ELYSIUM: Dual Review

David and Ed got a chance to see Elysium and thought this would be a nice final Summer 2013 dual review opportunity. We’ll respond to each other in real time as we also review the film. We hope you enjoy our dialog!

IMDb Synopsis
Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Ed: You know that psychological phenomenon and Trent Reznor lyric where people hurt themselves to see if they still feel/bleed? That is kind of my experience with Elysium. Here at the end of Summer 2013, I find myself fairly numb when it comes to giant tentpole blockbusters. I’m ready to move on to more grounded or dramatic fare now that Fall/Winter movies are heading our way. And this Summer didn’t necessarily excite me as I had hoped it would. Pacific Rim was the highlight, and a very exciting one at that. But entries such as Iron Man 3 and The Wolverine, Fast 6 and World War Z… those were all movies that ranged from just “fine” to frustrating for me. And I haven’t even seen The Lone Ranger yet. To be fair, I probably feel this way towards the end of August every year, or at least for the past several.

What does this have to do with Elysium? Well, I feel like this is the film that closes out the Summer Blockbuster season here in 2013, and I’m excited to report that the movie filled me with wildly contradictory feelings and reactions that feel like a wonderful jolt to my numbness, even if there were about as many elements to Elysium that I HATED as there were elements that I LOVED. But wow… it feels great to feel so strongly. If nothing else, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to District 9 has me amped up and I’m ready to dissect it. I’m honestly crazy excited to review this movie right now. And I’m ready to say I want to own this Blu-ray and watch it many times even in spite of the numerous frustrating elements that I’ll dive into later.

David, I think one of the big questions on my mind going into the film, and even still after seeing it is: Does Elysium count as a sophomore slump film for Blomkamp? What are your thoughts? And do you have as wildly dissonant feelings as I do? What did you love and what did you hate, if so?

David: It might be a sophomore slump, but not in the way people are thinking. I’m not going to say that Blomkamp was lucky with District 9 – he clearly has an inordinate amount of talent and is an extremely exciting director. That said, I think he got “lucky” that District 9 injected his preferred type of movie with some wonderfully executed social commentary. I’ll explain.

I recently heard an interview where Blomkamp said that his goal isn’t necessarily making “message movies” and that his primary concern is just creating a good sci-fi action thrill ride. Now, obviously, he DOES inject social commentary, but that doesn’t appear to be his main goal with any of the films he has made. So if you look at it from that perspective, Elysium is a great success. It’s lunkheaded and heavy handed with its themes, but goddamn if it isn’t one of the prettiest sci-fi movies of all time with some incredible action set pieces.

I get what you’re saying, Ed, about being excited about this film, but not just with pure love for it. I’m in the same boat. The great stuff was truly amazing, and the bad stuff was miserable. Let’s get negative and talk about the stuff that didn’t work for me first.

I’ll be happy if I never have to see another flashback for the rest of my life, because Elysium easily contains enough to effectively insert in every movie for the rest of time. It’s far and away the most annoying aspect of the movie. It pulls you out of the story constantly. It’s as if Blomkamp didn’t trust the audience to remember what he just showed us five minutes ago in a different flashback, so he decides to just show us again. Just in case. The frequency would be bad enough alone, but the fact that these scenes are also the most ham-handed and uninteresting parts of the movie nearly kill it. I mean really kill it. They invite the movie out back in the dank alleyway, let it walk in front, unaware, while the flashback slowly pulls out a lead pipe. And then beat it in the back of the head. First the movie is dazed, confused, but the flashback doesn’t stop there. It hits the movie again and again, and just when you think the movie is about to die a horrible death by bludgeoning, the lens-flared flashback fades away and the movie cuts to an incredible sci-fi action scene. How is it still alive, you ask? Sometimes I wondered myself, but the movie manages to scrape by and cling to life.

There are other issues, but I think use of flashbacks was the most damning. Ed, I know you had this hate-filled rant you were getting ready to hurl at Jodie Foster, but maybe you’ve calmed down a bit. I don’t think she really deserves it. She tried her best, it just didn’t really work. What say you?

Ed: Nope, nothing has calmed down. I think Jodie Foster is one of our greatest living actresses and filmmakers. She has untapped wells of potential and also seems like a wonderful person. She is also unbelievably terrible in this movie. It happens. I’m sure Daniel Day Lewis has been bad in a movie. (I just haven’t seen that movie yet.) But Foster seems to be going for some kind of Margaret Thatcher vibe as Prime Minister Delacourt, the de facto evil commander in chief of the Elysium space station housing all the world’s elite, khaki-wearing, sweater-vested douche bags. It doesn’t work. She’s awful. But I don’t want to spend too much time on that because it really isn’t even the film’s biggest problem.

Elysium’s biggest issue (worse than the flashbacks) is that it lacks any mild veneer of subtlety and rests so squarely on the nose that you can’t help but cringe from time to time. District 9 had almost none of that. And if what you say is true, and Blomkamp really doesn’t care about injecting his films with political and social commentary… then he succeeds pretty effectively at taking the bite out of his writing voice here in Elysium. (Also, I’m sure he did say that, but I don’t buy it.) District 9 is a phenomenal sci-fi breakdown of the Apartheid system which is filled with subtlety and story-telling finesse. I mean the guy is a writer/director. What writer/directors legitimately bang out a script and then direct the hell out of it and then honestly try to say that their scripts don’t really have anything to say?

At any rate, Elysium does have a lot to say, and the production value and location shooting and visual effects mesh wonderfully to sell a very “occupy Elysium” style future where the 99% are entirely the good guys, and the 1% are entirely evil and wicked, with zero grey area in between. But the screenplay is just so riddled with convenience, movie logic, and David’s aforementioned and inexplicably frequent flashback sequences, that you can’t help but long for some of the subtlety found in District 9.

