Man, I love Neill Blomkamp.
I am so, so happy he is making movies.
Amongst my reasons: when I was working on Companion eight years ago, I imagined a reveal when the characters burst out into the daylight, where the camera flies back to reveal that they are on one roof of a massive grown-together structure that used to be separate skyscrapers.
I was delighted to see a *good* version of what I tried to do in the movie, as an establishing shot.
Mister Blomkamp does this sort of stuff all the time, and it makes me super happy to see a visual similar to the one I had in my head.
That said, there was something that felt a little off.
Elysium is a believable story where businessmen hoard abundant and high demand medical supplies and don’t sell them.
— Westin Lee (@westinlee) August 18, 2013
In Elysium, all the rich people on the space station have a magic healing machine that can do pretty much anything. In the trailer, it cures cancer. In the movie, it does crazier stuff. The machine is extremely cheap to use, seems to expend no resources, and works in seconds.
Now, this is not new territory for sci-fi. The ‘haves’ in haves/have not stories often have superior technology. In my novel, as another example, the haves also have crazy medical technology, including an automated surgery machine, imaging equipment, and so on. Not nearly as magical, but definitely advanced.
The thing is, in Elysium, I don’t remember a scene where anyone explained why this technology wasn’t available to the population on Earth. On Earth, people have overcrowded hospitals and there’s rampant unemployment, but people have money. They could pay for this stuff. In theory.
Someone mentioned on Twitter that there was an exclusive contract to provide the medical technology to Elysium. I don’t remember that, though there is a lot of conversation about only Elysium citizens being allowed to use the machines.
The issue is that there wasn’t an explanation in the movie. Unfortunately, without it, the movie lacks the weight it needs to make a really interesting statement, and the world feels half baked to me. I’m usually pretty forgiving, but this plot hole really itches.
There are a bunch of ideas that could have been brought up that would have lent to the fictional economics and scale needed for us to see the Elysium people as believable. Any combination of the below ideas could have been put into the story at a minimum of storytelling real estate:
1. The pods are extremely expensive to buy.
Someone makes an offhand comment on Earth about how they could work for two hundred years and not be able to afford a pod.
Would it work:
Okay, so they’re expensive. But this one is not easy to justify because they are portrayed as a household commodity on Elysium, and there are MRI machines on Earth, present day, and individuals don’t own them. Why doesn’t an enterprising Elysium bigwig buy a thousand of them and set up clinics on Earth? I assume a magic cancer pod would pay for itself quickly, even if the service is offered at twenty thousand space-bucks a treatment.
But of course the use of the pod is so fast an effective that if you really wanted to make money, you would lower the price and up the volume.
2. There is an exclusive contract for Elysium maintained by their governing body on the basis of a supposed superiority.
Space bigot Elysium President or space bigot Jodie Foster go on a rant at some point about how poor people are dirty and amoral and they hate them.
Would it work?
This is a common and effective trope, because everyone hates racists, and space bigots don’t look or sound like actual bigots, so it’s a safe villain. I think this would have been fine to throw in. Extra points if you make the President of Elysium and not Delacourt the space bigot, since that paints a more complicated, morally gray picture.
But still, this is a silly argument when supposed business geniuses live on Elysium. You’re telling me a Rockefeller would deny the bleating masses their rail transportation, in lieu of giving it exclusively to a thousand of his rich buddies? When has that ever happened in the era of the mass market outside of luxury items?
3. The pods run on some resource that there is a finite amount of.
Someone on Elysium is in a meeting and has a freakout at even the most mild suggestion that they just let the poors use their magic pods, so they don’t crash spaceships into their spacelawns all the time.
“You can’t do that!” the scientist screeches, “you’ll use up the medical juice and then we won’t get to be cancer free!”
The other rich people’s generosity evaporates at the concept of not having perfect skin and they then have their robots kill all the poors.
Would it work?
This is an interesting idea – people act their most atrocious when it is a question of fear, end ESPECIALLY fear of change. A scene featuring the Elysium government people doing that would be fantastic. If Delacourt is kept in power because of fear that she exploits and feeds on, all the more interesting.
I will admit, this one makes me super excited. It is very much my kind of satire.
4. There are pods on earth, but they’re absurdly expensive or the waitlist is unnecessarily long due to artificial scarcity.
Easy stuff. Add shots near the county hospital showing that there is in fact clinics, the wait time is approximately seven years because of the absurdly long queue, or the cost is seventy million spacebucks. Cue a couple of beats of Matt Damon trying to figure out just how the hell he is supposed to come up with seventy million spacebucks, before he comes to the darkly ironic realisation that FLYING INTO SPACE AND RISKING MISSILE ATTACKS AND DEATHBOTS is actually easier than getting medical attention in Los Angeles.
Would it work?
Oh, absolutely. This is another anti-corporate move that would also be super interesting. Artificial scarcity is big business in numerous industries, and has been for ages. Medical costs in the U.S. are crazy high and there’s tons of controversy and interesting back-and-forth about the Way Things Are that would be good window dressing for a gritty sci-fi movie.
Okay, imagine for a moment…
…how easy it would be to add #3 and #4 to the story. You could do it in two minutes of screen time. Some other potential beats to help convey the idea:
- An establishing shot of the heavily guarded medi-pod clinic on Earth, with a massive line.
- Moments with Alice Braga’s character dealing with infuriating beaurocracy like the automated parole officer, but related to the medi-pod wait list.
- A beat where someone points out that Elysium citizens get unlimited access to the pods as part of a sales pitch (this seems like it was in the movie and cut).
- Someone pointing out with wry humor that taking a shuttle up to Elysium to risk getting blown up is a better chance at treatment than waiting for one of the few medi-pods on Earth. I am writing this down again because the irony is so delicious that I can taste it through the computer screen.
Oh man! Again, I realize this is me applying my sensibilities to the movie, and I realize the Blomkamp and company may have wanted to do something completely different that also would have worked. I just love this addition. I want it to be part of the film!
The Silver Lining
I bet you five whole dollars that there is a director’s cut of Elysium that has twenty minutes more content that addresses this plot hole to my complete satisfaction. I just don’t believe that Neill Blomkamp wouldn’t put that detail into his film. This is the guy that made District 9, after all.
I will also bet you another big, serious five bucks that there is an awesome ending that was cut where a certain character uses newfound power to revert to his old ways. I’m making this bet even though I might lose, but I want it to be true. It would be such a deliciously cynical and believable twist!
What do you think? Which of the above explanations would have been the most satisfying or interesting to you?