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Robots, Spaceships & Jodie Foster: The Good, The Bad, And The Wildly Uneven Of 'Elysium'

Features
by The Playlist Staff
August 12, 2013 4:37 PM
29 Comments
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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 GOOD

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.

The World

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.

Kruger

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. 

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29 Comments

  • KERRY | September 15, 2013 10:40 PMReply

    Elysium seems like a great premise for a series of sci-fi fiction novels. There are just too many elements involved that need attention, to be able to fit it into a 2 1/2 hour movie. It would a terribly interesting series.

    One of many what-the-hell complaints: That Matt Damon's character's apartment had running water and wastewater services. For such a screwed up shanty-town future, how in the heck is that city providing utility services? If they can do that, and put together a hospital, then why is the place such a mess?

    Blomkamp should have had patience and made this movie about 3-5 movies from now, when he had more experience. And instead of pulling a George Lucas, he needs to hire the writers next time.

  • Sami | August 27, 2013 5:23 AMReply

    I agree with most of this review. The premise of Elysium was very strong but poorly presented. One of its core themes was the human-robot relationship. Robots patrol the streets, matt Damon works at a robot factory, robots act as bodyguards and humans can acquire super human strength through a robotic exoskeleton. But this theme is not fully explored or developed (Prometheus android de ja vue??) and once matt Damon arrives at Elysium is totally forgotten. Wasnt there countless robot security teams stationed there? Were they busy on a lunch break??

    The Kruger character was a little out of place and to evolve into the main villain had me cringing in my seat. But I guess removing Jodie Foster's character was not a bad thing either. I ended up watching Fosters scenes thinking 'has she lost the ability to act?'.

    Finally as stated by the above review Matt Damon's sacrifice did not pull at a single heart string. His character did not develop beyond radiation sickness. This review could go on but I think we get the point

    5.5/10

  • Roy Griffis | August 25, 2013 6:37 PMReply

    Nobody would say that "District 9" was subtle, but if D9 was Noel Coward's "Blythe Spirit," then "Elysium" was "Porky's Revenge."

  • Patrick | August 22, 2013 7:13 AMReply

    I was disappointed for all the above points, but also how lazy Blomkamp was with the 'future' world. We're told this is 2154, some 141 years in the future yet we see them use a car and a pickup truck used in a scene, we see Damon's head being hooked up to a 'wire' in fact there are wires and monitors everywhere but in the same minute we're treated to machines that can cure everything.

    I almost walked out after being introduced to 'Spider' and his LA gang, sat around burning oil drums drinking beer like something out of Escape from New York.

    Also, where were the Elysium security forces? You only need to look at the levels of security in the US today to see this place would be totally inaccessible yet 'Spider' and his mates just 'rock up' and get out of their ship. Was everyone on lunch? Why are all the houses constantly empty? Why is a zillion $ spacestation's only guarded by Jodie Foster, some nutter with a missile launcher and a few guys in balaclavas?

  • nerdo | August 21, 2013 7:38 PMReply

    They committed the worst cinematic crime of all: it was boring. It seems that 9 out of 10 times big budgets kill creativity because everything needs to be "locked in" before they start and there is no chance to be creative or clever along the way because it is too expensive. Shame, expected a lot more, boring, mediocre and boring.

