Few summer movies in 2013 were as highly anticipated as “Elysium” and few were as divisive. Perhaps it was because the promise of something meatier on the bone than the occasionally entertaining, but all too often disposable summer blockbusters. “Elysium” had the potential to hit all our sweet spot: brains, heart and brawn, and not just spectacle and scale. While the film topped the box office this past weekend with more than $30 million (a decent number, but not a great one considering its cost), it was less successful critically, earning a somewhat limp 60 on aggregator Metacritic and more than a few seesawing hands from the nation’s top critics (you can read our review here). Set in the not-too-distant future, “Elysium” tells a zeitgeisty dystopian tale of a world with have and have nots; Earth is overpopulated, diseased, polluted and resource drained so the rich have moved up to their gated community in the sky while the 99% are stuck down on the garbage can that is the planet.
The movie takes this conceit and centers it on a faceless factory drone (Matt Damon) who, after accidentally getting bombarded with radiation, must travel away from the dusty, blackened wasteland of earth and up to Elysium—an idyllic space station hovering just outside of our atmosphere in the inky blackness of space—to prevent his death. It is, for once, an original sci-fi concept, although one heavily indebted to the work of futurists past. Maybe more important is that it is the second film from Neill Blomkamp, whose “District 9” reignited hope in the genre for bold new storytellers within a blockbuster framework. Whether or not he lived up to the potential of “District 9” is one of the film’s major areas of contention. And there have been several for and against arguments not only by the public at large, but (gasp!) within The Playlist team (see the original review vs. this piece to discover the schism). So without further ado or hassling from your local robot policeman we present to you the good, the bad, and the wildly uneven of “Elysium.” Spoilers will inevitably follow, be forewarned.
The Visual Effects and Design
One thing that is absolutely unimpeachable about Blomkamp as a filmmaker and “Elysium” as a film is its sense of style and mastery of visual effects. So many movies this summer have spent untold millions creating spaceships that topple cities and superheroes that calamitously escape death but have failed to wow; they end up lost in their own pixels. “Elysium” has some genuinely awe-inspiring moments with plenty that dazzle in a real, tactile way, thanks largely to a combination of model work, computer generated imagery, and practical effects. The different methods blur seamlessly so that everything comes across as totally real: the robots that hassle Damon’s character at the bus stop are computer generated but seem clunky and weighty and very much ‘in’ the scene, while a few moments later Damon is dealing with another automated droid that is actually on set. The tactile realism of one robot feeds the other one and the whole world comes alive. Unlike so many sci-fi movies, the design aesthetic of “Elysium” is one built on practicality instead of coolness. There’s a lot in “Elysium” that’s cool, but it also has to be functional and applicable. (Blomkamp even hired Syd Mead, an industrial designer whose icon sketches contributed to such classics as “Aliens” and “Blade Runner.”) This means that there is little need for leaden explanation and you can almost always understand what’s going on in “Elysium” just by looking at it.
Blomkamp has an innate ability for what people like Guillermo del Toro refer to as “world building,” the complete and total fabrication of an alternate reality. For “Elysium,” that reality is a world where the planet is a burnt out husk of its former self and the rich all live in an orbiting satellite. But it’s more than just selling that simple conceit, it’s the population of characters that you actually believe in and scenarios that could actually transpire. And in that respect, Blomkamp pulls these things off beautifully. Even some of the more fantastical elements, like a whacked out mercenary firing missiles on earth that destroy spaceships in outer space, makes a certain kind of sense giving what Blomkamp has created (despite having a security chief, the planetoid is free of violence). The visual effects, as mentioned above, add much to the sensation of a fully functioning world and it’s a testament to Blomkamp’s nimble gifts as a storyteller that the world can be created without much in the way of exposition or unnecessary voiceover, two crutches that even the most imaginative science fiction can’t seem to avoid (see also: “Pacific Rim“). Spaceships zoom through the sky, robots parade around in broad daylight, humans outfit themselves in mechanical exoskeletons and people beam information directly into their heads, all without needless over-explanation (or sometimes any explanation at all). In “Elysium,” Blomkamp created a world that you can understand and visualize, but more importantly feel. By the end of the movie the filmmaker has put you in the emotional predicament of living in this society, which might be the most special effect of all.
