Welcome to Revisionist History, where we, unencumbered by the demands of studios and profit margins, try to imagine different and better versions of the movies that are out there. This is not a review; it is a full-spoiler discussion of what works and what doesn’t, particularly from a story/concept standpoint (i.e. unless there’s a particular tic that is distracting, it’s hard to account for a poor acting performance or other failure in execution alone other than to say, “Do better.” Which isn’t very interesting or helpful to anyone.)
This week, we’re revising Elysium.
You know when you go see a movie that’s an adaptation of a book and you feel like something’s missing? Like there’s something else going on behind the scenes that you don’t quite get? That’s what Elysium feels like. It feels like a novel adaptation. Not a bad one, exactly; the issues do almost as much to help build the world of Neil Blomkamp’s gradually apocalyptic Earth as they do harm the story. But why not search for both?
The biggest reason this feels like a novel is that we’re rail-roaded through a plot we never fully understand. Not on any sort of a macro-level . Max (Matt Damon) is sick, doesn’t want to die, must get to Elysium. Pretty straightforward. But look at the details, both in character motivation and in sci-fi elements: we never have an understanding for how the pieces fit together. For example, what is it (other than greed, apparently) that prevents Elysium-like healing rigs from being used on Earth? Is it energy consumption? It’s clearly not an issue of time constraints or difficulty of use. Or the shield that Krueger uses twice. This is particularly troublesome, as it’s the only place in the whole movie that energy weapons (tasers excepted) show up. Everything else is gritty, physical, metal. These are properties which we can understand, even when dropped into a foreign context. But Krueger uses an energy shield, and we begin wondering why others can’t as well. And we’re never given an explanation.
If you read the Revisionist History article on Pacific Rim, you may remember me talking about the illusion of depth, and a very similar thing is at play here. Unlike Pacific Rim, nearly all the pieces hold up upon reflection. We see and believe that Max is a complex character – he’s self-centered to a fault despite his love for certain other people, and his actions back this up (leaving aside for a moment the somewhat weak conclusion to that character arc). Likewise, the sci-fi elements, the world building, it all seems to fit together – somehow. But again, in both cases we never actually get to see how. Unlike Pacific Rim, where upon reflection the connections are betrayed as solely surface level, Elysium convinces us that this world is fully realized. Blomkamp had to have used some CGI here and there, but even on a purely technical visual level, the movie does a great job of convincing us how real this world is. (Side note: he’s said he won’t do a Star Wars movie, but how badly to you want him to after seeing Elysium? I think that would be an amazing pairing.) We want to go back and figure out how all the pieces we’re exposed to fit together in the world of Elysium, but we can’t because the movie runs us from one event to the next instead of taking the time to explore some of its own intriguing complexities.
This effect is multiplied by the constant abuse that Max suffers. Let’s track the trauma: 1) his arm is broken, 2) he’s nearly killed by radiation poisoning, 3) he has a mechanical exoskeleton literally drilled into his body, 4) he’s stabbed, 5) he’s beaten up multiple times. None of this is Max ever given time to recover from. He acts sick or hurt for a little while, then is magically right back up to full strength. Particularly given the subplot of his relationship with Frey, this all makes the story feel as though it were adapted from a much longer, much more detailed work, one that took place over a longer timeline. Think about the movie adaptations of Harry Potter. Events that had previously occurred months apart suddenly happen within days of one another. Elysium feels like it’s hitting all the big points it needs to, but doesn’t have the time to properly develop its characters or the machinations of its very interesting world.
Clearly, then, our revision is going to have to cut out some bits wholesale. Elysium is smart for trying to go after a very personal story, but it’s not small enough for the medium it’s employing to tell that story. So how could we cut down? Well, for one we’ll cut the broken arm. We can keep the funny bit with the parole officer, but we’ll go pretty much straight into Max’s work accident. Max can run into Frey at the hospital after getting dosed with radiation. And instead of five days to live, we’ll leave it a little more ambivalent. Pills can alleviate most of the symptoms, maybe, but the damage is still being done. His organs could start failing any day, and there certainly aren’t the resources to deal with such a thing on Earth. As Frey reveals, hospitals simply don’t have the capacity to do very much – most of the time people are treated like Max, given some pain pills and left to die. Max centers on Elysium, but Frey counters with the reality that even if Elysium were opened, there would be neither room nor resources for everyone on Earth. That dream of Max’s, to live on Elysium? Just a dream.
We’ll also say that Max already has the anchor points for the exoskeleton installed, like screw sockets in his flesh (like Krueger’s implants, but probably not so smooth or large – more like holes in his arms). He was a hotshot car thief, remember? He made some money, had the exoskeleton installed, and that just added to the mystique before he was busted. So when Max goes back to Spider looking for help, he really is in a unique position to help. He can accept the exoskeleton Spider secretly has without risking his life in a dangerous graft.
The next bit we can simplify is the whole brain download thing. Like Krueger’s energy shield, it’s difficult to relate to and requires too many new rules to be invented. Instead, maybe it’s just a straight kidnapping attempt – get the guy who controls the system, count on him being selfish enough about his life to get them into Elysium and steal some equipment and IDs. Spider’s no saint. He’ll be content with being King of Earth rather than a citizen of Elysium. Maybe most of the crew is killed when Krueger shows up (a Bourne-style solo agent, not the commander of a team), but after a merry chase through the slums they get away with Carlyle (the robotics mogul played by William Fichtner).
With Carlyle, they stage a massive raid on Elysium, the plan being to steal some equipment, including several medical machines, and also to try to stick a virus in the Elysium mainframe to make it easier to get back up there. Carlyle knows none of this, of course, but is happy not to get shot down by Elysium’s on-station defenses. Shoulder-mounted surface-to-space missiles may be cool, but they’re utterly impractical. Elysium would be armed. Max is part of the crew going after the med machines. Meanwhile, Krueger is being recalled to Elysium. Let’s say Max finds a pod and gets cured. The team begins working to detach it, during which we can cut to Spider’s team working towards the mainframe. Back with Max, they manage to get a pod on some sort of hover-handcart and start fighting their way back to their ship. Both crews return to the docking bay where they landed soundly decimated when Krueger shows up. They fight, and Max ends up sacrificing himself to let the few remaining people take off with the med pod and the desperate hope that their virus might have worked (we probably saw Spider having trouble with Elysium’s cyber-defenses and know that’s a very long shot). Max takes out Krueger, but subsequently dies. He dies a hero, though, having in some small part fulfilled his childhood promise to Frey – a little part of Elysium (the med pod) is headed down to her.
We didn’t talk a lot about Frey here, but she probably needs to figure in as a slightly more active part of all this. Maybe she’s stealing medical supplies for Spider in exchange for dialysis treatments for her daughter – the hospitals won’t do much, remember? We’ve cut out the part where she becomes a target of Krueger, but she still needs to be the one that, in the down time, talks through things with Max. They need to decompress about the world to one another, which will both build them as complete and motivated characters and allow the audience to get some of the world-building depth we need.
That’s our revision. I’m sure there are plenty more ideas out there about how Elysium should have gone. Should it have leaned into the heavy sci-fi/energy weapons thing? Should they ever even have gone to Elysium? It could have been a powerful symbol as some unattainable ideal in a story that took place wholly on earth. Dream up your own version of the story, and let us know what it is in the comments!