Showing, Not Telling

What follows is a more in-depth explanation of why I think I wasn’t satisfied with the movie Elysium.

I’ve pointed to Film Critic Hulk before on this blog but I haven’t read his essays for a while because, honestly, they’re a) long and b) damn hard to read with HIS ALL CAPS WRITING AND PURPOSEFULLY SIMPLE GRAMMAR WHILE USING SOPHISTICATED VOCABULARY.

See, how taxing that is on your brain? 🙂

Anyway. He’s got a lot to say and when it comes to film criticism he deals a lot with characters, plots and why they work or don’t work. Here’s an interesting thought from him in his analysis of “Man of Steel”:


This made me think of my Elysium “review” which, to be honest, was far away from a review and wasn’t intended as one anyways. The movie villain’s accent is probably the most superficial reason to like or dislike a movie. As I’ve said before, when I’m distracted by stuff like that or by seemingly idiotic movie physics, it’s usually a reason something deeper is going awry. Pacific Rim has stupid physics, but I liked it.

So, I thought more about why I was bored by Elysium and didn’t care about whether the hero succeeded in his quest or not. While reading Hulk’s “Man of Steel” analysis, where he meticulously dissects lazy scriptwriting and characterization, I became aware of similar issues with Elysium. So here’s what I think is the reason why I didn’t care. Keeping in mind the quote above, which means that this understanding can only go as far as my very limited knowledge of scriptwriting 😉

Show, Don’t Tell.

This is actually an important rule for good movies. You don’t want to be told by an on-screen character what has happened or why you’re supposed to care. You need to be shown. Some movies or TV series might not be able to do so due to budget constraints but a Hollywood blockbuster with perfect CGI like Eylsium very much should!


Elysium trailer screenshots (C) TriStar PIctures

Elysium starts of with the story of a young Matt Damon (great choice of child actor BTW!) who’s growing up in an orphanage where he befriends a nice girl. They decide to be friends forever, but then the movie cuts to “present day” where Matt is an adult and the girl is gone. Much later, when the movie has picked up some steam, Matt sees his childhood friend again as a hospital nurse. She even has a daughter from somebody we never get to know. Matt tries to hit on her in the most awkward way possible, as in

“Hey don’t I know you from way back and damn you’re hot. I already thought you were hot as a kid so… do you wanna go out with me tonight?”

That’s not an actual line of dialogue, but you get my point. The good thing is, that the woman keeps her distance even though Matt Damon does his best to prove himself worthy as a husband and replacement-dad. But still, there’s the bitter taste in my mouth that the connection between those two characters is nothing more than a movie cliché: He’s the hero, she’s the hottest girl around, of course they are in love.

What’s the problem?

The whole origin story has no connection to the movie universe at all and opens up unanswered questions about the time in between childhood and adulthood. At the same time, there are so many things we are not told about the world of Elysium. Is there a government left on earth or are they all on Elysium? Are there other countries? After all, there must be some fertile areas left, otherwise everybody would have already starved to death. How did the movie’s dystopia come to be? It must have happened before Matt Damon’s character was born because the world he grew up in is the same dusty run-down shithole as in the rest of the movie.

We’re just told that the world is that way. We’re just told that rich people are evil and the rest of the world looks like a right-wing politician’s nightmare of a California with too many illegal immigrants. We’re just told that there’s a deep connection between the two children and we’re just told that Matt has never forgotten about her.

In my opinion, many of Elysium’s issues would have disappeared if the first few minutes had been put to better use. We would have cared more about the quest and sacrifice if we had gotten to know the characters better.


  • Show how the world deteriorates during Matt’s childhood. Certainly, Elysium doesn’t just happen. Laws must be passed, economies must turn on their heads, public order must collapse, something must fill power vacuums. Give us something so people from 2013 can relate to the world of 2150! Maybe today’s drive for privately-funded space flight is the first step to building Elysium?
  • Explain why Matt and his girlfriend lost contact – even though both apparently never left the city.
  • Give Matt a reason to be angry at the upper class that has to do with why he and his girlfriend lost contact. Maybe she was deported based on some new lawmaking or Elysium-related policy? Did she fall in love with a rich guy’s son who even gave her the opportunity to briefly live on Elysium? (After all she’s in pretty good health for an earth citizen…).
  • Show us character flaws and virtues that play a role in the rest of the movie. We’re told that Matt was a thief and troublemaker. He’s even cynical towards powerful police robots! Surely that could have been a reason that she had enough of his company? The woman’s character is paper thin during the movie. Imagine she had a fiancée that went to Elysium but she didn’t because of… her daughter? character flaws? love for Matt?

All of that could have been a movie of its own! And they still would have been able to put in futuristic guns and mercenaries. And the movie could have still ended the way it did but suddenly you would have cared about whether Matt, his love interest or her daughter lived or died.

But maybe they deleted all of that from the script because it became apparent that the world and technology of Elysium are utterly ridiculous and incoherent once you intend to show their development step-by-step (they still need actual people to build those police robots?)

Memories of District 9.

Blomkamp’s acclaimed film debut is very similar in tone to Elysium. District 9 also introduced us to a world with a lot of new elements. Aliens are on earth! They are living in a slum in Johannisburg. There are even laws about where they are allowed to go! It’s all very political, with reminders to Apartheid or (if you want to go that far) Anti-Jewish laws in Nazi Germany.

The movie had to do a lot of exposition to introduce the viewer to its world. However, it was done much better than in Elysium: by having a TV crew film and follow the main character while he performed his job and dealt with aliens. Thus, both the world and the character(s) were introduced at the same time. We saw how the human-Alien relations worked (or rather didn’t work out). The people in the movie straight-out told the viewer (via interviews) what was going on, but at the same time we saw that they were just people doing their jobs like traffic cops and meter maids.

We were being told AND shown.

If you go back even further than District 9, there was a CGI short movie that made all of our jaws drop back then. 3D matchmoving wasn’t yet widespread. Projection mapping, HDR lighting… That short movie by Neill Blomkamp, called Alive in Joburg, really was a VFX masterpiece and its idea was very original. So original that it even held up for a whole feature film.

With Elysium it has become apparent that simply having ideas for cool sci-fi gadgets is no longer enough. Mr. Blomkamp sure can conjure up and direct amazing VFX. But he should let other people flesh out his next movie’s character arcs.

Yes, that’s very pretentious of me to say and I feel like an engineering freshman criticizing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for its shape. But damnit, I’ve paid money to see Elysium and had some expectations that were unfulfilled. And now I’ve even articulated my problems better than “I hated the villain’s accent”. So there you have it 🙂

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