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Elysium (2013)

2013-12-18 8 min read Movies marco

I was curious about this movie, an allegory of the current state of mankind and of health care. Not curious enough to break my long-standing ban on movie theaters, but enough to actually pay-per-view on Amazon.

My conclusion: the problems with which the movie concerns itself are real, but the movie doesn’t work. It is too slow, too long, and the plot has severe theatrical deficiencies.

Let’s start with a plot summary. It is some time in the 22nd century. Earth is an ugly, overpopulated, diseased planet. So much so that the rich moved to an orbiting station called Elysium where they can pursue a life of quiet boredom, or cocktail parties and giant mansions.

We are of course on Earth, where a young boy is in the care of a selfless nun. He meets a girl, and the two make a pact to one day go to Elysium. (I should mention that the casting of the children as precursors was spectacular, and the moment the camera switches to current time with the adults replacing the children is uncanny).

By the time we wake up with the adults, it’s 2154. The former child is now a reformed law-breaker living in the barrios of Los Angeles. He still wears an ankle monitoring device, which is simply intended as a hint to his current condition and doesn’t actually figure in the plot. Our hero has a job in a robot manufacturing factory and is constantly harassed and abused by the authorities.

One day, industrial mishap due to management carelessness, our hero (Max, which I presume is ironic for his inferior position) gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Some magic pills will keep him going for 5 days, by which time he’s going to fall to the side dead.

At the hospital, turns out his nurse is his former child friend. He tries to hit on her, but she’s over him (“My life is complicated.”). Turns out the complication is a daughter dying of advanced leukaemia. Nothing anyone can do about it.

Actually, there is. Somehow, residents (“citizens”) of Elysium have access to some mystery magical technology that heals them by simply sitting in a medical bed for a few seconds. So if you can make it to Elysium, you can get healed, no matter what the ailment.

Needless to say, a plan is hatched to reach Elysium. There is some precedent, as shuttles regularly try to fly to the orbiting station (one is even presented in the movie as an example for reference. We are promptly reminded of the needs of Hollywood movies: the orbiting station is a giant ring, just like in 2001 A Space Odyssey, but instead of being a weird place where you walk on the walls, it’s a giant garden with open air/space access. You can just fly into the ring and land on the lawn, no docking required!!!

Much of the middle part of the movie is spent with the dying Max trying to get a chance to fly up to Elysium. Finally, there is an opportunity: he’s going to kidnap an Elysium citizen on Earth, download his brain content using a fancy brain downloader, and they’ll use the passwords, etc. for undisclosed underworldly business. The crime boss that hatches the plan is a slightly deranged Red Shirt whose need for a cane immediately tells you that even rich crime bosses can’t afford a MediBed. (Clearly, they should learn something from Russian mob bosses.)

Turns out the guy they kidnap is the CEO of the big security firm with all the lucrative Elysium contracts – think Halliburton. He’s in big trouble, because the government wants to shut him out. Fortunately for him, the security chief of Elysium (Jodi Foster) is sick of her boss (the President) and wants to stage a coup. Our CEO can have a guaranteed 200 year contract, if he agrees to reboot Elysium with a code that allow her to replace the President.

When the CEO is kidnapped and inadvertently shot, he has the reboot code in his head. That’s precisely what Max downloads into his own head, combined with a mysteriously ominous “LETHAL” protection level the CEO has chosen when downloading to his own brain.

The CEO dies, and now everybody wants Max’s head – literally. The chief of security, who is our main villain, sends her henchman (a South-African with a funny accent) to get him. Chase ensues. Danger danger. In the end, Max gets caught and sent to Elysium with his girl-space-friend, along with the daughter. Of course, at that point I realized I had already wasted a half hour of my life, because he should have simply surrendered for quick transport to Elysium. But whatever.

So, on Elysium they want the code out of his head, and it appears that the lethal thing is actually going to kill Max. At the same time, the girl is about to die and already falls into a coma. She is already on a MediBed, but mysteriously the robot enforcers won’t allow the mother to turn it on. (Turns out she needs a citizenship pass, anyway – I guess a move meant to appeal to illegal immigrants in the States.)