  • P. | August 14, 2013 2:47 AMReply

    I actually agree with Blomkamp and Damon. There is no message. The only thing that even remotely resembles a message is 'oppressing the poor is bad'. But that's not a message, that's lip-service, and a pleasant, friendly and neutral lip-service at that. EVERYONE agrees that oppressing the poor is bad, it's when people start pointing out the mechanisms that contribute to oppressing the poor and the price that the rich would need to pay to stop the oppression that you start actually saying something. But what does Elysium do? At first it concentrates on how the robots themselves are bad, because their programming does not allow any retreat from the protocols, any heart, any allowance for circumstances or simple human kindness. But the end - the end is only happy because the oblivious robots have been reprogrammed and are now told to save the oppressed masses, even though their creators don't want them to. So what's the problem? The robots or the people who programmed them? Either question has a say and a political point and either question is an interesting science fiction concept to explore, but the movie isn't interested in these questions. It's the same with the flashbacks - we've got the nun who is basically repeating the same structures that are meant to stop the poor from questioning or fighting the upper echelons. Those childhood flashbacks, what they portray is the mechanism of indoctrination to make sure the rich stay rich and the poor are content with being poor. Except... this is presented as a good thing? This ties back to Foster's character. It's always easy to have one bad guy, because then you don't have to examine the mechanism of society that give power to people and allow them to do what they want. So Foster is the bad guy, and we don't need to see what's going on in Elysium itself and how that society even works. It's not just that Damon and Foster have a non-character, it's that Elysium, which could have been a fantastic character all by itself, is non-existent.

    It's interesting to compare Elysium to Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel and the Naked Sun (and I'm sure these were a huge influence on Blomkamp - there's just too many similarities to be a coincidence). Asimov took the time to actually construct the society, the inner mechanisms, the logic, and therefore he could use this as a powerful metaphor on class relationships and technology. Blomkamp is using shorthand and while doing so he just destroys any possible later except for the most superficial one. There's a number of interesting science fiction stories and characters in Elysium, but they keep on being discarded in favour of the next explosion.

    Speaking of Foster's accent, did they re-dub parts of it in post production? It's not just that the accent changes (I think it's meant to be French?) but that sometimes it's out of sync with her lip movements. Which was jarring as hell, if the changes in accent weren't jarring enough.

  • charla | August 13, 2013 11:51 PMReply

    Dear lord, what a spectacle it was - not unlike the giveaway trailer. Foster was atrocious, Damon is a way better actor than to be in these moronic summer specials, and, no, Foster - as the actress, is supposed to be/ nay responsible for providing the drive and instinct for the character. Film directors don't often spend much time on the set directing every move ( this is not the theater)- they depend on the professional actor to do this otherwise filming would take forever. There is a certain expectation for professionals and she flopped. This has nothing to do with being sexist. Why does everything have to be considered sexist? If she was bad, then she was bad - don't blame someone else, it's demeaning actually to her like her every move depends on the director. It's his fault for using her if she couldn't nail it. I think the critic hit the nail on the head - and anyone who wants entertainment can go enjoy this but it doesn't make it a masterpiece or oscar calibre. It's a money maker and the special effects not-with standing, it will do fine. I found it 'entertaining' and it will proudly go on my compiled 'best of the worst' list for the year.

  • Jen | August 13, 2013 6:53 PMReply

    So in other words, Foster was terribly directed and her part, as far as the script goes, sucked. That sounds more like Neill's fault than Fosters. It's always discussed that Jodie is one of the easiest to work with in Hollywood, so I can't imagine her manhandling Neill to the point that he was afraid to direct her. Power hungry and manipulative. Isn't that how all dictators are? And her dress was to be futuristic and designed and tailored by Armani. And mentions of her hair? So you review her clothes and hair. Very sexist. Why not discuss the hair and clothes of the male characters? Aside from the fact that Damon has no hair. Anyway, I will see it but this is one reason I hate critics and never let them determine what I see, read or listen to. Critics jobs really serve no purpose.

  • N.B. Northwest | September 10, 2013 4:07 PM

    Get over your worthless feminist self. She's hot but she's on the other team. How's that for touchy-feel progressive liberal ideology?

    Great actress, bad writing and bad part. She could have been much more, but she was stuck in the director's bubble.

    Movie wasn't for girls anyway. Get over it.

  • Gary Abosch | September 1, 2013 5:54 AM

    You moron. She's hot. I kept thinking look at her hair look at her clothes look how she walks wow she's kinda hot. Without really looking up who you are commenting about I'm guessing it was a guy and guy's ALWAYS LOOK. That's one thing this director nailed is he made her HOT.

