7 Weakass Criticisms Of Elysium

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A good number of people are terribly disappointed by Elysium. I feel for them, I really do. It sucks when a movie doesn’t live up to your expectations. I’m less sympathetic to weak attempts at arguments as to why a movie didn’t work for a given group of viewers, and tend to think that with the subjective nature of watching, it easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because a lot of people are making the same criticisms of a movie, then those criticisms surely must be pretty much objectively true and designate the movie as a bad one. I don’t buy it. Sometimes the standards people set for a movie are kind of bullshitty, and I think this is happening with Elysium right now.

That’s not to say that the criticisms are necessarily invalid, or that Elysium is necessarily an outstanding movie. There are aspects of it I found particularly strong—things others have pointed out, the production design and the lead performance by Matt Damon, not to mention the force of nature that is Sharlto Copley—but others that I was less enamored with. It may simply come down to a half-glass evaluation. My position is simply that there are counterarguments to be made toward some of the beefs people had with the movie, and my philosophy is that is a reasonable explanation can be given to alleviate a perceived weakness in a movie, that’s enough to tip the scales back in the direction of positive evaluation. That could just be naïve relativism, but I’m sticking to it for now.

Here are the 7 weakest criticisms I’ve been reading about Elysium so far, and why they don’t necessarily hold up.

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1) We didn’t learn enough about Elysium itself

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Virtually every review I’ve read that is less than positive toward Elysium laments the fact that the world of Elysium, the space station inhabited by the socioeconomic elites of the future, is gorgeously imagined and designed, but remains elusive to the audience. They wanted to know more about this world, what its people were like, what they do all day, what the rest of their homes are like outside of the Med-Pods, what their political and social infrastructure is, and probably whether they poo or not. There is truth to this criticism. We don’t know much at all about what life on Elysium is like, and are left wanting to know more. It seems too good to be true.

This is the most common complaint I’ve heard from writers and is also the most flimsy. In fact, I would tout this as one of Elysium’s strengths: it remains consistent in its solidarity with the perspective of those on Earth. It’s this perspective that seems to have left a lot of people cold and disappointed, and indeed one of the least appreciated tactics of modern film, and I don’t entirely understand why. It would seem many viewers want to see a movie as an objective take on its story. But in the same way The Great Gatsby inhabited the character of Gatsby and Man of Steel took on the character of Superman, like really embodied the subjective attributes of these characters, Elysium takes on the perspective of the Max character played by Damon, or at the very least the perspective of the Earth-dwellers as a whole. So Elysium is appropriately out of our reach, just as it is for those on Earth. We don’t get to know much about it, other than the fact that it houses the wealthiest of the wealthy and it has these magic healing pods, because that’s exactly what those still on Earth learn about it from a young age. I know it would have been nice to experience this alternate world more, but that yearning puts us squarely in the shoes of the underdogs of this movie.

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2) The villains are too one-dimensional

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This might be the second most predominant criticism I’ve come across, and while I consider it to carry slightly more water than criticism number 1, I still have to return to the issue of perspective. I know it would be nice to really dig into Jodie Foster and William Fichtner’s characters, to truly understand their psyches and motivations and what their childhoods were like and what traumas or impactful moments could have led them to the people they are in the film’s present, but not only is that not this movie’s concern, it’s a necessary consequence of putting the audience, us, in the mindset of the impoverished, desperate, and justifiably resentful people of Earth.

It’s no different than a novel being told in the first person limited point of view, except that we don’t get to hear the character’s inner monologue. But we do see everything from their perspective like we would in a novel, and that means that the villains are presented as villains, without sympathy or too much exploration. Of course there are complicated factors that go into present-day real-life scenarios where the wealthy could easily use their resources to provide healthcare and assistance to underprivileged people, but ultimately, if you’re one of the people in desperate need of help and capable people are unwillingly to give it, isn’t it more like that you’ll be less concerned with their circumstances than you are with your own? It’s limited thinking that turns these others into aliens, essentially, but that’s precisely the point.

