I firmly believe that in any story, no matter how inconceivable, you must give the creator his/her premise. Likewise, arguing that something does not work because the characters act in a way that appears stupid to us says nothing about the actual message being conveyed. With that said, Elysium, the follow-up to Neil Blomkamp’s passable District 9, still makes no sense. Elysium is a beautiful ring structure just outside the Earth’s atmosphere where the rich people live with their instant-heal medicine machine-beds (Med-Pods, for short). These things can complete facial reconstruction surgery, cure cancer, and restore use of one’s legs in mere seconds, and every dweller has one. Earth, meanwhile, is an overpopulated and impoverished mess.
Reading the film purely allegorically, it appears agreeable enough, if not a bit obvious. Elysium represents how the richest of us exist in a separate world (figuratively, of course) in which advanced medical care can do almost anything, although only the rich can afford it. That’s why Magic Johnson’s HIV has not developed into AIDS and yet millions of people die of AIDS or cancer every year. We could all have it, if not for the issue of money. That’s what the Med-Pods mean, and why they only exist on Elysium. But Blomkamp refuses to create internal world logic, so we are forced to use our own, which raises a few questions. If the Med-Pods are so effective and cost nothing to use, why can’t they install just one or two in Los Angeles (where the film takes place) and let people lineup to use them, or even set an appointment and pay to use it? We know that Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) prefers to blow up all incoming Earth spaceships and kill the survivors rather than detain or deport them because she has children, but that explanation is even more awkward and nonsensical in the film that it must have been to read it. Elysium is portrayed of a kingdom of evil people (well, the two or three that can be definitively said to exist are, anyway) who are evil for no reason. Basic questions, like “what is Earth like?” and “what is Elysium like?” are nearly unaddressed and completely ignored. It’s hard to get into the “why?” when the “what” is not articulated properly.
Then there are the questions central to the actual story, which follows Max (Matt Damon) as he suffers radiation poisoning and tries to get to Elysium to use a Med-Pod, only to find himself the target of Elysium’s deadliest warriors because he stumbles upon the brain data Delacourt needs. With the code that finds its way to Max’s head after a skirmish or two, Delacourt will be able to reboot Elysium’s systems and crown herself president (I guess reliance on technology and records is unquestioned in 2154). But why does Delacourt still need to do that after Max arrives and she becomes the de facto standing president as a result? And she wants it in the first place because…she has children?
Most importantly, though, there are the characterizations that make the entire distinction between the good, poor earthlings and the rich, horrible Elysium residents nonexistent. Max and his friends are as selfish and inhuman as the people they fight against, and while this would be forgivable if, for example, we were given any indication that resources were scarce and people could barely feed themselves and their families, but Blomkamp’s paper-thin world means that we end up wondering what the difference between good guys and the bad guys is other than “the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad.” Also, who is Kruger, other than a professional killer and associate of Delacourt?
The details are just as messy. What exactly is this code that Max has that would reboot Elysium’s system and erase its data (remember, we never get to know what this thing about Elysium’s systems/data is, either)? How will it somehow magically turn everyone into a citizen, and why does Max refuse to do that when it would not affect his journey to the Med-Pod in anyway whatsoever? One might say that it would kill Max in the information transfer, which is true at the end of the film, but if it were true from the outset and not just at the end of the film, why would the code’s writer have enabled the lethal defense? He would have had to die to give the code to Delacourt if that were the case. Additionally, if Elysium can jam signals on Earth to prevent unauthorized ships from traveling to Elysium, why don’t they do that? Is it really necessary for everyone to want to rape Frey (Alice Braga), or is that just to make them really bad guys?
Elysium shows us that when these metaphors for today’s society are literalized so strongly, they lose all meaning. The film’s end doesn’t really solve the problems on Earth. Politically, Elysium is about as profound as being a middle school kid who wonders why the U.S. Treasury doesn’t give everyone a billion dollars to end inequality. Narratively, Elysium makes as much sense as the above solution. Almost everything these characters do or say is almost incomprehensible, especially Delacourt’s plan and her confrontation of Kruger. Similarly, its protagonist is frustratingly underdeveloped. Flashbacks to his childhood, portrayed in broad, stereotypical strokes never tell us anything about Max, and references to how he “used to be a legend” suggest a backstory that never comes to fruition and leaves Max a plot-moving cipher, a hero’s journey for non-heroes who barely have a journey to take.
The film’s aesthetics, even compared to its script, are lacking. Almost every performance comes with an inexplicable (and inexplicably bad) accent. The melodramatically scored flashbacks to Max’s and Frey’s childhood are nauseatingly frequent, motifs of poorly drawn hearts and pendants with a picture of Earth from space are utterly meaningless, and action scenes are poorly choreographed. Poor editing and camera work completely obliterates spatial relationships that allow for spectators to follow fast-paced action, so what’s left is a chunk of the film that pretty much says “action goes here” that has no interest in letting us actually follow that action. When we do see what’s happening, it is in gratuitous slow-motion sequences of bodies being blown apart that make us think realize that Michael Bay’s action scenes aren’t that bad.
On the bright side, Elysium allows for us to consider what the concept could have been. One look at the trailer is enough to make the viewer conclude that Elysium is analogous to society’s upper-class and that we all deserve to be treated better. That’s one of the film’s two coherent statements, along with its stance on illegal immigration (it happens, and some people don’t like it), but it never actually tries to say anything. This is a blockbuster that lets audience members pat themselves on the back for “getting” it but actually has nothing nuanced to say. It’s one for Blomkamp to recycle the narrative progression and only slightly alter the basic premise of District 9 for his second film. It’s another thing to do absolutely nothing else besides write filler lines that will take us from Point A to Point B.
I’ve long wondered whether a film that fails outright is worse than a film that tries absolutely nothing. Elysium is a third category; it fails to fail outright because it tries to have the minimum amount to say to fail outright but fails even to do that. Somehow, that concept is still easier to wrap my head around than the movie that created it.