Elysium, it ain't
—an editor's note by Ada Fetters

I recently saw "Elysium," which is from the same director as "District 9." I was not surprised when I saw that it had “generally favorable reviews” because it is not fashionable to dislike a movie that cheerleads healthcare for the underprivileged.

However, I beg to differ.

The short version: “Elysium” failed both as an interesting sci-fi movie and as a sociopolitical message.

While “D9” was an interesting sci-fi movie with a sociopolitical message in it, "Elysium" was a self-contradictory message with pieces of movie tacked around it.

The setup is pretty standard. Earth is overpopulated, the economy collapsed, the Rich Elite went up to an orbiting space station "to preserve their way of life" while the teeming masses suffer and die under a miserable fascist regime below.

The main issue of the movie is that the Poor are sick and the Rich have an apparently-unlimited number of healing machines that they refuse to allow the Poor Masses access to. These machines instantly heal every ailment from compound fractures to leukemia to terminal exposure to radiation. One guy gets his face blown off and it is repaired in 60 seconds, good as new.

It is one thing to not want random people on a luxurious private space station, but another to refuse to send down to earth a single machine that can heal any disease or injury better than a Dungeons & Dragons cleric, for an unlimited amount of people. No reason is given as to why this is the case, not even a bullshit reason such as "we can only make so many because they are horrifically expensive" or "they require antigravity suspension to work."

“Elysium” was vaguely reminiscent, in a very simple way, of Neil Stephenson's book Diamond Age. But while the classes in Diamond Age are disparate, no one is deliberately cruel to the underprivileged. The food, housing etc aren't great. They are... adequate. Sure, the economy was out of whack and the masses were miserable but someone was trying to provide adequate care, food and shelter for them instead of pointlessly exacerbating the situation. This is more believable, especially in a futuristic setting where synthesized food, healthcare etc is readily available.

From a writing standpoint, the Rich People need some kind of motivation for what they do (or don't do). “To preserve their way of life” is all we get, which is frustratingly vague as the reason for the whole movie. In “D9,” a race of aliens crash-landed and were kept apart from everybody in the terrible conditions of the Ninth District. It was like Apartheid. What humans did to them was wrong but the motivation was clear. Not right, but clear. “We don't know what these ‘bugs’ are or what they plan to do, we don't want 'em wandering around mingling with ‘us.’” There was racism and xenophobia, neither of which are right but the audience understood why it was happening.

The Rich wanting to be separate is understandable (again, not a nice thing but understandable), but they need motivation to be more deliberately cruel than that especially when there is no reason not to help these people and it'd actually make their own lives easier to do so. I mean, in the end all that had to be done was to fly a ship of robots and healing machines to earth. C'mon. It isn't like there's a whole alien culture with huge implications to consider for integration versus separation the way there was in “D9.”

"Elysium" was unrelentingly depressing. Everyone knows that dark or sad movies can be some of the best if done well, but movie-maker has to be careful not to burn out an audience, especially if he is making an big, simple action movie. No one in “Elysium” has any joy at all. Viewers see the terrible wasted city with crumbling skyscrapers and graffiti and trash everywhere. That is fine, but you don't see anyone dancing in the dragon's jaws.

By this I mean the kind of scene in “Titanic” where Rose goes below decks with the “commoners” and spends the night drinking and dancing and having the time of her life.

The main character doesn't go drink or play basketball with his buddies or have sexy times with a girlfriend or even play with a dog. How easy would it have been to show him from a distance, darting across an abandoned parking-lot with those universal playing-with-the-dog movements? That is what I mean by dancing in the dragon’s jaws.

In a movie about the importance of healthcare we have to feel the preciousness of life or there is no point.

However, our main character in “Elysium” has a horrible life with little meaningful interaction. Even his parole officer is a plastic dummy with a speaker in its chest. I understand what the movie is trying to say: the system is mechanized. However, that the writers missed an easy chance for some human interaction and expository dialogue to lend some spark to our main character beyond his current situation.

This is even more important because when this guy is hit with a massive dose of radiation while on the job and is unceremoniously given five days to live, his reaction is unrealistic for what we know of him. Most people who had nobody else to worry about would probably empty whatever was in their bank account, borrow what they could and live their last week in a blur of sex, drugs and rock n roll. We have no reason to believe that this person is any different. Instead he decides to go through hell to get to Elysium in order to heal himself.

I know the point of the movie is about accessible healthcare but the way they set up this world, our main character needs a very, very good reason to try this as opposed to making the most of his five days because the chances are high that he will die on the way to Elysium anyway: we are shown that most of the ships that try to get there illegally are shot to pieces in space even though they have sick children on them.

Did I mention this movie is depressing?

That is the single biggest problem with “Elysium.” We aren't shown any reason for this person to make this huge, convoluted effort that takes up most of the plot. We aren't even shown anything that our main character has to live for. He has no family, no children, he lives in a hole in the wall (literally), has a miserable job and no future. He spends the whole time until he gets irradiated being angry and depressed. We are not shown anything he cares about. We are even shown that he is barely literate. What is he going to do when he gets healed, exactly? It would have been so easy to give him an adoptive family he protects, or a child he loves, or maybe he does some kind of work crucial to his enclave. Or hey, man, maybe he's one of those people who just loves life, like Trey Anastasio or Dr. George Kunz. We aren't shown any of that and so he lacks a motivation for the most important plot point.