While “Elysium” is very much Matt Damon’s show (something that he deals with admirably considering his underwritten character), there are still a number of characters that populate the movie and add some much-needed color (amongst all the drab and dusty earth tones, too). The most colorful, obviously, is Blomkamp’s buddy and “District 9” star Sharlto Copley, who plays a mercenary just named Kruger (like Freddy). He’s an agent that is often employed by the villainous head of Elysium’s security council, played by Jodie Foster (more on her in a minute), but instead of being some straight-laced military man, he is an out-and-out psychotic. One of the other members of Elysium’s ruling elite claims that he is known for his violent techniques, which include rape and murder. There’s even a shot of Kruger, after he’s been let go from Elysium’s employ, and he seems to be walking along a train track carrying something that is dead and putrefying in a wrinkly plastic bag. (The flies buzz on the soundtrack.) Sharlto Copley chews the scenery in every sequence and Kruger isn’t subtle but he is a much-needed dose of absurd humor in what is otherwise a largely humorless movie (the gonzo comical sense from ‘D9’ sadly is completely gone). Kruger’s character takes a strained suspension-of-disbelief turn at the end movie following a near-death experience, it’s unfortunate and doesn’t track with the rest of the movie. That is arguably due to the writing though, and he’s still joyfully nuts even when his character is cartoonishly reduced into an epithet-hurling Terminator hell bent on chasing down his prey.
It Earns Its R Rating
Unlike most blockbuster extravaganzas this summer, “Elysium” is rated R and proudly so: characters curse, have implied sexual backstories (the lack of any actual sex is kind of juvenile) and the action is really, really violent. In many ways you can feel Blomkamp mimicking the films of Paul Verhoeven, whose European sensibilities and unabashed interest in graphic sex and violence not only vaulted what could have been B-movie fodder into the realms of artfulness but also served as a vivid contrast to the kind of anonymous dreck American filmmakers were producing (things like “RoboCop” and “Total Recall“). Some of the most satisfying moments in “Elysium” are when characters are vaporized or violently shot or stabbed. Instead of being a hail of bullets that may or may not bloodlessly hit characters, every shot fired by a plasma cannon absolutely matters. There’s a moment later in the movie where a character’s face is completely blown away, which might be the most glorious exploding head since Christina Hendricks in “Drive.” It’s nice to know that a movie can be mature and for adults only while still being playful and batting around big ideas and oversized, imaginative concepts. A couple of complaints while we’re here, though: early in the movie we see some kind of futuristic weapon that literally causes a robot to be reduced to a pile of screws and scrap metal. A character should have unleashed a similar weapon on a human being, to see what the effects would have been on a mere mortal. Also, a bunch of the characters play up how painful and grotesque it’s going to be when Damon is outfitted with a robotic exoskeleton but then it happens very quickly and without much gore. Look to “RoboCop 2” for how to really do a surgery scene that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Blomkamp is, like that other high-minded fantasist Christopher Nolan, a professed devotee of Michael Bay, and in “Elysium” it shows. The action movie framework of “Elysium” is much more formal than “District 9,” which included scrappy elements of dark humor and found footage movies, somewhat limiting Blomkamp’s ability to go on flights of fancy like turning his main character into a half-monster. But that doesn’t mean that the director can’t put together a top-notch action sequence. There are a number of truly awesome moments, like when Damon and his crew are being attacked by a squadron of robots and Copley’s villainous Kruger and the final showdown between Damon and Copley. There’s a seeming effortlessness to the action sequences that, even though the scale has been greatly amplified, doesn’t come across as being unnecessarily complex or ornate. Each character has a very defined set of goals and they will do whatever they can to achieve those goals, even if it means crashing a spaceship into a space station or having a cool battle that involves miniature force fields and samurai swords. Despite some occasionally obnoxious cutting, for the most part the action in “Elysium” is clear, both spatially and geographically, and much is owed to Bay both in terms of what is going on in the moment and editorially, and especially in terms of the pure, propulsive energy and the way that obstacles are stacked up one on top of the other.
