"My largest personal goal making this film was to try and frame a vision of the future for the audience, and to do that with a world that felt as real and multilayered as possible." - Neill Blomkamp, Elysium: The Art of the Film.
Elysium has a lot of problems. Its look isn't one of them. Visually, it's just a flat-out badass movie. If, however, you stop to think about the actual content and context of all the cool stuff, it'll leave you scratching your head. If all you want from science fiction are cool weapons and spaceships, you won't mind Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9. If you like a bit more science in your science fiction, however, it's a shocking disappointment. And that's not even a comment directed toward the characters or the themes or the story (though they're lacking as well), but purely toward the weirdly anachronistic future depicted in the film.
Elysium takes place in the year 2154, but save for a space station floating in near-Earth orbit, you'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint how 140 years have transpired between today and the future of the film. It's kind of hard to buy into life in 2154 when there are plenty of things that exist today (or will soon) that are distractingly absent 140 years from now. And even worse, there are things that do exist today that likely shouldn't exist in 2154, and yet they do in Elysium. And these distractions pile up so high throughout the movie that it's hard to get into the story.
Take for example something as seemingly simple as a cast for a broken bone. In the movie, a robocop breaks Max' arm. He goes to a doctor, who throws a cast on it-- the same kind of bulky plaster cast doctors have been using since the 1900s. Those are unlikely to exist in the year 2154 thanks to 3D printing, which are already allowing for customizable alternatives that don't have the same problems those big casts do. Just take a look at this prototype, which doesn't have any of the drawbacks of a traditional cast (weight, obstruction, rashes etc):
Image by Jake Evill
Of course there's nothing to say that all casts in the future will look like one above (which was created by a designer in New Zealand after he broke his own hand and realized that it was time someone reinvent the cast), but it's just an example of how the irreversible rise of the capability and affordability of 3D printing is going to change the future in immeasurable ways. Even beyond casts, 3D printers are already being used to create functional body parts in the year 2013, but apparently at some point between now and 2154 there was a war where all 3D printers on Earth were either destroyed or confiscated and taken to Elysium.
Perhaps TVs were another casualty of this oddly technology-specific war, because the ones that exist in 2154 are obnoxiously like the ones that exist today. When Max goes to visit Frey at her house, she's got an average flat-screen LCD just sitting on a table. Let's think about this one in a more historical context. When was the last time you walked into a room and saw a TV that was made before 1990? Maybe you've got grandparents who haven't upgraded their old cathode-ray tube TVs yet, or you know a hipster who owns one ironically, but TVs today don't look the same way they did 20 years ago and they're not built with the same technology. The same will be said of the TVs 20 years from now. Add another 120 years to that and display technology will probably look alien to us. Predictions as to what that'll be are pretty varied - thinner and larger (think of the wall-sized stuff in Total Recall) vs. more personal (think Google Glass) - but either way, even impoverished households in the slums of Los Angeles aren't going to be rocking LCDs made in the year 2010.
Even the cars in Elysium are archaic. When Max and Spider's crew go to take down Carlyle's spaceship, they're driving a current generation Nissan GT-R. It's a great car, sure, but will it last another 140 years? Will any car on Earth survive another 140 years of use? No. The answer is no. Hell, this one didn't even survive the five days depicted in the movie.
Then there's the societal side of the future. Even jobs will be radically different 140 years from now, and yet Max works on an assembly line building robots. An assembly line in Los Angeles! Maybe humans will still be working assembly lines 140 years from now - and that's a big maybe thanks to the 3D-printer issue mentioned above - but industrial manufacturing jobs are already in severe decline in America in 2013. We're to believe that in 140 years robots won't be built by other robots (who could certainly endure radiation a bit better than us fleshy sacks of meat) and assembly-line manufacturing will be a major employer in Los Angeles, California? Instead of, say, anywhere else in the world where those jobs aren't already an endangered species? Did China ban industrial manufacturing at some point between 2013 and 2154? That manufacturing jobs will return to America is strangely one of the only optimistic things in Blomkamp's incredibly pessimistic world.
And speaking of robots, Max goes to see his virtual parole officer after his violation. It's basically a mannequin with a speaker. That's fine if you're Paul Verhoeven in the late '80s making Total Recall. But here's what virtual assistants already look like in the year 2013. As you can see, Elysium's version from 140 years in the future is a bit of a step back in time:
But what about the centerfold of Elysium: access to health care? Even that is weirdly incongruous in the year 2154. Let's grant the entire premise that these cancer-killing, miracle Med-Pods only exist on Elysium. They're expensive and only rich people can afford them. Okay, fine. But then we have to look at Spider's crew of thug doctors who can not only graft an exoskeleton to Max's bones, but they can crack open his skull and wire his brain with an access port, all with crude tools but with remarkable safety and precision. Licensed doctors or not, how the hell are these guys not fixing all kinds of medical problems in the slums of Elysium? Surely they could have done something for the little girl at the beginning of the movie who tried to sneak onto Elysium to fix her own broken bones. And if they're not using their medical expertise to help their fellow poor Earth folk, how are they any better than the rich people on Elysium?
Of course not every movie that takes place in the future needs to be like Minority Report, where every single aspect of daily life was reassessed and recalibrated to fit the timeline. But it's these seemingly little details that all add up to a big picture, and unfortunately that big picture is just missing from Elysium. If all Blomkamp wanted to do was tell a metaphor for inequality and the dire state of universal health care, why even bother setting it 140 years in the future? Yes, that lets him have robocops everywhere and a space station (though scientists say even that is highly unlikely by 2154), but it doesn't actually contribute anything to the story. All it does is introduce more and more inconsistencies and questions. And if the whole point of your film is to use the commercial appeal of sci-fi to deliver a noncommercial message, the sci-fi side of it needs to be as cohesive as possible.
It's actually kind of annoying that Blomkamp doesn't care that his movie is set in the year 2154. And before you say it's an assumption he doesn't care because I picture 2154 differently than he does, check out this quote from the issue #1270 of Entertainment Weekly:
"Everybody wants to ask me lately about my predictions for the future, whether I think this is what will happen in 140 years. No, no, no. This isn't science fiction. This is today. This is now."
That's all well and good if you're saying that this level of inequality between the haves and have-nots exists in 2013, but if that's the case why bother to introduce all of this superfluous science fiction stuff that just gets in the way of your message? Elysium may be the only sci-fi film in recent memory that's actually hurt by it being a sci-fi film.