  • Tyler | August 19, 2013 7:36 PM

    Very well said Jen! And I totally agree.

  • charla | August 14, 2013 12:02 AM

    Lighten up - she was just plain bad and it has nothing do to with gender. The accent notwithstanding, I found the awful performance entertaining. The rest weren't so great either. It's just a movie and people should be open minded to critic's reviews. If you enjoy, that's fine, but these critics more than well informed about film in general and call it like they see it. Seriously, if I want to see something I go. Am always fascinated by my impressions against the critics. Critics don't determine what anyone sees - you are free to choose - but they provide some intelligent insight frequently. whether you agree or not. Went to see this one as I had a feeling it would be 'bad' Love to see films which take themselves so seriously and are really ' the best of the worst'. So, yeah, I was entertained - laughing.

  • Glass | August 13, 2013 3:28 PMReply

    Honestly, one of the best parts for me was the shot of Diego Luna & Matt Damon's car flipping from the bombs that got stuck to the hood with Sharlto Copley's middle finger sticking into the edge of the frame. I laughed. Him and the other 3 assassins were so good in this.

  • Derek | August 13, 2013 1:56 AMReply

    Futurists Past would be a fuckin' rad band name.

  • Ian Peterson | August 13, 2013 1:52 AMReply

    I have just returned from the theater and all I feel is embarrassment for Neil and poor, poor actors who signed up for it. It was obvious that poorly written material could not be saved by the stars or the merits of the concept itself. At least, it is now obvious that Terri Tatchell's screenwriting talent was the reason behind "District 9" success.
    Yes, Neil is a "world builder" but next time he builds a world I hope he hires a good writer. And maybe even a director.

  • Tyler | August 19, 2013 7:37 PM

    Matt and Jodie were great. I didn't see anything wrong with their performances, but I went in not reading or seeing the reviews in order to form my own opinion.

  • Jen | August 13, 2013 6:55 PM

    Exactly my point in above comment re: Foster being panned for bad writing and bad directing. That should come off on Neill, not Jodie.

  • Tugg boat | August 13, 2013 12:44 AMReply

    "...in the third act, she suddenly grows a 10-sizes-too-late conscience and decides to die"

    Funny, I didn't perceive it that way. I saw her decision to die as a refusal to live without power. Essentially, another selfish gesture.

    "... many of them appear to be criminals and terrorists"

    This is lazily incorrect. Nobody is a terrorist because nobody is seeking to create a climate of fear through violence. Frey and the others working at the hospital are caring people doing their best. There is no indication the people working at the plant with Max are criminals. Spider is a criminal engaging in kidnapping for a specific one-time purpose. Max is an ex-criminal trying to go straight.

  • Jen | August 13, 2013 6:56 PM

    So you're pointing out that perhaps the critic didn't either 1) understand what he was watching or 2) understand it.

  • Its alive | August 12, 2013 11:32 PMReply

    As a young immigrant brought to Canada from a disintegrating South Africa, it seems obvious that wealth disparity, issues of human equality, and the dangers of environmental degradation are "tightly woven" into Blomkamp. So it's perfectly natural that they are also tightly woven into his movie. Which is all right if you're comfortable looking at these things. My suspicion is that the reason the world was more comfortable with his Apartheid metaphor is because it's an issue the rest of the world doesn't have. It's far easier to judge others than to be asked to judge ourselves. It makes us uncomfortable (that's good, that's our conscience talking). As a Christian and a westerner the movie did make me think again: how fair is "the system"? What if we really DID treat everyone exactly the same? What if we didn't place an arbitrary value on this vs that person? What steps could we practically take right now to make the whole thing a bit fairer? I think these are healthy, good questions. The kinds of questions Rod Serling would be proud of.

  • Planesrhere | August 12, 2013 10:43 PMReply

    Who's gonna break it to the Asian/mixed race chick in the red bathing suit that she's white?

