‘Elysium’ (2013): The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I’ve been pretty vocal with my opinions of this summer in film. There have been a lot of blockbusters, a lot of destruction, and a lot of terrible movies that have plagued the theaters these last few months. Iron Man 3 is rubbish, Star Trek Into Darkness is a complete re-hashing of old ideas, and Man of Steel is nothing super. Needless to say, I’ve been very disappointed. Yet, my optimism continued, as I knew the end of the summer had one shining ray of hope- Elysium. Luckily for all of us, the film delivers for the most part and is a pretty exciting ride through a not too distant (and plausible) future. However, it is flawed, so I figured I would bookend the summer with one of my The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly reviews, just as I did for Iron Man 3. Shall we begin?

The Originality (for the most part)

The story in Elysium is relatively simple. In the future, the rich have fled earth to a man-made space station orbiting Earth, where crime and disease don’t exist and no one ever dies. On the surface of Earth, it’s a completely different story. Over population, violence, and disease have ruined what’s left of the planet, and the poor struggle to survive each day. It’s a simple idea that has plenty of similarities to how many view the world today. Although some of the “political agenda” may seem too forced or obvious, the idea is still something pretty original. Neil Blomkamp does a great job at never getting too involved with the politics of it all, and just when you think the film might get a little too heavy, we’re given an explosive action piece to have fun with.

Matt Damon

Neil Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, had a lot of its success with a completely unknown cast. The pseudo-documentary feel to the film really added another level to the story and made us feel like what we were watching actually happened. With Elysium, it’s the opposite story. The film has a handful of recognizable faces, with Matt Damon leading the film as our hero. Damon does a great job as Max, a man on a mission to cure himself and save the world in the process. He’s charming, so he’s easy to get behind, and he’s extremely badass, something you need in a hard R-rated sci-fi action flick. He channels his good guy shtick while throwing in some Jason Bourne, and does it all incredibly well.

The Special Effects

Elysium is flawless in its visuals. Just how District 9 looked real, so does Elysium, only 100 times bigger. The special effects are absolutely mind blowing, from the droid officers who detain Max, to the ships flying through the skies, to Elysium itself, the film looks gorgeous. It’s actually pretty hard to differentiate the “real” actors from most of the special effects, and it’s even easier to believe that this is what our future would look like in 100 years.

To tie in the next point as well, the guns and weapons used in the film are just as creative as they are visually interesting. Max utilizes a launcher that has explosive rounds that blow up around a particular target and an electricity gun that zaps his targets with bolts of lightning (I think?). Not to mention, the bad guy in the film has a force field. Yeah, a force field. And yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

Sharlto Copley

It’s hard to believe that just four years ago, Sharlto Copley was a TV producer whose dreams of being in front of the camera had gone to the wayside. He’s an absolutely incredible actor who molds himself into each role, similar to Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale. In Elysium, Copley delivers one hell of a performance as the villain Kruger, a mercenary/rapist/killer who will do whatever it takes to take down Max. It’s a complete change from the roles he’s played in District 9 and in The A- Team, and is one of the most memorable villains in a year crowded with great antagonists (John Harrison, General Zod, etc). In a summer where most of the blockbusters have been PG-13 money grabbers, Elysium runs with its R-rating and Copley joins the fun, being one violent motherf**ker. And, Kruger is someone you’d never want to have a run-in with down a dark alley or, you know, piss off.

The Camerawork

This one is a bit of a cheat because (spoiler) I included it in The Bad section below. For the most part, Elysium is a bit dizzy with its shaky cam. I love the special effects and I love the action, I just wish I could see a little bit more of what’s going on. However, there are a few moments that completely blew me away when it came to the camerawork. Blomkamp utilizes techniques I don’t think I’ve seen before. There’s a scene where Max is running in the heat of a battle, and the camera appears to be rigged to his back, but at a distance. It’s an engaging way to capture the intensity at hand and really makes you feel like you’re running right behind him, providing every bit of covering fire as you can. Elysium also utilizes slow-motion to focus in on the action. Yes, this effect is a bit overused in general but, once the slo-mo ends, the camera speeds up almost as if it’s catching up with itself. It’s a great technique that’s easy to miss, but once you see it, it’s too cool to forget.

The Camerawork

As I stated above, the shaky cam gets a little too carried away and can make some of the action scenes a little bit topsy turvy. It’s nothing that ruins the film but it really makes you want to buy a tripod on Amazon and ship it to Blomkamp’s home in South Africa. I understand why it’s used and, for the most part, I actually don’t mind it in most action flicks, but when something looks so damn cool like Elysium does, let me take it all in. Show off your film, Neil. Don’t give us puzzles to put together.

The Dialogue

I always find it confusing when a film has a great story but not so great dialogue. Elysium is one of those confusions. The script is messy and the dialogue can never figure out if it’s smart or not. Many of the lines delivered (especially towards the end of the film) are all things we’ve heard dozens of times before in countless blockbusters over the past ten years. A lot of the script is cheesy, force-fed, and a little bit ridiculous, especially those lines delivered by citizens of Elysium. Blomkamp, who also wrote the film, tried a little too hard to establish obvious differences between how the rich and the poor spoke, and the film suffers for it. Quite frankly, if the citizens of Elysium all talked with weird accents and even weirder vocabularies, I may choose to stay on Earth.

The Third Act

This mention is more of me finding another thing to include in The Bad list than anything else. The finale of the film is big, it’s just very derivative of what we’ve seen plenty of times before. Unlike District 9, where I was honestly unsure of how things would play out, Elysium is fairly straightforward and only has the smallest of surprises as we chug along towards the conclusion.

