaps increasingly so lately, but the reality never is that clear cut.

Reducing the future to an absolute dystopia or absolute utopia was an unrealistic and lazy storytelling shortcut even as far back as fifty years ago. I am sorry, but I really don't think that humans are this uniformly pathetic. Overpopulation can be kept in check, and in the most developed countries, it already is. New technology would also be increasingly difficult to keep from people, not to mention that poor people do have brains to figure it out by themselves. This science fiction story does say something about today, but next to nothing about the future. And I didn't even mention how stupid it would be from the elites to live on a space station.

Seriously, have you any idea how fragile those things are? The movie boasts how secure the place is, but it has no defensive capabilities of its own - even if they decide to shoot something down from their sky, the shots are fired from Earth. And when they do explode the illegal shuttles to pieces, the movie conveniently doesn't address the fragments of the destroyed vessels still on collision course with Elysium. It would also have no protection from meteorites, which can not only tear all kinds of holes in the station but also knock it from orbit (or abruptly disrupt the fake gravity, effectively smashing everything). There would be very little protection from cosmic rays and all other kinds of radiation too.

I suppose that one can be sorted out by the magical healing reatomizers, but not an instantly lethal dose from a strong gamma ray burst. Moreover, orbital station must be dependent on some supplies from Earth. Even if they could grow their own food, recycle all air and water and collect all electricity using solar panels, they wouldn't be able to afford all luxuries without a supply line, which could be severed in a number of ways. At any rate, everything would be more plentiful and secure on Earth, I'm sure the richest few could easily hoard some pristine real estate. Or use the super duper technology to maybe, I don't know, clean up the only habitable planet in the known universe. All in all, not much thought was thunk in the making of this film. And this was the only big budget original science fiction movie this year, ladies and gentlemen.

Futureality Level: 5/10

Good gadgets, fake people, some effort, little thought. Better luck next year to all of the sci-fi fans.

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