Setting a film in the future is tricky. You can have fun with it and create eye-popping visuals unconcerned with authenticity, or you can try to build a convincing projection of the world we live in now. What you should avoid is landing somewhere in the middle, as Neill Blomkamp has in Elysium. Certainly pieces of Elysium‘s world feel possible, like the disconcertingly ubiquitous biotechnology; some of it even probable, like the bastardized mélange of languages or the lack of paying work in an overpopulated world. But between the magical healing tubes, the utterly structureless society, and the absurd lack of humanity in damn near every character, Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s slick District 9 spends far too much of its screen time asking you to meet it halfway.
In 2154, rich people have skedaddled off the face of the earth to the paradisiacal space station called Elysium. Free of sickness and crime, life on Elysium is a milquetoast Polo ad where white people eat tea sandwiches and swim in infinity pools. The only thing standing between this homogenous elite and Earth’s filthy, teeming hordes is Jodie Foster‘s 70s-era Bond villain, Elysium’s Minister Jessica Delacourt. Utilizing a maniacal special agent named Kruger (Sharlto Copley), Delacourt and her fanatical devotion to purity keep Elysium perfectly unmolested. Planet side, Max (Damon) is making a go of legitimacy after a life of car jacking and other obscure illegal shenanigans, working on the line at a factory that mass produces the future’s robotic police force. When an accident infects Max with a lethal dose of radiation, he’s left with five days to live, five days to make it to Elysium and their scientifically-improbable healing machines. Max aligns with Spider (Wagner Moura), a technology kingpin and freedom fighter who provides Max with a power-boosting exoskeleton and a promise to get him to Elysium in exchange for helping the cause.
Elysium is a lesson in plot holes. There’s technology present that has absolutely no basis in reality, and Blomkamp—who also wrote the film—doesn’t even bother trying to explain it away. The antagonists are cartoonishly evil, with Foster’s Delacourt in particular motivated by little besides a Disney-esque joy of villainy. But there’s one plot hole in particular that stands apart from the others, one that effectively kills the premise of the entire film: the notion that anyone from Earth still attempts the illegal journey to Elysium. Early in the film, a mass of refugees is loaded on to a trio of ships with the intention of “crossing the border” to Elysium. Halfway to the space station, Elysium’s Minister Delacourt proceeds to blow two of these ships out of the sky, killing all the passengers. The final ship makes it through the attack and lands on Elysium, its refugees spilling out of the ship in all directions. This includes a mother and her crippled daughter, who make it to a healing table where the girl’s fractured legs are fixed. Within minutes of landing, all of the refugees are rounded up and taken to a deportation facility to be sent back to the planet. To recap: A group of 60 or so people give their life savings to be either killed or sent directly back to the planet they’re so eager to escape. And this is not the first time this scenario has played out; soon after the situation has been handled, Delacourt is called in front of Elysium’s President Patel (Faran Tahir) and given a “final warning” for her brutality. My question: If no one from Earth has ever successfully avoided either death en route to, or deportation from Elysium (and if they have Blomkamp has neglected to mention it – a ruinous plot omission), why would anyone ever try to get to Elysium ever again? The only other motivation that would drive someone to run the gauntlet of this journey is faltering health, but there’s a pretty basic fix for that as well: Drop a thousand of Elysium’s magical healing machines on Earth and leave it at that. For a film that depends so thoroughly on the idea that Elysium is constantly under “attack” from “illegals”, it’s embarrassing how little consideration was given to this glaring break in logic. The United States border analogy is never subtle in Elysium, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that transparency, it does seem clear that Blomkamp has missed the trees for the forest.
Yet in spite of the brittle structure, Elysium is a joy to look at, like Venice or a frozen cobweb. Neill Blomkamp came on to the scene in the first place thanks in large part to his visual work, and Elysium feels like a film that was designed visually before any story was developed. The Elysium space station in particular is immaculately conceived, its beauty and complexity making up for the absurd austerity of its citizens. While the grand slum of the Earth is messier, its scale is certainly a marvel. And the technology in the film, even in the instances where it doesn’t make much sense, is fantastic. From the coarsely advanced weapons found on Earth, to the technological implants found on Elysium, to the variety of droids found everywhere, Elysium has constructed a portfolio of future tech that distinguishes Blomkamp and his crew as one of the more purely creative film cartels in the industry. It’s a shame the film is so imbalanced, as a stronger story could have put Elysium into Inception territory.
So Blomkamp’s much-anticipated follow up to District 9 feels like a step backwards. Clearly this is a director with something to say about the state of human relations in the world we live in, and an eagerness to align these contemporary opinions with a dynamic portrait of our planet’s future. But Elysium is too caught up in its analogy. The world it has created is massive, but the characters are small, stuck annoyingly in predefined roles without any opportunity for growth. Perhaps with more time and less pressure from Sony Pictures Blomkamp could have worked out his story’s kinks, but as it is the film is more bad than good. Still, there’s a voice at the heart of Elysium that deserves to be heard. Let’s just hope he can stop getting in his own way.