In a cinematic landscape that tends to favor sequels and remakes, we're seeing a refreshingly large number of original concepts hit the screen this year and we couldn't be happier. More than anything though, 2013 looks like it's going to be a killer year for science fiction films, with genre entries both massive (Pacific Rim) and tiny (Upstream Color) informing a lot of the daily discussions. However, there are three films that, to the casual observer, may blend together a bit. After all, Oblivion, After Earth and Elysium all feature a major movie star attempting to survive on a future Earth that no is no longer fit for human habitation.
It's the year of the dystopic/postapocalyptic sci-fi film and if you can't tell your Neill Blomkamp from your Joseph Kosinski, you've come to the right place. Welcome to the guide for telling Oblivion, After Earth and Elysium apart from one another!
Oblivion: Years after an alien invasion leaves the Earth in ruins, Jack Harper works as sort of a human version of Pixar's WALL-E, living on the ruined surface and getting his hands dirty for the survivors living up in space. However, things aren't as they seem (are they ever?) and the arrival of a crashed spaceship filled with human survivors sends Jack on a crash course with destiny as he finds his alliances severely tested.
After Earth: Cypher Raige is one of the greatest soldiers of all time. His son, Kitai, is not. When the two of them crash-land on the hostile, dangerous planet known as Earth, it's up to the young Kitai to trek across the deadly landscape and track down their ship's distress beacon before it's too late. There are a lot of things that want to eat you on future Earth, it seems.
Elysium: After getting blasted with a lethal does of radiation, Max, a worker drone on an overcrowded future Earth, realizes that the only way to survive is to get to Elysium, the beautiful home for the rich, powerful elite... but Elysium is a space station circling the Earth and regular citizens aren't allowed in. With nothing to lose, Max begins a suicide run for the station, where the people in charge will do everything in their power to stop him.
Just How Screwed Is Earth?
Oblivion: With the exception of your favorite landmarks (which were apparently built out of some pretty strong stuff), the Earth of Oblivion is a flat but admittedly gorgeous wasteland. However, the lack of remaining resources is a problem. And so are the lingering aliens. And so are the human survivors on the surface. And so are the human survivors in space. Earth's going to keep on spinning, but it really isn't a place you want to be.
After Earth: Well, it depends on what your definition of "screwed" is. Our home planet may no longer be suitable for human living in After Earth, but it's getting along just fine without us, with a brand new ecosystem populated by all kinds of wild animals emerging. Sure, any person who sets foot on the planet is dinner, but the Earth itself is doing just fine.
Elysium: You know Earth is in bad shape when all of the rich people hightail it into space. Overcrowded, filthy and financially broken, the Earth of Elysium is the equivalent of a third world country, with everyone living on it working for the benefit of the fat cats living in space luxury. It isn't a wasteland like Oblivion or a deadly jungle like After Earth, but it's a nightmare nonetheless.
Oblivion: In short, it's the one with Tom Cruise. But it also stars Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. In other words: the Bond girl from Quantum of Solace, God, Who?, That Lady Who Won an Oscar for The Fighter and Jaime Lannister.
After Earth: In short, it's the one with Will Smith. But really, this is a project built specifically for Jaden Smith, the son of America's favorite movie star and the apparent heir to his legacy. People generally liked him in The Karate Kid and he's definitely his father's son, but hopefully audiences are cool with what feels like a bit of a bait and switch -- you come for the big Smith and end up watching the little one.
Elysium: In short, it's the one with Matt Damon. It also features the great Jodie Foster as the head of security at Elysium and District 9's Sharlto Copley as a hobo-tastic assassin. William Fichtner is also around because hey, who doesn't love William Fichtner?
Oblivion: The last time we saw Joseph Kosinski, he was making the wildly divisive TRON: Legacy. That film showcased his knack for creating absolutely stunning images and still feels like some kind technical milestone, but its storytelling and characters were dodgy at best. Oblivion is Kosinksi's chance to show us that he can do more than create a pretty picture. If the film is even remotely engaging on a story level, his imagery should be able to shoulder most of the heavy lifting.
After Earth: It's been a rough decade or so for M. Night Shyamalan, who went from being the visionary behind The Sixth Sense to the man who angered the the entire filmgoing public with The Happening and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan's name has been absent from the marketing for After Earth, but there's no denying it: this is his big chance at redemption. If he can't make a Will Smith sci-fi movie work, it may be time to rethink his career options.
Elysium: Four years after its release, sci-fi fans are still high on the fantastic District 9, so expectations are unfairly high for Neill Blomkamp's second time in the director's chair. After his gloriously deranged debut, is it possible for Blomkamp to live up to everyone's hopes? The last thing we want to see is Elysium being treated like a sophomore slump.
Oblivion: Just like Kosinski's filmmaking, the sci-fi tech of Oblivion is clean, slick and stunning to look at. It's also just grounded enough to feel like something we'd actually see in the coming centuries.
After Earth: The trailers haven't given us a particularly great look at the sci-fi tech of After Earth yet (after all, most of the movie will find the Smtih clan trying to survive without it), but what we have seen looks slightly more fantastical and stylized than science fiction-ed Apple look of Oblivion.
Elysium: The cyberpunk tech of Elysium is best showcased by the robotic exoskeleton that Matt Damon has (literally) screwed onto his body -- it's rough, gritty, a little ugly and looks like something that we'll start doing to ourselves within the next decade or two.
Monsters or No Monsters?
Oblivion: Yes. Although most of the conflict in Oblivion takes place long after an alien invasion, there are enough lingering beasties to give Tom Cruise a rough time.
After Earth: Yes. After Earth looks like it's all about the giant sabtertooth tigers and man-eating eagle things.
Elysium: No. Until you realize that... wait for it... humnaity is the real monster! But there are also killer robots.
Oblivion: The initial round of reviews for Oblivion have been mixed, with many critics praising its visuals but bemoaning the lack of originality in its story. With the pros split down the middle, Oblivion's real test will come at the box office.
After Earth: Who knows? Unlike Oblivion, After Earth hasn't screened yet and unlike Elysium, it's not directed by someone genre fans are truly excited about. We'll hear more as we get closer to its release, but in a summer full of movies that have people actively excited, After Earth is hanging out in the background.
Elysium: After making a huge splash at Comic-Con last year, Elysium immediately become one of the 2013 movies to keep an eye on. The recently released trailer didn't hurt either. Of these three films, prerelease buzz for Elysium definitely feels the strongest among movie geeks, but it'll be the audiences that truly decide in the end.