Of course, the Rich aren't having fun either. On Elysium they are usually shown walking very slowly across their yards. Also, it turns out that people who are born rich are evil. This is another big problem because it takes an already shaky premise and makes it completely unbelievable.

One of the evil rich guys is paying a visit to one of the factories he owns when the main character gets hit with radiation. He looks at our sick, semi-conscious main character and says, and I quote, "Will his skin fall off? Or something? I don't want to have to replace the sheet on that bed. Get him out of here."

That is a typical interaction for this movie and there are so many things that don't make sense that I don't know where to start. Regardless of whether you're such a terrible person that you'd treat someone else that way, why on earth would a guy who has enough money to literally pay for everlasting life and ridiculous luxury care about a bed sheet in a one of the many factories he owns? Also, if the guy was hit with radiation (he is even wearing the same clothes as when he was hit, for crying out loud), doesn't that make whether to replace it a moot point?

This seems like a small thing but in science fiction it is important for details to feel real.

The Evil Rich People are not indifferent or ignorant, they way they often are in Diamond Age and the way they sometimes are in first-world countries. These characters go out of their way to be cruel in strange and unrealistic ways. A real person would probably have cringed when the sick main character caught their eye, maybe not wanted to look at him, maybe would have walked away quickly, telling themselves that someone else would deal with it. Or, if he were a good but previously ignorant person he would have stared at the sick man and said something like “Oh my god. Oh my god I didn’t know.

The latter is a very short version of what happens in “District 9” and works beautifully.

So anyway “Elysium” tells us that the evil rich people are incapable of seeing the poor as human beings and does this so insistently that we're expected to think of the evil factory owner as not-a-person. As it turns out, it is ok for him to die horribly later, to be sacrificed to the main character's plan to get to Elysium, because the rich guy is not a real person.

So where are the real people? Who am I supposed to connect with? The poor masses are seen yelling, screaming and being hooligans (the others in the main character’s neighborhood make fun of him for having a job) so it is difficult to sympathize with anyone.

There is one exception: the character of Spider was charming. He had an interesting occupation. He was an idealist who eventually risked his life to go to Elysium for a chance to help others. The movie would have worked better if Spider had been the main character.

My next problem concerns the racism in this movie. No, I’m not talking about the irritating “rich white people are evil” thing. That falls more under writing mistakes as far as I’m concerned. No, the racism here is a little more subtle, yet undermines what little was left of this movie‘s believability.

The main character is played by Matt Damon. Every impoverished person we are shown on earth except for Matt Damon is Hispanic. I understand that this movie is set in LA, but there are no Hispanic people on Elysium space station at all. So no white people are poor and no Hispanic people are wealthy. Wow. At the end, Matt Damon's character manages to bring healthcare to the masses.

The Hispanic masses are saved by a blue-eyed gringo. Really? After such heavy-handed commentary they fell into that racist cliché? If someone goes to such lengths to set up this weird divide then they’d better get an Hispanic person to play the hero - maybe Danny Trejo, who has a lot of experience playing a weathered and gritty warrior. Actually, he did play a character sort of like this in “Machete,” though that was a twisted satire.

Or maybe they could get Alex Meraz if they wanted a beautiful, tough-looking kid.

Also, in “D9” we had a simple and deeply unsettling resolution to the problem: an alien ship arrived to collect the refugees from District 9. Now "we" do not have to decide "what to do with them," but we had a frightening glimpse into the potential consequences for our callousness. In "Elysium," little transports with robots and healing machines are sent down to earth (by a computer system, not by people), which is a good thing in itself, but the movie acts like this is the salvation of earth. Except it would not be. The earth is still massively overpopulated, the economy is still nonexistent, the government on earth is still a mess.

Actually, as James Blish's brilliant Cities in Flight pointed out, an extremely healthy population that can live for hundreds of years would not help overpopulation. It also would do even weirder things to the economy, to educational systems, to sociopolitics, etc. That kind of super-technological healthcare is neat but it is definitely not salvation when you have such huge global problems. I understand that this is supposed to be about healthcare in America, immigrants, etc. but in order to have any kind of convincing message, you have to make people believe in the movie, which is where "Elysium" fails spectacularly.

So the mechanics of this world are so screwed up as to be unbelievable in their own context.

The movie has other problems, mostly stemming from the message being so much at the forefront that the other elements are arranged haphazardly around it. There is some political intrigue that is rushed and two-dimensional... a hastily put-together love interest... something about destiny for some reason... but none of it comes together into an interesting whole.

In a nutshell:

If you want a dazzling work of class/culture commentary, read Stephenson’s Diamond Age.

If you specifically want to see a social commentary movie with Mexicans, watch the hysterically funny “Machete.”

If you specifically want social commentary in a world where people are ultra-healthy and live for upward of a thousand years, read Blish’s exceptional Cities in Flight.