Tie yourself down to whatever chair you’re sitting in, because this review is gonna be a rough fucking ride.
In a summer, nay, an era filled with dumb, lazy sci-fi movies, Elysium was our last hope that someone could return some intelligence and class to the genre. It had a director fresh off the first sci-fi movie to be nominated for Best Picture in nearly 30 years, a cast of big-name stars and unknowns alike, and a socially-relevant premise to boot. This seemed the perfect recipe for success, and after a summer where most geeks were let down by what the studios had offered, Elysium would either be the year’s saving grace or the last nail in the coffin.
Turns out, it was neither. Elysium isn’t the last nail in the coffin for the summer. It nails the summer to the cross and leaves it to die. Elysium is everything wrong with science fiction, not to mention movies in the 2010s in general. Remarkably, it manages to be loud, dumb, and obnoxious, while pretending to be smart, highbrow, and thought-provoking. Instead of finally delivering some smart sci-fi, it’s as stupid as the worst of its genre. There’s a lot to say here, so I’ll just jump right in.
Right off the bat, I have to mention the performances, because they are an embarrassment to the craft of acting. Even people who we traditionally think of as “bad actors” have never turned in the sorts of performances that William Fichtner and Jodie Foster give us here. And I have to lay the blame squarely at the feet of director Neill Blomkamp, and I don’t see how you could do otherwise. These two are good actors, even in schlock. Just look at most of Fichtner’s career. Even in the worst films, he’s at least having fun. It’s hard to describe exactly what makes Fichtner and Foster so awful, but it’s mostly about their line readings. They have this weird, clipped, affected vocal styling that (because their characters are both from Elysium) I can only imagine was Blomkamp’s idea. Maybe it was supposed to feel cold and distant, but it comes across as stiff and awkward, like Blomkamp poured hot soup down their pants before rolling the cameras and they were trying their hardest not to react. It’s painful to watch, and it absolutely kills every scene with them. Here, watch this clip of Damon (the only good actor in the movie) for an example of what I’m not talking about.
See how he feels totally at home in this world? You can see on his face that he’s done this before, and you can tell that Damon is having fun with the scene. Now imagine that half of the leads of the movie are doing the exact opposite. Stiff, uncomfortable, like they have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing. Not that the non-Elysium characters are much better. Wagner Moura is twitchy and annoying as a character named Spider who helps Damon with some problems. Sharlto Copley, so great in Blomkamp’s District 9, is completely let down by the script. He’s trying desperately to make a character where Blomkamp just has a plot device, and it’s not really his fault that it doesn’t work out.
So let’s just run down the plot, shall we? Because it’s hard to talk about this movie without hitting all the major plot beats, and you’ll need some context to see where I’m coming from on this. And by the way, I know I’m in the minority on hating this movie, and I’m comfortable with that, because I’m confident that someday people will realize how terrible this movie is, and I’ll be vindicated. Anyway, on with the plot. And there’ll be spoilers, by the way, but this movie is so bad that you shouldn’t see it if you haven’t already, so don’t get too worked up about it.
We start with a series of flashbacks to the childhood of Max De Costa (Damon’s character), who grew up an orphan and befriended a girl named Frey (Alice Braga) when he was a boy. Did you walk into the theater late and miss these scenes? Worry not! They’ll be repeated endlessly throughout the film whenever any part of them is the least bit relevant because Blomkamp think you’re too stupid to remember that one of Max’s tattoos is of a drawing he made as a child! One of the nuns at the orphanage tells Max that he’s meant for great things, that God has a destiny for him, blah blah blah, and already the movie is setting itself up for failure. Part of the greatness of District 9 is that it followed the Die Hard model of setting up a world and then having one random guy have a very bad day in it. In that film, our “protagonist” wasn’t anyone special. He was just some guy. And his story didn’t have massive, worldwide importance. The stakes were personal, intensely so. Not so in Elysium. That nun tells Max that he’s meant for great things, and she’s right. By the end of the movie, he’ll be the savior of all mankind. Literally. I’m so sick of this “Chosen One” narrative. Heroes are more interesting when the world affects them, not the other way around.
