Reactions to Neill Blomkamp's first film after his sleeper hit District 9 have been mixed, to say the least. Elysium is a movie with a lot of aspirations to greatness, but it fails miserably to live up to its promise. Still, it has some incredible scenes and ideas. Here's the breakdown.
There are major spoilers for Elysium ahead.
Wrong: A lot of the criticism of Elysium focuses on its worldbuilding. The story takes place roughly 150 years in the future, in a world where the Earth is polluted and/or overpopulated and/or diseased and/or impoverished. Meanwhile, rich people have built themselves a space habitat called Elysium that's full of robot servants and magical health technology that can cure anything. Already, there are problems. Blomkamp has invoked too many dystopias at once. Earth suffers from too many ills, and the unequal distribution of resources is too seamless. Even in the most authoritarian regime (which we have no evidence that this is — it's more like anarcho-capitalist) you'd see some technologies trickling down to even the most impoverished classes. People living in today's slums have smart phones, for example.
As cameras sweep over Earth's surface, we see evidence of massive cities that have fallen into disrepair and given way to favelas. These cities, plus the insane levels of technology in Elysium, suggest that there was a huge economic boom, followed by a bust that is never explained. So we have stark class divisions that make no sense, and a massive economic catastrophe that's never explained.
I am all for dystopias whose origins are hazy — Looper is a great example of an excellent movie where there's been a soft apocalypse that's never explained. The problem with Elysium, however, is that the plot centers on the results of economic bust and class warfare. Our dying hero Max's entire motivation is catalyzed by the fact that people in this future have unequal access to health care technology. As Alyssa Rosenberg has already argued over at Think Progress, the health care scarcity in this future world makes no sense. Why is something so seemingly plentiful and easy to manufacture being hoarded on Elysium? What kind of economic system is this? With no answers we aren't left with an intriguing mystery. Instead, it's just a giant mess.
Right: Despite these problems, there are a lot of incredible scenes and moments that effortlessly capture the feeling of a post-crash future that is a nearly airtight surveillance state. Though health care tech and robots are not distributed realistically through the human population, surveillance tech and weapons are. In just a few quick scene-setting moments, Blomkamp reveals how everybody — from the smuggler Spider to the Elysium government — have access to real-time satellite imagery that allows them to identify everybody on the planet, any time.
We get the impression that Spider has hacked into a satellite feed to get his data, and again this is solid worldbuilding. We see how surveillance technology would be used by a variety of people in different ways, ranging from illegally hacked to legally deployed. The same goes for the exoskeleton tech that Max wears to gain the strength of a droid. While Max gets a hacked-together, previous-generation exoskeleton, the Elysium mercenary Kruger has a state-of-the-art rig. Max's weapons are also like knockoffs of Kruger's.
This is how technological advances actually work in a class-stratified society. There is no impermeable barrier between haves and have-nots — instead, it is a leaky membrane, where tech gets through to the lower classes, who hack and reverse engineer it for their own uses. True, the rich have newer technology. But often the underground can hack into this new technology and take advantage of it too. We're left wondering why Spider smuggles people up to Elysium to steal time on the medical pods when it would be a lot easier to steal the med pods and hack them for use back on Earth.
Wrong: Just as there are too many dystopias happening at once in Elysium, there are too many adversaries for our hero Max. The field is crammed with bad guys, from the merc Kruger and his employer the Secretary of Defense Delacourt, to the defense mogul Carlyle. Plus there are the various police officers and factory foreman who randomly abuse Max, just so we get the idea that he's really, really abused.
The problem is that each of these bad guys seems to belong to a different kind of movie, and unfortunately Elysium proceeds to move through each of these movies one by one. First, there's the sad futuristic labor drone crushed by work movie, featuring Carlyle and the foreman and the cops as bad guys. Then there's the deadly heist movie, featuring Kruger as a bad guy. And finally, there's the political revolution movie, featuring Delacourt (and a confusingly transformed Kruger, which we'll get to in a minute) as the main bad guy. As Max whiplashes his way through each of these movies, he evolves from a car thief who would do anything to survive, to a self-sacrificing revolutionary. We never understand why. No, his childhood friend Frey whom he wants to bone isn't enough motivation.
Max's character arc is downright believable compared to the arcs acted out by smugger Spider and merc Kruger. Spider begins the movie as a self-interested thief and smuggler, who doesn't mind selling his neighbors passage on illegal ships bound for Elysium — ships that are shot down 2 out of 3 times. So he's a killer, and he cares nothing for human life. Fine. But by the end of the movie he zooms up to Elysium so that he can risk his life to overthrow the unjust system and "save the world" for the neighbors he once sent to almost certain death en route to Elysium. Huh?
Similarly, Kruger goes from being a brutal, dim mercenary who loves nothing more than killing and raping, to a man with political aspirations so enormous that he wants to take over all of Elysium. Why? Why would this happen? What makes these self-interested men — Max, Spider, and Kruger — suddenly become political subversives and revolutionaries? There's a blank at the center of these character arcs that is comparable to the blank in the movie's worldbuilding.
Right: OK, you got me. There are no character arcs that are done well in this movie.
Wrong: Based on the apartheid fable of District 9, it would seem that allegory is Blompkamp's strength as a storyteller. And I think that we can all agree that Elysium is, at its heart, an allegory about class conflict in our world today. We see a stark division between rich and poor, projected into a division between space-farers and Earthlings. The movie focuses on unequal access to resources, with health care foregrounded as the most obvious. The problem? In a word, resolution.
We understand the class conflict allegory — the message comes in perhaps too loud and clear. But what about the resolution allegory? Spider hacks into Elysium, reboots it with the push of a button, and suddenly everybody has free health care. Cue footage of kids running through fields on Earth, laughing and healthy. So we can resolve class conflicts with a single technical fix? The problem is the software, not the people? This is what you might call an allegorical black hole, from which no particles of meaning can escape.
Right: Despite all the problems I've explored so far, I think Blomkamp started with a very sturdy allegory when he chose to map class divisions onto literal divisions between the people of Earth and the people of space. The implementation was clumsy and the ending didn't work, but he still managed to pose an important question, which is what our class divisions will look like 150 years from now.
Like the very best futuristic dystopian stories, Elysium manages to defamiliarize our familiar world, allowing us to ask questions about the way economic inequality works. For example, why do people like Max work against their own interests, manufacturing police robots who abuse them? What kind of selective blindness allows the seemingly liberal president of Elysium to ignore the plight of people on Earth? How do the people in between the upper classes of Elysium and the favelas of Earth, like Frey and Kruger, help to maintain the system despite not really benefiting from it?
In Elysium, we see flashes of thoughtfulness and brilliant moments of dystopian worldbuilding. But it's impossible for us become fully emotionally engaged with the movie when the basic arc of the main characters makes so little sense. Worst of all, Elysium falls over on detail when we need it most. Without any sense of this world's economic foundations, we are denied a satisfying (or even coherent) payoff during the narrative climax.