I walked into Elysium a few minutes late, and Matt Damon was getting the beat-down from a robot, to whom he’d had the temerity to back talk. This robot was the only character in the film whose motivations were clear and whose actions were a function of its character. Nothing else made any sense.
In the future, an orbital post-scarcity society with the capacity to manipulate complex organic systems at the sub-molecular level maintains Fordist manufactories on Earth. Is it just to give the proles something to do? A single line of dialogue to the effect of, “We gotta keep them busy or they will revolt,” might have covered this flaw, although how an earthbound population could revolt against a well-armed space station, manifest numerical superiority or no, is quite a question, and in any case, most of the people on Earth don’t appear to have work, so there goes that theory. William Fitchner plays the vicious capitalist who runs this robot mill. He does most of his via computer terminal in a hermetically sealed office; naturally, we wonder: why is he on earth at all? Couldn’t he just Skype? Rather more to the point, in an orbital society capable of manipulating individual atoms, why is there still enterprise capitalism? Is it like contact sports, a vicious and anachronistic entertainment, practiced by only a few professionals, kept around for entertainment and kicks? Well, our industrialist suggests that it’s essential he get his company back to profitability, and he is willing to assist Jodie Foster in a coup to do so. Wait, wait, wait a minute. She offers him a 200-year contract to build Elysium’s missiles and robots. Does this not imply a competing firm, or firms? But there’s only one space station. How are these other firms in business? Who’s buying their robots and missiles? Am I going insane? What day is this?
The movie desires to be an allegory of illegal immigration, the hispanophone have-nots of a SoCal favela relentlessly throwing themselves over the Rio Grande of Near Earth Orbit in order to get to the better lives Elysium has to offer. Wait, what? Oh, no, I’m sorry. They’re going for miracle cures. Elysium doesn’t offer a better life. It just offers to fix your boo-boos. Three out of every four shiploads of immigrants gets blown to smithereens, so, like, it appears that you do not increase your chances of beating that cancer, if you consider the actual odds. Here again, the motivations are completely nonsensical, and needlessly so. We could understand people risking their lives to escape this wretched Earth in order to make a new life in space, but all evidence suggests that even those who get there and get their thyroid problems and sugar diabeetuss cleared up get deported right back to our little ball of pollution. Your cancer’s fixed, but you’re still going to starve to death. Hm.
Meanwhile, on Elysium, Jodie Foster plays a French fascist. Fascism, like capitalism, seems an odd ideology for a post-economic paradise, but I suppose assholes will always be with us. She plays some kind of secretary of defense, and she growls that the feckless leadership of Elysium is going to get them all killed, or something, despite the fact that everything on Elysium seems to be going absolutely swimmingly, and the few Earthers who do manage to crash land in this vast La Jolla in the sky appear to be swiftly rounded up and returned. Again and again and again, nothing about this world justifies her snarling aggression (nor her French, but I suppose it’s just meant to convey aristocratic awfulness, so we’ll laissez-faire).Why not make immigration a really confounding problem? The smugglers have figured out how to get hundreds, thousands of people onto Elysium. It’s upsetting the political order. They’re voting for OBAMA! The white peoples is gettin’ restless. Jodie Foster seule pouvait eux sauver !
So Jodie Foster wants to take over Elysium for no reason, and she has William Fitchner rewrite the code for the Elysium operating system. Which he can do, because he or his company built it? Why is he in such desperate straits, then? Why is he bugging Jodie Foster for contracts? Why doesn’t he take over? I don’t know, I guess he read the script, and it says that he didn’t. He’s motivated by money in a world where money is irrelevant. Elysium has no stores, no ATMs. It’s just houses and swimming pools. Robots bring you champagne. At no point do we see any sort of transactional exchange, except of course when William begs Jodie for a contract. No one has a reason to do anything. William Fitchner goes to Earth, writes the magical spell to take over Elysium, and gets shot down by Matt Damon. Damon is dying because he got irradiated building robots in the factory that exists for no reason. Apparently this happens all the time, because they have a robot whose design features make it useful solely for the purpose of pulling irradiated humans out of a robot chamber. Yo, why didn’t you just send a robot into the radiation chamber in the first place, guys? No, Jim! You’ll flood the whole compartment! He’s dead already.
Anyway, Matt Damon and a gang of dudes who have kept Mazda 626s operational for two centuries shoot down his airplane. Matt Damon has been technologically augmented, and they download the shit into his brain. They unscramble it on the Dell desktop that I had in my office when I was an administrative assistant 10 years ago. Aw, shee-it, it’s the codes to do something. Argue argue. Run run run run run. Jodie Foster sends an augmented assassin whose motivation is that he fucking loves killing shit after Matt Damon. Eventually, everyone ends up on Elysium, because although this is the future and they are able to manipulate matter at the atomic level, if Jodie Foster is distracted for a sec, any asshole can just roll right through the gate, because Elysium’s automated systems read the script and realized that’s what they were supposed to do because of the plot. For no particular reason, the assassin stabs Jodie Foster in the neck with a piece of glass and decides that now he wants to rule Elysium. Has he ever even been to Elysium? Who cares? Jodie Foster bleeds to death on the floor in a closet with a woman who is only in this movie to prove that Matt Damon is not gay, even though Matt Damon is clearly gay; the only person with whom he has a convincing emotional connection is the sexy DL Latin thug car thief who is his best friend, who gets killed, and whose death is Damon’s one moment of actual pathos. These two obviously were boning, but don’t worry, look, there’s this woman!
So the movie kills its main villain in the middle of the last act for no reason, and then reminds you of the narrative senselessness of this act by occasionally cutting back to the room where Jodie Foster is literally lying dead under a tarp, which is the one allegory this movie gets right, except that it is an allegory for this movie. Then some shit happens, and then it turns out that there is no reason at all for the material privation and medical hopelessness on earth, and then the movie is over. I suppose there was some decent production design, in the sense that it all looked better than Star Wars Episode I. Foster does a fine villain, but her character makes so little sense that her performance was lost, and although Damon does the everyman with some skill, he gets lost as soon as the action starts. Bourne proved him a capable action hero in the hands of a capable action director. Here, alas, no.
Look, the future as an allegory for the present moment is effectively the whole point of science fiction, so the movie’s intentions were in the right place, but Blomkamp didn’t think about his concept. You don’t need a Tolkienian backstory to build a realistic fictional world, but consistency matters. If no one has any reason to do anything, or if they act constantly in contravention of their own apparent interests, then all an audience can do is be confused. The movie struggles to present its characters in the tradition of psychological realism. This may be the future, but these people are just like us, etc. etc. And yet, because everything these characters do is in the service of a story that ought not be taking place at all according to its own rules and logic, all these emotions and psychologies are rendered not more, but less real.