Speaking of which, let’s have a chat about world building, and why Elysium totally fails at it. In case you’re unaware, in this movie the rich and privileged have moved to a space station hovering above Earth called Elysium, leaving the rest of us to suffer on a dying planet. Los Angeles, where most of the action is set, looks like a Mexican slum. While people are dying on Earth, the citizens of Elysium have “med-pods” which can cure any ailment. People try to send shuttles up there frequently, but they are almost always blown out of the air by the government of Elysium. Things are not looking good. But here’s the problem: everything I just said is the sum total of what the movie tells us about its world. Compare that to a movie like Pacific Rim, which in the first 10 minutes gives us a great idea of what its world is like to live in, and continues to build on that by including subtle details throughout the film. By the end of Pacific Rim, we can place ourselves in that world and imagine what our lives would be like, how we would be affected. But since Blomkamp never shows us anything outside of LA, we have no clue what the rest of the world looks like. Has the middle class been eliminated, or is the entirety of the planet an impoverished ghetto? Blomkamp barely bothers to give us anything original when setting this stage. We don’t see anything we haven’t seen a million times before. There’s literally a shot of Damon playing soccer with a bunch of poor kids in the middle of a dusty dirt road. Come on, guys. Show a little bit of effort. And Elysium itself doesn’t get much better treatment. From what I can tell, the average citizen of Elysium spends 100% of their time having barbecues on the patios of nice-looking houses. And that’s not an exaggeration, there is never a scene of an average Elysium citizen doing anything else but hanging out at parties wearing fancy clothes. What is life like up there? Where do they get their food? What are the people like? The children? Blomkamp gives us a movie without peripheral vision. We don’t know anything about this world that doesn’t directly affect our main characters.
So Max just got out of prison for grand theft auto or something, and he’s on parole. He’s got an awful job working in a factory, and one day there’s an accident and he gets a lethal dose of radiation. He’s gonna die in five days. So he agrees to pull a heist with a former associate if in exchange he can get a trip to Elysium to get cured. This “heist” involves taking bank codes, passwords, and other sensitive information out of the head of a random corporate target. Because that’s never ever been done before. Max chooses the jerk who owns the factory he worked for named Carlyle (Fichtner), but little does he know that the guy is working with Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, Jennifer Delacourte (Forster) to orchestrate a coup on Elysium. Carlyle designed Elysium’s security systems, so he writes a code that can unlock them and install a new person as the president. Because the way that people usually gain power is by crossing out the name of the current leader and writing their own. Pretty sure that’s how the Bolsheviks did it. Anyway, Carlyle uploads this code to his brain (because that’s never been done before) for safekeeping and goes on his merry way. But Max and his friends attack Carlyle’s shuttle, and Max uses a robotic exoskeleton that’s been grafted to his bones to defeat his security. This suit has been a focal point in the film’s advertising, but in reality it feels like one of many cheats that Blomkamp included to get to the ending that he wanted. It has no bearing on the story other than to eliminate tension from Max’s fight scenes. Like the first thing he does with it is tear the head off a robot, so when he’s confronted with human enemies in the climax, there’s no question that he’ll get out of it. It feels like Blomkamp wrote the movie backwards, and while that’s not an inherently faulty way to write something, it really shows on screen here. You can almost hear Blomkamp going, “Well, I need him to get here, so I’ll make this happen. But for that to happen, I need this to happen 20 pages earlier. But for THAT to happen…”
So Max uploads all of Carlyle’s brain-data into his own brain, not knowing that the key to Elysium is in there. Delacourte sics an insane black ops agent named Kruger (Copley) on him, and you start to realize that this is a really, really awful movie. Max hides in the home of his old friend Frey (remember her? Don’t worry, we’ll repeat those flashbacks for you just in case), whose daughter has leukemia or something and is close to death. Long, boring story short, Kruger tracks him down there and takes Frey and the kid as collateral to get Max to come to Elysium with him so that Delacourte can recover the code. But by this point, Max and his friends have realized that the code has the power to make everyone on Earth a citizen of Elysium (we’ll get to the stupidity of this later), so Max isn’t so eager to give it up, especially when he finds out that taking the code out will kill him. There’s an accident with a grenade on the way up, the shuttle crashes and Kruger’s face gets blown off. It’s an awesome, daring twist, considering that the movie has set him up to be Max’s primary antagonist. Frey and the girl run into a nearby house to get her inside a Med-Pod, but it doesn’t work because…because…
“Hm,” thinks Blomkamp. “I can’t have the girl get healed right away, because that ruins the climax. But why wouldn’t it work for her? … Wait, I’ve got it!”
