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

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by The Playlist Staff
August 12, 2013 4:37 PM
28 Comments
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The Action

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.

The Uneven

The Flashbacks

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.  

The BAD

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.

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28 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.

  • 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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