  • Kerry | September 15, 2013 11:01 PM

    Maybe the Indian President of Elysium can do it.

  • Aticlurus | August 12, 2013 9:08 PMReply

    It's not without faults, no movie is, but I found it a terrfic thrill ride and very enjoyable. I thought Damon carried the whole contraption on his back and it was much less effective when he was off screen. The flashbacks with the kids were sentimental, but in spite of the fact they were written rather clumsily I also felt they gave the final scene a nice payoff, so the sentiment worked for me. The "racist" charge is ring thrown around on some right wing web sites and I am astonished to see it repeated here, since it should be perfectly clear to anyone who has seen the movie that the president of Elysium is Indian. In my one viewing I also saw at least two Asians and one black dude. And, yes, the exoskeleton gives Max added strength. That's why he's wearing it. Bizarre article.

  • Just Me | August 12, 2013 7:37 PMReply

    Drew, I don't know who you are but this was the best review ever. You hit every single point (pros and cons) we tried to discuss on the car ride home from the theater. Excellent review. Liked it. Didn't love it. Think I would have absolutely loved it if those flaws could have been fixed on the front end. Thanks!

  • RC | August 12, 2013 7:03 PMReply

    Thank you, Drew. Could hardly believe that last review. Script was so overwrought with conveniences, sledgehammer messaging, and one dimensional characters. Very disappointed. I still get a good chuckle though when I think how the leader of the underground revolutionary group deciphered all that hi-tech encrypted code in mere seconds without even looking at it ("you know what this is? The key to Elysium!") and then changed the fate of the 99% by simply replacing the unencrypted word "illegal" with "legal". I nearly fell out of my seat. Perhaps Blokamp, who I still think is a very talented director, should' be hired a programmer to go along with Mead. Hopefully next go around he'll hire a writer too.

  • Corinne | June 14, 2014 2:22 AM

    I just watched this movie and agree with all of Drew's criticisms.

    RC, I laughed out loud as well when "illegal" was replaced with "legal." And yes, with one glance at a rapidly changing screen full of gobbledy-gook, multiple characters were able to surmise key plot information. Puh-leez! How can people spend millions of dollars to make such idiocy?

    Also, how did the magic tanning bed know the name of the little girl with cancer at the end? Is every human being -- even the Earth-born -- implanted with some sort of chip? By whom? And if so, how did the Elysium computer succeed in reading this chip, instantaneously (and seconds before her death)?

    Jodie Foster is fabulous, in general. In this, she was shockingly bad. She was given a horrific script (her character really is the worst, writing-wise, in the whole mess). I found myself thinking things like -- where was her manager? How could the people around her have let her do this to herself? Could she have gotten out of being in the movie somehow, once she had committed to it?

    But it's informative, too, to watch her. Her performance shows that even a wonderful actor can't overcome bad material, and that even the greats aren't always great. It's actually kind of comforting at some level. I look forward to seeing her in something that redeems her soon. She's way better than this movie, this writing, and this part -- but she really did stink it up good. I almost wonder if she acted it horribly on purpose, out of retribution for some sort of internal fight, in an attempt to sabotage the movie. It was that bad.

    Oh, Jodie. I still love you.

  • cirkusfolk | August 12, 2013 6:37 PMReply

    So which is better, Elysium or Prometheus (last years promise of smart R rated sci Fi)? I see fanboys felt both let them down, but I enjoyed Eylsium more than it seems most did. It had good action and a fast pace. Both Kruger and Jodie Fosters characters could have been fleshed out more but I dont think the director wanted to give Foster much sympathy because he might betray his own message in the process. I didn't mind the flashbacks of the kids, and felt it gave us all we really needed to know about Damon's character. This and Star Trek were the best movies of the summer.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | August 12, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    That's the Machine's mantra: Keep it simple, stupid.

  • Ed | August 12, 2013 9:01 PM

    Well said.

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