Turns out the Med-Pod doesn’t work if you’re not a citizen of Elysium. And the Med-Pod recognizes the girl’s DNA and even pulls up her name, so it can tell that she’s not from there. The stupid is really piling up at this point.
Kruger gets put in a Med-Pod and gets healed, thus ruining the only interesting plot development that the movie has going for it. You see, even though his entire face is gone, his brain is still working (?!?) so the Med-Pod puts him back together. And as if to sum up all the problems with this movie in one plot beat, the Med-Pod restores his beard. Why would it do this? Why would it function in such a way? This isn’t even given a handwave, or a lighthearted mock. It’s just straight-up ignored. This lack of attention to detail is exactly what’s wrong with Elysium in micro. It’s almost incredible to watch the movie do something that bone-headed and act like it’s no big deal. You thought that Star Trek Into Darkness’ ending with Khan’s magic blood was stupid science? At least that got a handwave by way of Bones saying something like, “Oh, you were only half dead.” For all the complaining that nerds did this summer about that one detail, it doesn’t touch how stupid everything in the last act of Elysium is.
I should mention, by this point Delacourte has declared a military emergency and placed herself in charge of Elysium, deposing the president. Why she ever bothered with the hacking BS if taking over the station was that easy is unknown to us. Okay, so Kruger gets healed and reports to Delacourte, who he’s mad at because at the beginning of the movie he got relieved of duty, although not by her, so why he’s so pissed is kind of a mystery. He stabs her in the neck and she dies, because in this universe you can come back from getting your entire face blown off by a grenade at close range but get stabbed in an artery and there’s nothing we can do. So why does he stab her? Because…uh…
“Huh,” thinks Blomkamp. “I need Kruger and Max to face off in the climax, but why should Kruger care about him? He delivered the guy to Elysium, his mission is over. There’s no reason why he should be interested in Max further. Hm…I’ve got it!”
Kruger has decided that he wants to run Elysium, so he goes after Max to get the code for himself. Why has he made this sudden decision? Well, since there’s literally nothing in the preceding minutes to suggest that this is something that would ever interest him, I guess we’ll never know. So he and Max fight, and Max wins because duh, exoskeleton. He gets to the central mainframe with this guy Spider, and he decides that he’s ready to die if it means that everyone on Earth can be a citizen of Elysium. So Spider downloads the code, and in some super-lazy production design, replaces the part of the code that says “EARTH POPULATION = ILLEGALS” with “EARTH POPULATION = CITIZENS”.Meanwhile, Frey cures her daughter in a Med-Pod and shuttles full of Med-Pods get sent to Earth where the medical robots immediately begin curing the sick. Elysium police bust down the door and demand that the security robot arrest Spider, but the robot scans him and says that he “cannot arrest a citizen of Elysium.” We get a shot of Max’s dead face as the nun’s words about him being “meant for something important” repeat in voice-over, and the movie ends.
