Warning – This review contains major spoilers! If you haven’t seen Elysium and don’t want to know what happens, DO NOT READ ON!
Having enjoyed District 9 back when it was released in 2009, I was really looking forward to director Neill Blomkamp’s new film Elysium. Set in the distant future, the film depicts a nightmare vision of Earth; a planet paying the price for years of humanity’s excessive consumption with pollution and disease rife, extreme social unrest, and a crippling lack of natural resources. The super-rich however, wishing to preserve their way of life, live on Elysium, an enormous 2001-esque space-station orbiting the planet with an artificial expanse of rolling green fields, spacious mansions and opulent surroundings. In comparison to Earth, Elysium is a utopia. The food is plentiful, the air is clean, and nobody ever gets sick, thanks to everyone having a “med-bay” in their house – a device that can immediately scan and heal any disease in seconds at the touch of a button.
If you haven’t seen the film and are just reading this for kicks, let me give you a quick plot summary, although be aware that this will totally spoil the film if you haven’t seen it. Basically, a factory worker on Earth (Max, played by Matt Damon) has an industrial accident, exposing him to a lethal dose of radiation and leaving him with five days to live. Not wanting to die, he agrees to steal data from an Elysium citizen in return for a ticket to the space station, where a med-bay can cure his radiation poisoning. However, the data proves to be the key to rewriting Elysium’s programming and bringing equality to society, and once Max has it in his possession, he travels to Elysium, uploads the program, and brings equality to the world. All the while, the Secretary of Defence on Elysium, Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), is trying to stop him, but she doesn’t. She gets stabbed in the neck. There are some secondary characters that do stuff, but this review is already going to be way too long (make your posts no more than a page in length, I’m told), so I won’t go into Sharlto Copley’s performance, or the fact that a little girl has her leukaemia cured.
So what did I think? Well to be honest, I left the cinema feeling very disappointed. When I first saw the trailer, I thought Elysium’s concept was strong, the special effects looked great, and the pedigree of everyone involved made me hopeful of a sci-fi blockbuster with depth. In reality though, I felt the film was a let-down for one simple reason – the plot was driven by a series of contrivances, and completely missed the opportunity to explore its concept in a satisfying way.
For a start, I felt Max’s accident was a clumsy trigger used to send him on his quest, and the path he took to get him to Elysium was littered with far too many plot conveniences. When Max is asked to perform the robbery for instance, he chooses the boss of his old company as the mark, who just so happens to be in possession of a code that can be used to reset Elysium’s systems. Despite the code supposedly being encrypted at first, Max is suddenly able to read it when the plot requires it. Doors unlock at precisely the same time as fights finish. Ships are easily shot down by Elysium defences when they are not critical to the plot, but when there are characters on board that need to land, the ships are able to do so. Now, I know it’s easy to highlight plot holes to pick apart a film, but they were just so frequent in Elysium I constantly felt myself being pulled out of the story and thinking about the mechanisms forced into the plot to keep the narrative flowing. It felt written.
However, my biggest problem with Elysium wasn’t so much to do with what was put in the film, but rather what was left out. Elysium had a great concept, and I just felt that if a little more thought had been put into the back-story of the space station and how it perpetuated its existence, a much better story could have emerged. For instance, if there are food shortages on Earth but plenty to go around on Elysium, where does it come from? Is it grown there, or is it grown on Earth? I thought it would have been really interesting if, as well as there being this space station orbiting the planet, there was also perhaps a continent on Earth, cleared of people, which was used purely as a giant farm to provide all the food for the super-rich living in space. It could have looked visually stunning – a huge expanse of greenhouses, lakes of different fish, fields of different animals, all sorts of orchards etc, with factories processing the food into packaged goods for the space station. The filmmakers could even have had a powerful scene where workers were being checked to make sure they were not smuggling wheat out to feed their own families. The continent could have had giant walls all around it to keep the rest of Earth’s population out, and the contrast between the opulence within and the poverty just outside could have been really striking. It also could have been a much better way for Max to get up to Elysium – if he worked in one of these food processing plants and worked out a way to interrupt the food supply, wouldn’t this have been a better way to get there? I don’t know. Well I do actually – it would have been better.
I also think we should have seen an ex-citizen being thrown out of Elysium. If it’s supposed to be a reserve for the super-rich, what happens if someone goes bankrupt? We should have seen a family go through this ordeal, with Jodie Foster’s character one minute being kind and fawning to them, and the next minute tossing them back to Earth to fend for themselves. This could have drawn some interesting parallels with the ebb and flow of wealth today. With a new vacancy on Elysium, we should then have seen the old family possessions and photographs being stripped away, and replaced by those of the next family in line to live there.
Then there’s the ending, where Max uploads the code and re-writes Elyisum’s programming to make everyone a citizen of Elysium and therefore entitled to the benefits previously afforded only to the super-rich. When he does this, med-bays are sent flying down to Earth to administer help to those that need it, regardless of their social status. It’s a happy ending, but I just feel it could have been much more powerful if the consequences of Max’s actions were explored in more detail. After all, if Earth’s two main problems are over-population and a lack of natural resources, how does curing all diseases help matters? And what powers these med-bays anyway? What resources are required for them to remain operational? I think it would have been much more interesting and morally ambiguous if Max was confronted by the Jodie Foster character before uploading the code, where she would try to convince him that handing the keys of Elysium over to the masses was not the answer – Eventually, the med bays would cease to function, the population on both Earth and Elysium would expand uncontrollably, and humanity would destroy itself. You could then have ended the film not knowing if he was going to agree with Foster or not.
Ultimately, Elysium is a film worth seeing as it has an important message and there are a lot of strengths to it. But it could have been so much more powerful. I suppose one good thing about it is that it’s not too long, unlike this review…