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A cool world is not enough

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Neill Blomkamp loves to build worlds. He talked about it in an interview for a Swedish web publication about his new film Elysium.

Answering a question about what he thought was most fun about science fiction, he said:

“The most fun is designing a lot of the elements, the props and the vehicles… I love design so I really enjoy the period of designing and realizing the world the film is going to take”

In the interview he also talks enthusiastically about the “coolest most amazing” footage they got as they recorded in Mexico, and how “the themes of the movie are embedded into the footage”.

At least you can’t blame him for not being honest about it. There’s no question about what matters to him most: the looks. And you can’t take it away from him that he’s good at it. While not exactly ground breaking, I have to admit that I liked his vision of a future Earth with its handsome mix of high tech and poverty. I can buy into this overpopulated, polluted and generally worn down world. That’s a imaginable future. The space station hovering in the sky above is a little bit puzzling in a few ways, but it’s only minor complaints that I easily would have overcome provided that the movie was engaging enough. Sadly it wasn’t.

No mind tickling
“Style over content” is usually not an expression I like. I recently defended Only God Forgives for this kind of criticism. I honestly think that sometimes style is a perfectly good reason to love or admire a movie. Unfortunately this is not the case here.

Elysium desperately lacks the one thing that I love most about science fiction: the ability to tickle my mind with ideas, visions, surprising twists and logical or ethical dilemmas. It certainly looks like a science fiction movie. People travel in space ships crossing space, there are the coolest machines that can instant-heal anything, way more efficient than those in Star Trek, and people improve their bodies with machine parts. All elements of sci-fi. But what difference does this make if you spend most of the time on action scenes that could be picked from just about any movie, set in the future, past or present? Bad guy and good guy try to punch or kill each other until they succeed. They run about a lot. That they run in space and in the future isn’t enough. My mind was craving for interesting questions the chew on. It got nothing, apart from a ton of action and a one-note message about the unfairness of rich being rich and poor being poor and that healthcare should be free and for everyone.

It’s not that I’m necessarily opposed to the political message. A good public healthcare is taken for granted in Sweden. But to be the carrying theme in a science fiction story, there must be more dimensions to it. A glitch, a dilemma, a conflict of interest, a question where we’re swaying between different answers, seeing different perspective. This was so heavy-handed that I lost my interest. I couldn’t help thinking about other movies that hade treated the theme about a conflict between the poor and the privileged in a much more interesting way. Movies such as Never Let Me Go, about the view on what constituted a human being, or Gattaca, where genetic perfection versus imperfection was discussed. Those are movies that stayed with me, made me think and let me see the world from different perspectives. But from Elysium I brought nothing, apart from the memory of some pretty cool images.

Lack of information
Apart from a brief voiceover backstory in the beginning, delivered too quickly or me to remember it, I never got to know a lot about either world. Especially the people in the space station remained a mystery. How did they think? What were their motivations? Why did they treat people on Earth as badly? What kept them from sending the spectacular healing machines to Earth in the first place? There’s never any mentioning of scarcity. It appears as if they’re evil for the sake of being evil, which is fine if you’re making a movie about aliens from outer space, but not if you’re making a movie about human beings in the future. How did they become this way? Are they all just evil? Isn’t there a single person who questions this at least once?

I’m usually not a fan of nit-picking, but as in the case of Elysium I just can’t help myself. The more I thought about it, the more details did I find to question and complain about. But I won’t make this post into a “25 reasons why Elysium sucks” post. There are enough of those posts already out there.

Instead I’ll make an effort trying to find something nice to say about it, apart from the design:

  • I liked the villain, played by Sharito Copley.
  • It’s not in 3D! There’s a ton of shaky handcam though, which made it pretty hard sometimes to follow what happened in the action scenes. But I was OK with it. I’ve got a soft spot for shaky cams.
  • It was moderately entertaining. I wasn’t bored out of my mind and I didn’t fall asleep
  • It’s way better than After Earth. I’m aware that this doesn’t say a lot, but it needs to be mentioned. Compared to other science fiction movies this year, I rank it higher than After Earth, but lower than Star Trek into Darkness, Pacific Rim and Oblivion.

What went wrong
All in all Elysium was a disappointment. I’ve haven’t seen the last movie by this director, District 9, but the praise for it has been so loud that it had raised my expectations to perhaps an unhealthy level.

So what went wrong? Perhaps it’s just much harder to make a good, idea based science fiction movie if you’ve got access to a big budget. A big budget means that more people probably will want to have a say in the productions and there will be less willingness to be daring in any way. It’s almost as if there’s a reversed connection: the lesser budget a science fiction movie has, the better it gets. And I think of Moon and La Jetée, to shiny examples of what good sci-fi can bring in form of moments of sense of wonder.

Elysium had nothing of this, only some good set pieces, which brings it up to 2,5/5 on my rating scale, but no further. And yes, I’m pretty generous with my ratings.

Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, US 2013) My rating: 2,5/5

Edit: If you haven’t had enough of discussion already about this movie I recommend you to listen to a recent episode of the LAMB podcast,where I and some other movie bloggers teared it apart.


My Swedish fellow bloggers in the network Filmspanarna also watched this movie. Here’s what they made of it:

Fiffis filmtajm


Fredrik on film (in English)

Fripps filmrevyer

Har du inte sett den? (podcast)


Movies Noir

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Written by Jessica

August 21, 2013 at 8:00 am

Posted in Elysium