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3) The social commentary is thin, confused, lacks a coherent message, etc.

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Many seem to be disappointed that director Neill Blomkamp doesn’t seem to be making a clear point about economic inequality, or immigration, or healthcare, or whatever it is. At least not the way he did in District 9! The problem for me is I don’t exactly remember a clear message being provided in District 9 either other than Apartheid suuuuucked and stuff. Neither story is a clear allegory where each thing is supposed to represent another real thing nor a parable meant to teach us a lesson.

The point of the social backdrops of each film seems to be in service of the story, as a way of imagining a representation of obstacles the heroes are forced to overcome, and presenting them in a way that’s relevant to our current cultural climate. Those looking for a larger point are going to be dissatisfied, yes. It’s a different movie they’re hoping for, and I hope they find that movie one day. This movie’s strengths come in the sense that many of history’s problems that revolve around human beings being shitty to one another are cyclical, repeating in numerous variations over and over, and essentially all coming down to a question of who gets to call the shots and possess as much power as they possibly can. I know that sci-fi is celebrated for its allegorical tendencies and creating worlds that are alien to us to illuminate things about our world that are difficult to address directly, but I’m perfectly fine with this movie functioning in contrast to these conventions. It’s more about story and setting. I did like that most of the residents of future California are some varying shade of brown.

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4) It wasn’t as good as/is too similar to District 9

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For anyone who liked District 9 more than Elysium, I happily invite you to go ahead and rewatch District 9. It’s an absolutely fantastic film, probably better than Elysium by any rubric. Those who found Elysium and District 9 too similar, I would say…go rewatch District 9, because it’s seriously such an awesome movie that I can’t say enough good things about, but also because the similarities between the two are mostly superficial. The former criticism I find weak because bemoaning the fact that a particular work isn’t as good as a filmmaker’s previous work is unhelpful and usually banal and a giveaway that the critic’s expectations greatly hindered his or her assessment of a new piece of work; the latter I find boring because it’s easy to identify similarities between an artist’s series of works and more difficult and rewarding and exciting to identify the areas in which they’ve developed, grown, improved, built upon and discovered for themselves.

In the case of Elysium, it’s a movie of a completely different tone and scope compared to District 9. Although the action centers on Los Angeles, there is a far greater sense that the struggle carries implications for the entire Earth, making it a global scale fight. Furthermore, in the service of whatever social themes one wants to draw from each film, it’s far easier to stomach aliens treating humans like animals compared to the apathy and malice that causes the same kind of treatment by the Elysians. Add to this that Matt Damon’s Max character undergoes a wonderfully subtle transformation compared to Wikus in District 9; he basically remains the same person throughout until the very conclusion, his last moment in fact. While I, too, would like to see Blomkamp explore some newer territory, dismissing his films as too similar misses out on some fascinating differences.

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5) The action is poorly done

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Wouldn’t you know it, a lot of people didn’t like the so-called “shakycam” employed by Elysium. And the cutting was too fast. And I’m sure there are plenty of other meaningless things people say in place of just “I was bored.” It’s totally acceptable to be bored in a movie. I still maintain that identifying the source of that boredom is crucial, and is often misidentified as springing from the actual substance of the movie.

But anyway. This is one grievance that makes little sense to me. For one thing, the action in this movie does not seem like the movie’s primary focus the way it is for a lot of other sci-fi movies. There didn’t even seem to be that many action sequences necessarily, but small intense moments of fighting every now and then, and a general feeling of unease and menace that violence could break out at any moment. That’s not the same as action. The Copley villain character in particular does a lot of sinister stuff but doesn’t actually spend of a lot of time fighting. It’s more of a slow burn type of action that builds towards a climax. When there is a lot of rapid movement and fighting, I found the camerawork to be clearer than most action movies, with longer shots that were taken at really high speeds with fast motion, maintaining a sense of frantic chaos without relying on cutting quite so quickly. Maybe my impression of it was anomalous, but even so, the main thrust of the film seems less reliant on action than on tension and suspense and drama.

