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.