Much like “Pacific Rim,” “Elysium” is a triumph of design, concept and world-building, but its storytelling has myriad issues that mar its fascinating original story. One of them that arrives right off the bat and perhaps announces the problems to come is the maudlin and corny flashbacks that introduce us to Max’s nascent beginnings. Perhaps its because Damon’s Max character doesn’t have much of an character or emotional arc (we’ll get to that), but the quick flashbacks to explain who Max is, what his dreams are (getting to Elysium), and tell his origin story (an orphan who turned to crime), is clunky and a lot like the rest of the movie. Much too much on the nose. These sequences are also romantically gauzy and dreamy to the point that they’re cheesy, and borderline dumb and trite (the Frey and Max “innocent childhood pals with a romantic edge” is a little cornball too; especially when they meet again as adults in real life).
We understand the need to provide a backstory for Max and Frey, but boy is it laying on the themes thick and that’s what the movie does too often: lay it on thick.
The Supporting Players
William Fichtner, who was last seen as a similarly odious character in the under-seen “The Lone Ranger,” plays another heavy here, the leader of a defense contractor/robotics manufacturer who absolutely hates being on earth (especially since Elysium is 19 minutes from earth). Fichtner is so brilliantly brittle that for a while you half expect a late-in-the-game twist that he’s actually a robot too. The problem is while Fichtner is deliciously icy, his character is all one hollow, simple note. Likewise, Wagner Moura and Diego Luna play a pair of street thug freedom fighters who Damon goes to after being irradiated, but they don’t have a whole lot to do other than fulfill plot point needs. Moura’s Big Cheese hacker character—who helps Max get to Elysium for a price, basically shouts the entire time, and Luna as Max’s best friend is killed off before he can present a visage beyond “best friend #1 who cares for Max.” Alice Braga is both staggeringly talented and amazingly beautiful but has precious little to do here and for a woman characterized as being smart and determined, is basically the damsel in distress for much of the movie.
Jodie Foster & The Way Her Character Betrays Herself
Where to begin… As the Secretary of Defense for Elysium’s idyllic community, Foster should have relished the part of being an oversized villain in a film that throws caution (and subtlety) into the dark recesses of space. Instead of trying to be serious and actor-y, she could have had fun and twirled her (metaphoric) mustache to no end. But instead she makes a series of bafflingly bone-headed decisions that Blomkamp, working with a powerhouse star of her stature, never thinks to correct or rectify. The look of Foster’s character, like everything else in “Elysium,” is flawless: she’s got a blonde bob that’s plastered to her head like Robin Wright in “House of Cards” (but less sexy), wears robot-colored power suits and makes decisions in a council chamber that is the color of ores dug up from the center of the earth. If there was a beating heart to the Death Star, it could be her. But everything else is awful: the character is never consistent, focusing on diplomatic solutions one minute and ruthlessly murdering dozens of people the next. Her desperate grab for power seems both unfounded and convoluted, and the accent she chooses to saddle the character with seems to change from scene to scene (what is that? French? Lithuanian?). Instead of being a deliciously evil character that you love to hate, you just kind of hate her and her over-the-top performance is vexing. Her mere presence on screen grinds the movie to a halt and frays your patience. There’s a fine line between entertaining and just noxious villainous scene chewing and Foster definitely falls on the wrong side. A lot of the characters problems are in the muddled writing. After being shown as power hungry and manipulative, the Secretary soon shows her true colors are Machiavellian, heartless and malevolence (all shades of the same color though), but then in the third act, she suddenly grows a 10-sizes-too-late conscience and decides to die. This change of heart is absolutely ridiculous since it’s unearned, comes out of nowhere and essentially betrays everything the audience has learned about the character thus far. Once again, the decision to kill the character seems plot, rather than character motivated and it’s at the expense of the emotional credibility and the suspension of disbelief that makes a film tick.