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6) Jodie Foster’s accent is weird

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Yeah, I found it weird too. Her whole performance is weird. She seems like kind of a weird person. If this was just one of many awkward things about the movie—the way it was with the bizarre dialect of After Earth, which had a host of other weird elements that got in the way of being able to simply enjoy the story and action—I’d find it an acceptable point to be made. It’s a worthwhile observation, but it’s the value judgment I find less convincing. Everyone in the Elysium world seems to have weird accents. A lot of people on Earth have weird accents too. Is this something that really requires an explanation? Foster’s character and her people have a weird Francophilia thing going on too. It shows they’re pretentious twats. I take no issue with this. I can relate to pretentious twats demonstrating Francophilia (and not just Calvin Candie).

I was far more concerned with the less than perfect dubbing of her lines. Lots of dialogue in movies are looped, redubbed for better sound, replaced in post-production, but Foster’s words were pretty frequently misaligning with her mouth. This makes me curious as to what technological fixes they were hoping to make, and what they were replacing. Maybe the accent was a late addition. I’m curious as to why, but this seems more like a minor quibble than a crack in the movie’s foundation.

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7) We’ve seen too many dystopian movies this year

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It may be true that a lot of movies from this summer, such as After Earth, Oblivion, and now Elysium, are variations on a theme that future Earth is uninhabitable or unrecognizable and the civilization that’s replaced it is corrupt or stuck with the same problems of current Earth. I get the fatigue. I feel your pain. But to me, this is more an example of poorly timed release than objective quality of the film. Of the three mentioned, and there may be more of this genre this year that are escaping my memory presently, Elysium is the strongest and most compelling by quite a lot.

That may not be saying all that much. And this whole list, again, is not trying to make the case for Elysium being a spectacular movie by any means. It simply seemed to me like a solid summer sci-fi film, one released in a month where judgments of films tend to be much harsher and less patient than films released in May. I’ll wait and see what Neill Blomkamp goes on to do in the years to come before determining what he’s capable of, and where this movie fits in his filmographic oeuvre. But for god’s sake, let’s just cool the jets on jumping all over a film’s flaws and finding a conclusive evaluative measure for it, can’t we? Maybe observe what we liked and didn’t like about it with a little less conviction and certainty and rigidity? Because as far as I’m concerned, if an equal case can be made for an aspect of a movie being terrible versus being sound, I’m going to favor the side defending its strengths rather than the one brandishing the knives, especially when the criteria being used is nearly impossible for most films to live up to. I don’t like seeing things as that bleak. But more importantly, I think it does a disservice to the evaluation and discussion of current movies that can simply be mildly entertaining and interesting rather than either awesome or terrible.

Were there aspects of Elysium that worked for you, or others that just didn’t? Share your own evaluations and observations or thoughts on how weakass this article was in the comments below.

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  • johannson

    It isn’t that the message of the movie wasn’t clear. Its message was pervasively clear. It was incredibly heavy-handed and beat the audience over the head. And the action needed to be stabilized. The CG sequences were; the fights were not. That means that you’re watching actors unable to do the fight choreography, so you employ “shakycam” for the action.

    • Darren Ruecker

      What’s its message?

      • Luva

        HEALTHCARE IT’S ALL ABOUT HEALTHCARE

    • Mike

      I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the heavy-handed message of the film (before I went in to it) and a lot of complaints about the shaky cam (after I saw it).

      I didn’t find the “message” to be overbearing or heavy handed at all, but I also wasn’t trying to figure out what the message was. Since I went into the movie expecting an overbearing message, you would have assumed that I would have found it extremely overbearing. I did not.