Now that we’ve got some of those unpleasant dislikes out of the way, what clicks for you, David? Are there any improvements over District 9 in your book? Because if this IS a sophomore slump, I see the issues coming mostly from the writer’s side of his writer/director personality, and I’m excited to dig into some of the stuff I loved.

David: Easy answer: what clicked is pretty much everything that we didn’t mention above. While the film has some structural issues, it actually surprised me at certain turns. The ultimate arc of the film is predictable but how we got there wasn’t – I was expecting a slightly different movie based on the previews, and I wasn’t sure exactly how things would unfold. It’s a sad state of affairs when the summer blockbusters are so predictable that being even slightly unpredictable feels refreshing, but here we are.

Another thing I loved were the effects. I know that sounds like an insubstantial thing to hang a hat on, but they’re remarkable in this movie. There are many scenes where, if you had told me that I was actually looking at a scale model instead of CGI, I would have believed you. I don’t really believe this is the case, but the droids, energy shields, and spacecraft are all mind-blowingly beautiful. If ever there was a movie to see in theaters for the special effects alone, this movie would have to be it. (I think it blows other expensive spectacle-pieces like Avatar out of the water.)

Going hand in hand with that are some of the action beats. When Blomkamp slows down and steps away from the action to let it breathe and really give the viewer a good sense of geography, he excels. The downside to this is, when he doesn’t do that, some of the action is a confusing shaky-cam mess, but it doesn’t detract too much from the good bits.

So Ed, you want to wrap us up? Oh man, I forgot to insult you somewhere in this article – have to keep up appearances. You’re so ugly Hello Kitty said goodbye to you. I think that’s from middle school, but should do nicely. Ok, take it away Ed.

Ed: I know these dual reviews are often more fun when David and I disagree or have something substantial to fight over, but I couldn’t agree more with lots of what he had to say. The visual effects and the aesthetic of Blomkamp’s film is so spectacular that I wonder why all big movies can’t look more like it does. Earlier this summer I said that the CGI in Pacific Rim was probably the best I had ever seen. Elysium almost certainly tops it. While Pacific Rim’s execution of computer graphics felt weighty and had soul, there was probably still a small part of my brain that knew I was just seeing algorithms and ones and zeroes. Somehow the effects in Elysium hit a magical sweet spot between practical, remarkable CG work, and incredible integration of location shooting and CGI landscapes. I believe the crew shot much of the planet-wide third world Earth sequences in Mexico and there is a real authenticity to the plight of the Earth-bound people due to the location work.

Either way, this Summer I genuinely had a blast with some of the enormous spectacle on display with Man Of Steel and Pacific Rim. Those movies were just gargantuan in scale and laden with effects. But Elysium is the first time in a long time where my jaw simply dropped in pure awe and befuddlement at what I was seeing. How did they make that exploding body look so real? Did they just actually murder someone? That force field is so convincing that I want one in my house right now because I believe they exist. The tech in Blomkamp’s two films all just feels layered and rich and tangible. So yes, the effects here in Elysium are so mind blowingly good that I too would recommend seeing this in a theater if for no other reason than to scope out the genuine VFX magic.

But you know what? It is almost a crime that we’ve gotten this far in this review without singing the praises of Sharlto Copley. Sure, Matt Damon is the star here, and he’s fine. His character takes more abuse than a Terminator and keeps on going, and his character arc is interesting. I also really like Alice Braga as his lifelong friend and a nurse who’s daughter could use a little sweet Elysium healin’. But Sharlto Copley’s Kruger? This is why I’ll see the film repeatedly. From the first frame of Kruger’s arrival under a samurai burlap hood, to his final mega exo-suit battle with Damon’s Max, I was riveted. Whether it was the performance, the costume and character design, or simply the awe with which this unstoppable force of a villain is treated… I haven’t rooted for a villain so hard in a very long time. And Kruger isn’t even much more than a two dimensional character at best. He is just so wonderfully realized by Copley and given all the most incredibly cool moments. Whether he is perpetrating those awesome moments or whether they are at his expense… everything about Copley’s Kruger has me smiling ear to ear and making me want to see this film again immediately.

A straight forward praise of Elysium would be questionable at best. The movie doesn’t just have flaws, it has glaring and disappointingly dumb issues that sting even more after the nuance of District 9. But every level of astute social commentary that was peeled away from Elysium was replaced with such unique, grounded, and just plain fun visuals that I can’t help but be thrilled by the experience of it all.

And [We're] Out.

the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis

  • Jon Partridge

    Really wanted to be blown away by this but trying to reign in my hopes a tad from hearing all the flaws in it. District 9 set such a high bar to hit again for Blomkamp though. He’s a utter master at meshing these CGI visuals into a movie though, no idea what the budget here was but willing to be its a fraction of what Pacific Rim cost which makes his achievements in that regard all the more impressive.

    • http://cinapse.co/ David Delgado

      This movie was actually much, much more expensive than DISTRICT 9, about $120 million compared to D9′s $30 mil. That said, it looks better than movies costing well over $200 million.

      • Jon Partridge

        Knew it was more, thought in the 80 range, didn’t know it was that high actually.

  • Matt Miller

    Great points here, guys. The VFX was so grounded in reality that everything felt completely seamless. (Anyone else notice the Tyrell Corporation-esque buildings in the above screenshot?) I love Jodie Foster but I have to agree. Aside from every single one of her lines being ADRd, she just felt stilted. And the flashbacks…oh lord, the flashbacks.
    Oh, and I’m stealing that Hello, Kitty insult.