This ending is so mind-numbingly moronic, so laughably obtuse, so stupefyingly senseless that it defies description. So Spider changes the code so that all of Earth’s citizens are now citizens of Elysium, and Frey’s daughter gets cured in a Med-Pod. So if it was that easy to change it, wouldn’t it be just as easy to change it back? Wouldn’t everything the heroes accomplished be reversed like five seconds later, meaning that Max’s dramatic sacrifice was for nothing? Not to mention that he’s all of a sudden totally okay with sacrificing his life to this cause despite the movie giving us absolutely no indication that he’s gone through a personality change. And if Elysium cared about Earth so little, as the movie initially implied that they did, why would they have extensive logs of everyone living there? Why would they bother? Speaking of which, why were there ships full of Med-Pods just lying around, ready to go? Why was Elysium prepared to help Earth? Again, why would they care? And when the robot says that it “cannot arrest a citizen of Elysium,” what’s stopping the human security forces from arresting him? Why does the robot have to do it? And speaking of which, why are the robots prevented from arresting Elysium citizens? Does Elysium have zero crime? You’re telling me that no citizen has ever murdered his or her significant other when they uncovered his or her torrid affair? Has no one ever intentionally burned down their house for the insurance money? No crime whatsoever? Had the movie established this idea at the outset, this line would have had some real resonance. As it stands, it’s just dumb. And since we have absolutely no concept of or attachment to this world, this major shift at the end has no impact on us. There’s no reason why we should care. We barely even understand why this change is so important, as unbelievable as it already is. This is the ending that Blomkamp was working towards? This is what he was rapidly and desperately introducing plot devices to accomplish? This? This is pathetic.
And at the end of the day, that’s all this movie is: a series of plot devices moving towards an inevitable conclusion. Everyone on Earth has to become a citizen of Elysium. Every character, every plot turn, everything in the movie is about making that happen. It feels totally unnatural. Even if this ending made sense and was worth telling, everything just feels like a chess piece being moved around in a really boring, obvious way. The characters don’t feel like people, and you never get the impression that they lead lives outside the confines of this plot. It’s that idea I mentioned earlier of a movie without peripheral vision. Blomkamp is so obsessed with getting us to this world’s endgame that he’s sacrificed everything important about moviemaking at that alter. Everything else feels secondary. In a good movie, the plot flows logically out of decisions the characters make, decisions that make sense given who these people have been established as and the world they live in. In Elysium, that’s all out the window. It’s almost sad, because this movie isn’t built on a bad foundation. As hacky and heavy-handed as the premise is, at least it’s trying to say something. But the movie lays it on so thick that all potential meaning is totally lost. Everyone on Elysium is the devil, even just random citizens, and everyone on Earth is a saint, even convicted criminals. It’s okay for a sci-fi movie to be a metaphor for something in the real world, but if you’re going to do that, you can’t paint with so broad a brush. There has to be subtlety, or else it comes across as preachy. Elysium never quite gets there, but instead it favors an approach which is arguably worse. It completely abandons and pretense of “ideas” or “social commentary” for a bunch of lame, repetitive, unoriginal action beats. Wall-E may have laid its message on a little thick, but at least that message was present for the entirety of the movie, instead of thrown in to set the stage at the beginning and given a token nod in the final scene.
Does this review come across as harsh? If it does, there’s a reason. I don’t see a lot of bad movies. I go to the theater a lot, so when I do, I don’t waste my money on movies I know will be bad. I’m never going to see a Scary Movie or a Grown-Ups 2, because I know that I’ll hate it, so there’s no point. I went into Elysium expecting some smart sci-fi, but what I got was dumber than a sack of hammers. Say what you will about Pacific Rim, which I loved, but it delivers on what it promises. It’s a movie with some awesome scenes of robots fighting monsters, and it never promises anything more or less. Elysium promised me cool sci-fi action and insightful social commentary, and while the former was kind of there, the latter was completely absent. This isn’t a movie ruined by a few flaws. This movie is one gigantic flaw. Everything that can be wrong with a sci-fi movie is wrong with Elysium. It is idiotic drivel strutting around like it has something important to say, and because of that it offends me on a much deeper level. Elysium is far and away the worst movie of the summer, and probably of the year by the time it’s all said and done. It is 2013’s answer to Prometheus, and I can’t think of a worse (or more fitting) insult to lob at it. I’m out.