Jodie Foster

Easily my biggest complaint of the film, Jodie Foster fails miserably at being anything worthwhile as a villain. As the Defense Secretary of Elysium, Foster’s Delacourt is in charge of the military and protection of a perfect world. Unfortunately, she’s lacking in any sort of convincing when it comes to being the woman in charge and is more of a bitch than she is anything else. I understand you’re not supposed to care for the woman, but being a pain in the ass is completely different than being someone you love to hate. Foster also uses a terrible accent that sounds like some wannabe-bourgeois dialect, mixed with a little French and a huge dose of “I am so much better than you”. Her voice also appears to be dubbed, and poorly dubbed for that matter, which only adds to the frustration.

Lack of Diversity in Diversity

As I mentioned earlier, Elysium is heavy on the political parallels to what’s going on in the world today. And for the most part, these themes never feel too forced. They are certainly obvious, however, and even more so when you look at the cast of the film. The poor population consist entirely of minorities… and Matt Damon. It’s almost as though God opened an Oreo up in heaven, and the creamy center fell straight to earth in the form of Matt Damon. Although I understand that much of the world’s poorer populations are that of the minority demographics, there are plenty of white people struggling to get by. And making the president of Elysium an Indian guy doesn’t really make up for the lack of diversity in the rich ship sailing through heaven.

Not Enough Elysium

My final complaint of Elysium is that we never get to see enough of Elysium. The ‘spaceship’ is continually talked about as though it’s the ultimate paradise in the sky above the planet, yet we only get a few glimpses of the world above. We spend a good chunk of time on Earth and see all sorts of make-shift housing, factories, transportation, and so much more yet, on Elysium we witness a barbecue and a few levels of a military compound. When you talk about something that sounds so great, you need to show it off and tell us why it’s so amazing. Show off some inventions, show off the perfect weather, hell, show off all of the beautiful people. Just show us more.

Overall, Elysium does a lot more things right than it does wrong. Heck, a lot of my points under The Bad and The Ugly I kind of stretched for and ended up criticizing the film a lot more than I think I needed to. It’s a great flick that shows us that Neil Blomkamp did not just strike lightning once with District 9 and that he’s an original director that has a great future ahead of him. Elysium is a great addition to the sci-fi genre, especially with it’s R-rating and glorious blood and violence. It also has one heck of an ensemble cast (Foster aside), and has what I hope will be a breakout performance from the great Wagner Moura. Best known for his work in Brazil’s Elite Squad, Moura is an intense actor who can easily be compared to Javier Bardem. Both actors could share each other’s roles and I hope Moura’s performance in Elysium will open more doors (and those roles) for him.

In a summer where disappointment seems to be hiding around each Friday corner, Elysium stands strong amid the competition and takes us into a fall movie season that has a lot of work cut out for itself. While I type these words, Elysium is towards the top of my favorite movies of the year so far, but I am optimistic that greater things are on the way.

Overall: 7.8/10

Written By Nick

Nick is a man obsessed with all things related to film. From the most obscure to the very popular, he’s seen it all and hopes to one day turn his obsession into a career that makes a lot of money so he can buy a monkey, a bulldog, and a full size Batman suit.

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  • Eric Isaacs

    I liked it, but I didn’t love it like I love you but I hate you but I love you so I can’t kill you.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Overall not too different a review than mine even if I had it up as a higher score. That might have actually been just because I ultimately thought that while there were plenty of flaws in the film, none of them were sufficient to sink my overall impression down further than just a “very good” film. And also because I wanted to make a point to the politically concerned. Nice review, Nick. 🙂

  • Dan O’Neill

    I didn’t mind this flick as much as others have. Granted, not as good or sly with what it’s trying to say as District 9 was, but still thrilling and compelling enough for what it was. Good review Nick. Still trying to figure out just what the hell Jodie Foster was doing!

  • Beautiful

  • Haha, I know you and politics. I’ll stop by your review now that I’ve seen it!

  • Thanks Dan

  • Great review Nick. I agree with most of your points on how the dialogue was messy and that we never truly saw “Elysium”. I mean it’s the title of the film and we saw Los Angeles of the future, unfortunately L.A. isn’t that far off, ever been down to First Street…blechh. But all in all the movie was very entertaining and was one of the better films this summer but I feel that Elysium will be pushed to the bottom of the stack soon. And Jodie Foster needs to just retire or raise some dogs or something. I gave Elysium a 6.93 on the SundayDumbDay scale.

  • Thanks for stopping by. Jodie Foster raising dogs sounds like a Christmas movie or something, but definitely something I’d suggest after seeing her in this. Feel free to link to your review in the comments! I’ll definitely check it out!

  • I can’t recall a summer blockbuster season this bad. Theres been some great indie and foreign movies over the past few months though

  • Tyson Carter

    Excellent post Nick. Not seen this yet, but want to see it eventually. Copley is the main reason I’m hopeful about Oldboy

  • I agree. Mud, Kings of Summer, and The Way Way Back have been my favorites of the year. Pissed I missed Before Midnight.

  • Me too. He’ll be another bad guy in a remake of one of my favorite movies ever? Yes, please.

  • I just think this film offered nothing but visuals, acting is all competent but the biggest problem is the none existent story, with bigger holes than Jagersfontein. Basically it boiled down too, did I care? and the answer is no, not about a single character in fact if everyone died, it probably would have had more of an impact…