For most of its running time, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium is a uniquely well-conceived futuristic action thriller. It is set in 2154, in a slowly-corroding world that realistically imagines what our current society will look like when aged forward 14 decades. The technology is familiar, even when it’s elaborate. The characters make recognizably human-like decisions. The whole world appears to operate in a familiar manner, with a struggling underclass striving for a better life while a corporate uber-class jealously guards its decadent lifestyle. Elysium is like a third-world race-against-time thriller written by David Simon, with some robots sprinkled in. It is realistic, grounded, thought-provoking.
Until the ending.
Let’s set the stage here a bit, because the roots of Elysium’s curiously silly final act appear early. (Spoilers from here.)
We are told early on that the moneyed elite who are allowed to live in the titular space station have access to an assortment of scientific marvels that the earthbound proletariat can only dream of. One of these marvels is the Med-Pod, which looks like the world’s most technologically advanced massage table. Lay down on that for a second, and you will be healed. Of everything. Cuts. Bruises. Cancer. The Med-Pod is, in a sense, the movie’s Macguffin. As everyguy protagonist Max, Matt Damon is blasted with radiation; the only way he can save himself is to get to one of those Med-Pods.
Along the way, Max bumps into his childhood sweetheart, who has an Angelic Sick Daughter who could also really use a Med-Pod. The presence of an Angelic Sick Daughter inevitably sets off alarm bells, and sure enough, much of the film’s final act focuses on whether Max will somehow wind up sacrificing himself in order to save her. The fact that he does is not necessarily surprising; nor is it necessarily a bad thing for the movie. You could argue that Max’s journey in the movie is the journey from selfishness to selflessness. Having an Angelic Sick Daughter in a film is a cliché, but it’s a good cliché.
No, where the ending misses the mark is with everything else that happens. The film builds to a showdown between Max and Sharlto Copley’s Kruger, a character who is initially introduced as a mindless assassin-thug who winds up trying to seize control of Elysium. Long story short: Max winds up with codes in his head, and those codes will allow anyone to declare themselves the undisputed Dictator-for-Life of Elysium, and by extension, Earth. (You might be wondering how this works. Answer: Because robots.) Max and Kruger fight a bit, and Max ultimately defeats Kruger by pulling the right thingamabob off his exoskeleton. Okay, you’re thinking: That was a pretty cool fight, although I can’t say that I thought this was the kind of movie that would end with two really good actors punching each other in their cool robo-suits.
But then we get to the real core, the part of the movie that feels simultaneously the most sociologically on-the-nose and the least convincing in any kind of sci-fi allegorical sense. Max hooks himself up to the Elysium computer core. By this point, his old computer hacker pal Spider has revealed to Max that they can give everyone on Earth – repeat, everyone on Earth – access to the Med-Pods. But in order to do that, they need to reboot the system using Max’ brain codes, and in order to do that, they have to kill Max. Because science.
So Max dies. And Spider hacks into the Elysium mainframe. And what happens is, he finds a menu where he can select who in the universe is considered a Citizen of Elysium, and therefore, someone who is eligible for the universal healthcare represented by the Med-Pods. There is a line which reads (I think I’m paraphrasing, but I’m worried that I’m not):
EARTH’S POPULATION: ILLEGAL.
And he deletes the first two letters in “Illegal,” so it reads:
EARTH’S POPULATION: LEGAL.
And then everyone on Earth is eligible to use the med-pods. Sickness will become a thing of the past for the human race. No one will ever suffer from broken bones ever again. The robots and Med-Pods will save everyone.
The only way this could have been less subtle would have been if Spider had found a line in Elysium’s code marked:
MORAL CODE OF THIS DECADENT FUTURE CIVILIZATION WHICH IS SYMBOLIC OF CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY: EVIL
And rewrote it to be:
MORAL CODE OF THIS DECADENT FUTURE CIVILIZATION WHICH IS SYMBOLIC OF CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY: GOOD
The problem with this ending is that it’s so ridiculously simple – as simple as the rest of Elysium was hyper-complex. The society of Elysium was presented as a specifically hyper-rich society, and the Med-Pods were one of the many privileges its citizens got to enjoy. But the ending makes it clear that was not the case; in essence, it reduces a very interesting world to People Who Have Med-Pods and People Who Don’t Have Med-Pods. And Med-Pods are, for all intents and purposes, magical devices. They can heal everything; they don’t run on any kind of unsustainable fuel source. I guess you could argue that the Big Evil Corporation of Elysium wouldn’t let poor people have it simple because they are evil, but because Med-Pods exist separately from any recognizable product, there is no recognizable situation of supply and demand – from what we see at the end of the movie, for all we know, a single Med-Pod can heal an entire metropolis of Angelic Sick Daughters.
Now, I get it: Elysium is a science-fictional exploration of What’s Happening Right Now. The movie is basically arguing: Let’s give everyone the best healthcare available. But by pitching the ending of Elysium as a risk-free, the good-guys-all-win situation put in motion simply by snipping the “il” from “illegal,” the film can’t help but look reductive. (It also ignores the enormous changes that would undergo a society where no one ever had to be sick, or even marginally unwell.) And this is all juxtaposed against Max’s sacrifice. Max sacrifices himself so that no one has to be sick, ever again, anywhere.
Elysium is a film that begins in gritty realism, with a humans’-eye-view of the future of our species. It ends with an all-encompassingly triumphant Christ allegory and the simplistic message that being poor is no fun, and rich people should help poor people. But it stacks the deck so completely. Is there anyone on Elysium who isn’t a scheming elitist human android? Is there anyone on earth who isn’t a lovable badass with a heart of gold? It’s basically a less ethically-complicated version of “Be Excellent To Each Other,” minus the existential underpinnings and the sweet tunes, and with a lot more Med-Pods.