A Distinct Lack of Subtlety
While both Damon and Blomkamp have assured journalists at every turn, that “Elysium” isn’t supposed to be a social or political movie, it’s too heavy handed to suggest otherwise. In fact, it’s kind of broad and dumbed down. Like “District 9,” but with the distinct flavor of blockbuster compromise on top (i.e. telling your story in a simplistic manner so Johnny Paycheck gets it). There are a number of big, lumbering metaphors in “Elysium” and they can easily be slotted into the narrative: the “Occupy” movement, immigration reform, the use of private contractors in foreign wars, and environmental issues all have their spot. In fact they’re so tightly woven into the fabric of the movie that it plays less like a narrative and more like the kind of flyers that irate underclassmen pass out on college campuses. While it’s great that a summer movie was actually about something and has something to say, there is not nearly enough nuance or subtlety in “Elysium.” Everyone on the floating utopia of Elysium is a) white and b) evil while everyone on earth is a) vaguely Hispanic and b) pure of heart (even though many of them appear to be criminals and terrorists). But the lack of subtlety doesn’t stop with the movie’s “message” (that, again, Blomkamp stresses doesn’t actually exist) but it trickles down to the characters (most evidently Foster’s character) and plot mechanics, especially when it comes to Damon’s convenient cancer. One minute he’s utterly crippled by the toxic dose of radiation (and what is clearly substandard medicine), the next he seems to be doing pretty well and after he gets the robotic exoskeleton, he’s more or less Iron Man. The exoskeleton is especially baffling since almost everyone responsible for its installation says that it would probably kill him (and should have, right, given his weakened immune system and overall physical health?). While the cancer should have been the engine driving him to get to Elysium, it instead becomes a subtlety-free device that feels more like a means to an end than actual motivation. It’s evocative of a larger problem with the movie’s disinterest in being anything other than bludgeoning.
Editorially, It’s A Bit Of A Mess
One of the things that really wears on “Elysium” is its editing. Many of the action sequences are frustrating—dazzling but then hampered by cutting that is too quick and frantic, and by the end we were counting how much longer the sequences should have been by seconds or minutes. (Okay, we should have held on that bad guy for fifteen more seconds before he explodes into a pink cloud.) But the action sequences, particularly that final fight, hint towards a larger problem with the movie as well, one that is evident from the very beginning. Take, for instance, an introductory sequence where the world is being set up (Elysium is like the Hamptons and earth is like Tijuana). There’s expository voiceover about what is going on and footage of both Earth and Elysium, which is all well and good except that a few minutes later we are following Foster’s character, presumably much later in the narrative’s timeline and it’s the exact same footage of Elysium that we saw earlier. Either the entire space station is a giant garden party or Blomkamp fucked up, didn’t shoot enough footage of Elysium, and awkwardly cut it together. There seems to be about fifteen different things happening in any given moment in “Elysium” but Blomkamp seems to lack the experience and skill set required accomplish something this ambitious (Nolan handled similar problems much more gracefully in, say, the final act of “Inception“). Blomkamp is burdened with an abundance of ideas but not necessarily with the technical wherewithal to pull them all off… yet.