      And the shaky cam didn’t bother me one bit, and I walked out of the theater during the Bourne Supremacy because of the shaky cam.

      • Bill Baldwin

        Who knows how memes get started and go viral? Even before Elysium came out, I was reading that it had a heavy-handed socialist political message. The trailer was offered as evidence. Elysium puts us on the side of the Have-Nots against the Haves, see. That’s not a basic plot device that shows up EVERYWHERE in science fiction. Oh no. It’s a political agenda by Matt Damon who’s a big fat hypocrite dishonestly critiquing the system that made him a Have when he should just shut up and count his money.

        The Comments sections to these articles soon filled with semi-literate poorly spelled biliousness. Commenter after commenter willingly parroted the above talking point on the basis of the trailer alone. They weren’t about to go see the movie and let Matt Damon have their money.

        I haven’t seen the movie either, but that’s just because I haven’t. I felt the trailer had no political agenda at all. None. The articles had prepped me to find one. They’d even told me what to look for. It wasn’t there.

        I tend to think that most people who came out of the film whingeing about the politics are people who went in with a chip on their shoulder. They’d already been told that Elysium was going to try to sell them on Obamacare. They saw what they’d been prepped to see.

        I trust, in any event, that these people will be equally ruthless in their criticisms of other politically heavy-handed SF films. You know, like Alien, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Star Wars, Avatar, Serenity, Total Recall…. Dang. Seems like EVERY science fiction film wants you to side with the underdogs, the poor, the disenfranchised, the have-nots. Corporations, billionaires, developers and such just can’t seem to catch a break.

    • http://xsmarkthespot.squarespace.com/ Kerra4

      I agree with you analysis of the shakey cam usage. I hate when a director uses it because it means to me that he has no idea how to relate the scene to a film audience. I don’t need the camera to shake to know there is a fight going on. Ameturish in my opinion.

  • sykoh963

    Activate Kruger

  • Georgia

    First of all Darren, I read all of your article and found it way to wordy. I did see all the movies you mentioned and found Elysium my least favorite. The acting was fine, the fight scenes would have been ok if not for the shaky cam, the story left a lot to be desired and very predictable. I did enjoy the movie as an hour or so away from my everyday life.

  • Jared

    The irony here is that your defense of the film is weaker than these fair critiques.

  • thepoisonousmushroom

    matt damon is a hypocritical communist moron who looks like a cross between james van der beek and frankenstein

    • Augur Mayson

      Yes. He is. I heard him criticize this ineligible usurper once before and the upshot of it was that he was mad Obama hadn’t done enough of the hardcore Commie things he’d apparently promised.

  • http://xsmarkthespot.squarespace.com/ Kerra4

    Many of the reasons you point out are the reasons I don’t like Elysium. Everything I saw in the film about the space station was what I saw in the several movie trailers since April. Where’s the fun in that? Nothing new and no surprises. The shakey-cam? I wasn’t bored I had to look away from the film because I was literally getting dizzy. The use of the “shake” in scenes like running or fights only means to me that the director doesn’t trust his own direction or the scene or the audience to know what he tries to convey. Lack of confidence. At one hour and 38 minutes, the film was too short. 20 more minutes would have given the film the completeness it lacked. The story seemed only 3/4 told. And the heavy-handed message became annoying. The acting was fine and I applaud the actors for giving their most to this unsubstantial script. I am a scifi film fan and teacher dystopian scenarios to my students. None of that bothers me. What bothers me is to go to a film that has been so hyped by its makers and then find a less than full effort in the end. That’s why I don’t like the film.

  • Chris Bob

    Number 5 is spot on. I think people are confusing rapid editing for shaky cam. The only time I take issue with erratic camera work or editing is if I feel like there’s a lack of choreography to the action. I never once felt that way during any of the action. In fact, I maintain that the final fight between Max and Kruger is one of the best set pieces of the year.

    If there’s one thing Blomkamp does better than most, it’s action.