Blah blah blah. The henchman ends up killing Jodi Foster with a shard of a mirror. He gives himself an exoskeleton just like Max has. The two battle it to the end, which consists of the henchman killing himself with a hand grenade meant to kill Max.

Max manages to send the reboot code to Elysium’s central servers and dies in the process. In the reboot, the citizenship parameter is altered to include all humans, and along with the healed daughter we see an array of medical emergency ships fly down to Earth to heal everybody.

Exeunt omnes, applause.

I would have added a spoiler alert somewhere, but there really isn’t a whole lot to spoil. The plot is disturbingly predictable, down to the final death-by-sacrifice of the reformed criminal that is standard fare in Hollywood. Humanity faces problem. Girl faces problem. Hero solves problem by means of ultimate sacrifice.

Most of the contrivances are completely unused – for instance, the exoskeleton simply gives Max superhuman strength, turning him into sort of a superhero, but the exoskeleton has no function on its own. The MediBeds are stand-ins for wanton cruelty (the fact they are so easy to use and yet so unavailable to the poor), but otherwise they miss all chances to be useful.

The station itself annoys more than anything else, because everything that happens around it is gratingly implausible. I’ll leave the physical impossibility of open air, unrestricted access to the atmosphere out. The first thing we see is a raiding party of health refugees hitting the station with three shuttles. Despite there being three shuttles, the station apparently has no defenses whatsoever and it’s the henchman on Earth that has to launch missiles to kill the raiding party.

There is a reboot code in the hands of the CEO. Somehow, he is faced with the possibility of altering the reboot sequence by the chief of security in some sort of Senator Feinstein meets Edward Snowden revelations surprise. I would certainly assume the CEO would have known about his ability to take over well before the chief of security and would have alerted her, not the other way around.

The dual nature of citizenship and the distance between the two populations is fascinating, closer to what’s happening on the ground now than anything else in the movie. It realistically shows how talent in the poor masses is wasted, but fails to show the corollary: when you are a citizen of Elysium, you can do pretty much as poorly as you want, you’ll still be upper class. (A point that was driven home very recently, with the announcement of a verdict that required no jail time in a DUI manslaughter case because the perp was not instructed that he would face consequences by his rich parents.)

But all faults aside, the movie just doesn’t work because it’s not a good movie. It’s scenes cut way too long, finding me constantly skipping forward and wishing Amazon had a skip-to-next-scene feature. In particular, there are way too many closeups of actors befuddled or shocked. I would have had a hard time with it in the movie theater, for sure.

Another absolute no-no is that the actual villain is not the real villain. Jodi Foster should have been the one donning an exoskeleton, trying to stop the slightly bumbling Max. Instead, the deranged henchman has to do the job. She dies bleeding out on the floor, mysteriously unable to reach a MediBed. That was probably supposed to be a meditation on something, but it really just left Jodi Foster’s amazing skills literally on the floor.

The deranged South-African’s stake in the affair are completely lost. It’s absolutely not clear why he cares so much about killing Max. I suppose anger is meant to be the reason for his loss of control, but he’s a mercenary and presumably not prone to bouts with self-destructive vindictiveness.

When he dons his own exoskeleton, the movie completely shuts down. From that point on, it’s like Spiderman v. Goblin, only that this movie has armies of robots that have the same strength, but somehow don’t intervene. As I mentioned, arming Jodi Foster would have been an interesting twist: adding the factor that with an exoskeleton, we are all equally strong. But the movie went the conventional route.

As a commentary on current society, there really is the problem of a two-class society emerging. Making health care and police enforcement the hinges of this classification is smart, as both are in the news. Of course, we are not yet a two-class health care society (mostly because a lot of lower class people have access to excellent health care).

The movie’s director other credits include the much smarter, much funnier, and much more relatable story of District 9. That’s despite the fact the lower class in that movie was made up of aliens. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Elysium.