Today I saw Elysium. It was not a very good movie, for many reasons. The question that was put to me was which reason, in particular, makes it so awful, so I thought I would make a list. This contains spoilers for the movie, but you shouldn’t watch it anyway.
Science Fiction/General Worldbuilding
- The first shots of this movie bugged me. Elysium hangs motionless in the sky, roughly the size of the moon as seen from the surface. That either means that the torus is absolutely enormous (far, far bigger than it later is shown to be) or else it is in very low orbit, which means it ought to be moving very quickly. (Pedant says, it could be in a low, powered orbit and still be geostationary. But … why? How?) The trip from LA to Elysium takes 20 minutes in a shuttle you can fly around the city in. Even a generous estimate of the shuttle’s speed (Mach 2? Mach 3?) put the habitat only a few hundred miles up.
- They forgot the roof on the space station. I can’t emphasize this enough. Elysium is a big 3/4 torus, with the top part of the torus just entirely missing — ships just fly in and land there. There is absolutely nothing to keep the air in, not even a bit of hand-waving about force fields. For obvious reasons this doesn’t work.
- The usual weird schizo-tech. They have robots advanced enough to walk around on their own and talk to/shoot people, but Matt Damon’s job appears to consist of riveting a plate onto something and then putting it in a chamber, then pushing a button. The safety standards are also baffling; a sensor flashes “ORGANIC MATERIAL DETECTED” when he gets stuck in the radiation chamber and sets off an alarm, but doesn’t actually do anything to stop it.
- Elysium detects unauthorized ships heading towards its airspace. Their defense minister’s response is to order someone on the ground to take a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher out of a van and fire missiles, not even vaguely aiming. The missiles automatically pursue the ships and destroy them, except when one of them makes a last-minute turn, which the missile can’t follow.
So … what? If you’re going to fire missiles at oncoming ships, why not have the missiles on Elysium? If the missiles are totally self-guiding, why do you need a guy with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher? What would have happened if he was asleep, the habitat would be defenseless? (Arguably, since the habitat doesn’t have a roof, you could just launch them from the station!)
Furthermore, this system — which fails roughly 1/3 of the time — seems totally inadequate. In the event, the ships are full of unwashed refugees, so they just get rounded up by security robots, but what if they had been, I don’t know, some kind of terrorist attack? The defense minister appears concerned that the poor are going to come in and take over, but not at all worried that people on the ground are going to start firing missiles at the giant, fragile space station full of rich people hovering overhead.
- The cartoon villain CEO stores some data in his brain, then “protects” it with some kind of security protocol that makes no sense whatsoever. The way it apparently works is that when the data is extracted, it kills the person who it is extracted from. In what possible circumstance would this be a good thing? They talk a little bit about the data being “scrambled”, but apparently it isn’t, because both crazy-hacker-dude and crazy-mercenary-guy identify it instantly, on sight, just by looking at scrolling columns of what seems to be assembly code. Later they use it with no problem whatsoever, except that Matt Damon, who was carrying it, dies.
- They appear to have no government or laws anymore? Down on Earth, there are still parole officers and public hospitals, but you can also run around shooting people and fly gunships wherever you want and nothing bad happens. Up on Elysium, they have a “President”, but apparently control of the station is vested in some kind of computer system, so whoever has the top authority there runs everything. Citizens of Elysium apparently can’t be arrested, even by its own security forces? (I have an essay to write called “Dictatorship of the Programmers”, about why robot police are a bad idea, but I’ll save it for another time.)
Economics & Politics
Okay. I get that this movie is supposed to be allegorical, because you would have to be brain-dead to miss it. The people of Earth are stuck in hellish poverty; all of the ones we see, except for Matt Damon and his asshole supervisor at work, are Latino or black. (Or SE Asian? Not clear.) Meanwhile, on the space station full of rich people, everyone is white, except for the cowardly politician (Indian) and the lab geeks (East Asian). So, we get it. Elysium is the rich developed world, run by and for the white people, and Earth is everyone else on the planet who wants in. Which is fine, I’m all for that kind of message, but the set-up is so stupid it undermines its effectiveness.
The problem is that the movie’s message seems to be that if only the selfish rich people would let everyone in, everything would be fine. This is both stupid in-universe (the space station isn’t that big, how many people can it fit?) and problematic in terms of the metaphor, because it implies that the problem isn’t distribution of wealth but some kind of physical separation, as though we could solve all the world’s problems by … immigration? I’m not sure. I get the analogy in the sense of “rich white people are assholes” but I honestly don’t know what the message is supposed to be beyond that.
The heroic conclusion to the movie is that everyone on Earth is declared citizens of Elysium, at which point the giant spaceships full of medical equipment (that they have for some reason) get sent down by the computers to help everyone on Earth. This brings us around to the economics problems.
The plot revolves around something called a med-bay, a magical device that instantly cures anything wrong with the person put inside it. (Literally anything from cancer to “having your face blown off”.) Leaving aside the astronomical level of technology this implies, the issue is that these devices are apparently super-common. Every house on Elysium has one, and they have giant EMT ships filled with dozens of them. Here, again, the stupidity of the premise undermines the message. The rich people apparently don’t share this magic technology with the world below not because they only have enough for themselves, or because resources are limited, but just out of sheer unmitigated spite. If this had been a smarter movie, there would have been one med-bay, embedded in a giant hospital on Elysium, available only to the rich and super-expensive to run. Then the question of “Is it better to cure these rich people or use the same resources to help millions?” would have some meaning. As written, you can just do both, because magic!
The people on Elysium are living in a post-scarcity society. They don’t go into this in depth, but they essentially have to be, because they have no poor people, only robots to do all the work! Once you’ve gotten to that point, the decision of whether to share the wealth is ridiculously obvious; if you’re trivially capable of providing huge benefits to everyone, but don’t, that makes you some kind of super-villain. But it means the situation has little or no bearing on the actual world problems the movie is trying to talk about, where we’re in the much stickier situation of facing trade-offs. The actual politics of the issue of global inequality are beyond the scope of this document, but they are a lot more complex than “Dr. Doom is just hogging it all.”
(An aside: In the movie District 9, by the same director/writer, the metaphor was similarly obvious but much more effective. By using the aliens as the despised underclass, he shows discrimination as an almost unifying force among the humans. It’s uncomfortable, which is good, because the people doing the discriminating are similar to the audience of the movie. In Elysium, it falls apart because the role of the global rich is played by these cartoons, who the audience doesn’t at all identify with. Again, in a smarter movie, it would not be the rich but ordinary middle-class Americans up there on the space station — they’re the ones who the message is aimed it! It should be more like the ship from Wall-E, where we can see that helping people down below means giving up their comfortable suburban life.)
Anyway. I … uh … don’t recommend it?