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

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 12, 2013 at 4:37PM

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.
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Elysium

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.

Elysium Matt Damon

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.

Elysium

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.

Elysium

The Ending

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

This article is related to: Elysium, Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Neill Blomkamp, Features, Feature, Jodie Foster


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