The heart of any great, meaningful work of science fiction comes from the way that it hangs up a speculative funhouse mirror to our present. These successful films accentuate the social ills and scientific trends of the present to grant us a look at the future which we can use to better evaluate and understand our choices. Thus, given our current entrenchment in the gap between social and economic classes, the national focus on universal healthcare, and the distant but still remembered battle between the one-percent and the 99-percent, any film that wrestles with these ideals while mixing in a fair amount of action spectacle should be a home run.
The problem is, you have to put some thought into the way in which the present works, and how that would change with the procession or time, or how it would effect the creation of future societies. And while you do extrapolate the modern issues regarding healthcare and economic disparity, Elysium, you don’t seem to understand the why or the how of the disparity, only that it exists – in your mind for seemingly no reason at all.
It’s the future, and the one-percent are living a life of sweet, healthful, pointless luxury on the massive space station known as Elysium, where life consist of garden parties, speaking French, dressing snappy, and not much else, unless you work for the government, which seems to be run nominally by a president but practically by Madam Delacourt (Jodie Foster). Delacourt protects the sanctity of Elysium with an iron fist, shooting out of the sky any unauthorized craft from earth that try to violate their airspace.
These craft are laden with the sick and the lame from a broken and impoverished earth, and their sole desire is to break into the palatial homes of the Elysium residents so that they might make use the med-pods found within to cure their ills. These pods are sort of like a microwave whose main setting is “make sick and broken people whole again,” though they might also be able to make you young and change your hair style. Down on earth, though, people are forced to struggle with the exact same medical technology we have now, mainly plaster casts, pills, gauze, and staples. When contrasted against the medical advances between 1913 and 2013, this stagnation makes little sense, but in the name of creating a grounded reality for the audience to attach its allegiance to, I suppose this can be forgiven.
Matt Damon plays Max De Costa, a factory worker who receives a lethal dose of radiation, an affliction that is a death sentence on earth, but can be cured on Elysium, just like any other problem anyone could have. The ease and speed of healing is such that almost the entire human population could be cured and happy with a few hundred med-pods and enough time and patience. But that isn’t available, so Max agrees to don a robotic exoskeleton and a neural implant in order to break into Elysium and save himself, or maybe the world.
This all sounds great, until one begins to actually experience this story as you desire to tell it, Elysium. Even on the very surface level of moviemaking and storytelling, you almost immediately begin to falter. Your choices for dialogue run the gamut from overly expository to outright unnatural and repetitive, while your characters exist on a single track of thought and action up until the moment that the story requires them to do something else in order to progress the plot. Your villains are evil without nuance or reason, your heroes are unfalteringly bland and weirdly self-interested until they suddenly remember they are supposed to be the heroes. Simple things like diction and accent choice turn straightforward conversations into eery and surreal pantomimes of actual human interaction. Jodie Foster in particular suffers from the most distracting case of words-not-matching-lips that I have seen in a big budget film this year, and possibly many other years.
None of this is helped by distracting camera work and editing, slow-motion moments peppered within larger instances which make geography and choreography and pacing almost impossible to discern. This is exacerbated by the fact that the environments of later action scenes seem to function with no earthly or space-ly reasoning. Cherry blossoms and wind exist in computer mainframes, that kind of thing. It’s cool to look at in a stationary sense, but when you begin to apply reason to it, the whole thing falls apart.
But nothing falls apart so much as the central thesis of the film during the last few minutes. The reason that medical care is currently so expensive and so inaccessible to so many people is because the actual implementation of said medical care is expensive and time-consuming. There aren’t enough beds, surgeons, or hospitals all over the world. The creation of new medicines to treat new diseases is a time-intensive and costly enterprise. To boil all of healthcare down into a single magical machine that can cure any illness without the need for any time, material, or sacrifice of any kind completely detonates whatever reason one could have to deny that luxury to people. Especially considering that those people are breaching your precious space solely to get access to that magic box. Every conflict between the two stratums of society and a good three-fourths of all problems on earth could be fixed with one altruistic gesture. A gesture that would cost no one anything.
The only reason this gesture is not made is because the rich in this movie have to be portrayed as one-dimensional and evil or else the entire lopsided allegiance we have to the people of earth will be challenged and the movie will be made much more interesting. No. The rich in the space station must be made comically villainous in order to make sure that the action movie side of things – which is less than successful – can proceed unimpeded.
When an entire society – when every decision made by the body politic as a whole – makes no sense, you know that a film is more concerned with set pieces than ideas, action than themes, and trailer moments than entire narratives. The sad truth, Elysium, is that while some films can shore up bad ideas with good action, you do not have enough of either to justify your flimsy and ultimately failed storyline.
I didn’t want to dislike you. I loved District 9, the last film by your director, Neill Blomkamp, and hoped that he would bring the cleverness and depth of that film’s sci-fi conceit to your story. But he did not. Ultimately, you are a subpar action film with a barely thought-out premise that can hardly support the weight of an even marginal amount of scrutiny.
Brian J. Roan