Matt Damon’s Non-Character
Yeah, Max has a simple motivation and goal: as a former criminal trying to go straight, Max is trying to stay on the path of straight and narrow, but the system screws him over, he’s radiated and has five days to get into a med-pod on Elysium otherwise, he’ll die. Pretty straight simple motivation. There’s also a love interest that makes Max go from selfish to selfless (arguably his only arc). The problem is Max doesn’t have much of a personality and is written pretty one-dimensionally beyond his intro. More importantly, “Elysium” feels like it was conceived as an immigration story first and characters second. Meaning, the idea is: a gated community in the sky separate the 99% underclass on earth from the 1% elite, and then the story feels like it then reverse engineers itself to come up with a protagonist from the have nots world who has to be given a goal to reach Elysium. And it shows in Max. He’s given his basic goal and then there’s not much given to the character beyond that. In fact, his simple desire is that he “cannot die,” but we’re rarely shown his true fear or desperation beyond preventing this fact. Sure, Max eventually becomes a christ-like martyr, but even then we don’t really feel much in our hearts or souls.
The Antagonist Switch Makes No Thematic Sense
OK, we’ve obviously discussed this a lot already, but there’s a key element to it that’s inconceivably silly and betrays itself. “Elysium” sets up Foster as the antagonist of the movie. She is the neighborhood watch; George Zimmerman making sure no one makes it into the hallowed gates of Elysium, and she’ll do anything she can to prevent immigrants and stragglers from getting in. She’s one note, but whatever, her motivation is clear. But her character suddenly dies—with that sudden, ridiculous change of heart that is motivated by absolutely nothing—and the mindless assassin of the movie takes over as the main villain of the movie. So the movie essentially sets up one villain absolutely central to its themes and then ditches that villain instead for a lunatic who’s really been nothing more of a pawn, an assassin asset. Imagine if in the ‘Bourne‘ movies one of the assassins killed one of the masterminds behind “Treadstone” or “Blackbriar” and then tried to kill Jason Bourne for some petty “oh that fucker got away last time” payback. Sure, Kruger is much more colorful than any of the of ‘Bourne’ assassins but the way the movie flips on itself like this is poorly conceived and poorly thought out, especially since regardless of Kruger’s motivation to take over himself, the real conceit here is making him a scary and unstoppable Terminator figure who is coming to get Matt Damon’s character and howling down the hall of Elysium every step of the way. This is a fundamental problem and it was one that made us utterly scream in frustrated disbelief.
A sparingly used recurring motif in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” involves a shot of Russell Crowe’s Maximus running his hand through an Elysian field, golden crops swaying gently in the wind. In Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” the “Gladiator” comparison becomes more than a curio, but rather a notable thematic similarity. Damon’s Max, mortally wounded and about to give up the ghost, sacrifices himself to reboot Elysium’s core system, effectively making everyone on Earth a one-percenter. A new Rome is realized, and the huddled masses yearning to heal free are granted access to the plot-convenient all-curing immortality tanning beds. We even flash back to Max’s nun caretaker just to really hammer home the message that this man, this perfectly normal human being, has accomplished something extraordinary. The ending is certainly by the numbers, intercutting and concluding multiple threads while Ryan Amon’s score thumps triumphantly. It’s also a logistical nightmare, sacrificing common sense for the sake of illogical emotional outpouring that feels satisfying in the moment but begins to crumble before the “Directed By” credit even flashes on screen. Blomkamp, who also penned the script, is seemingly content to ignore the countless complexities that beset this new world—for example, what’s to stop a criminal organization from hijacking one of the healing ships touching down on Earth and utilizing it as a private enterprise? Why hasn’t some Elysium entrepreneur been exploiting the med-pods on earth to get rich all along? What happens to Elysium now? What will be solved by interminably prolonging the lives of people living in shoebox shanties on a polluted, dying Earth? The ending offers a poignant triumph, but it feels unearned at best and nonsensical at worst.
Well, that’s our take on “Elysium,” overall. Your thoughts? Did this socio-political sci-fi movie work for you? Did you expect more? Did it fulfill your summer tentpole needs? Sound off below. – Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Mark Zhuravsky