Elysium isn’t as strong of a social commentary as director Neill Blomkamp’s last science fiction venture, District 9, but it still has something to teach us, in a heavy-handed sort of way. Beware: spoilers ahead.
The setting of Elysium is dystopian. However, due to the existence of the titular, off-world habitat, the dystopia is less stale. The movie is, at its core, about people living in a veritable trash heap trying to escape to where the rich people are. Blomkamp keeps the action moving fast enough that there isn’t time to poke holes in the plot (that is, until after the movie is over). It’s definitely worth seeing, if not for the aforementioned action then for its engagements with futuristic technology. Here, I’ll be focusing on the technological elements of Elysium’s vision of the future.
When it comes to what has been integrated into society, Elysium focuses on a few huge innovations like exosuits and floating cities, but the bits of technology that get glossed over as background pieces are actually far more interesting. Three of these less-foregrounded technologies are high-functioning robotics, personal space shuttles and the medical beds. Without the existence of all of them, the movie wouldn’t work the way it does.
Elysium imagines robotics in terms of armed droids, which patrol the cities of Earth policing the poor or protecting the rich (sometimes both!), and the sophistication of their construction belies the simplicity of their programing. Under their watch, felons can’t make jokes without a broken arm as punishment, and they can’t do anything to anyone from Elysium.
Now, it’s also important to note that every problem with these robots stems from social forces, not functional inadequacy. To start, these robots shouldn’t be policing anything. With the same ability to distinguish a threat as a modern-day drone and a trigger finger twice as quick, these droids prove why only humans should police humanity. Instead of enforcing law and order, they should be used to perform the dangerous manual labor that spurs the main conflict of the movie. Rather than using people to bake half-finished robot parts with radiation, they should just use finished robots, which don’t die from a little gamma radiation like us. So we should all take note – robots should be relegated to menial labor and not positions of power that require a large amount of rational thought. Unless they’re strong AIs, I guess.
Next up are the space shuttles. Even if they don’t seem like it, they are a bigger game changer than those robots. As you probably know, it costs a huge amount of money to send a very small number of people into space. You need to train the astronauts, build a really large space ship on top of a really large rocket, and if everything isn’t in pristine condition, it just explodes. Then you have to wait for just the right moment, because everything has to be lined up perfectly. If you miss that window, you have to wait. In Elysium, all of those limitations are thrown out.
In the movie, a trip to space is like a trip into the city. Everyone just piles into a shuttle and it just, zoom, flies into space. It’s a little bumpy, but the inside of the shuttle isn’t turned into an experiment on the dynamics of puke in zero gravity. Not only that, it’s really fast and flights can happen whenever and wherever they are needed. To have that kind of technology today would completely revolutionize society. In a matter of years, every country with access to the shuttles would have started developing parts of the Moon (or even Mars), and every middle class family would have taken at least one vacation to the Earth’s orbit. But instead of using these wonder-shuttles to explore the recesses of space and to give everyone the chance to experience the majesty of space flight, they’re used to tote rich CEOs to and from a place they don’t really want to be. That, and as target practice for homicidal sociopaths with rocket launchers.
Still, neither advanced robotics and efficient space shuttles compare to the last piece of technology – because those medical beds would change everything about society overnight. Blomkamp doesn’t spend much (or any) time explaining how these miracles of nature work – that would take hours of complicated scientific jargon that no one would understand or believe. So…he skipped it entirely. Anyway, the basic premise is, lie down, be a citizen of Elysium, and literally any ailment possible is cured. Got cancer? Not anymore. How about a bone deformation in your legs? Nah, that’s fixed now. Did a grenade literally explode in your face, thus caving it in almost completely? It’s cool bro, there’s an app for that. Seriously, all three of those medical catastrophes are completely cured in seconds. Also everyone on Elysium has one of these in their house like it’s no big deal.
So how could this change the world? Well, all it could do is save the lives of everyone, everywhere, basically forever. Elysium even has a fleet of ships that are just stacked with these, and some simple math even proves how easy it would be to cure the entire world in a matter of years, even assuming almost everyone in the world needed to use a machine.
According to a United Nations report, the world population in 2154 (the time of the film) will be approximately 8.5 billion people. A single healing session seemed to take, at most, ten seconds. That means one machine could cure 6 people a minute, 360 an hour, and 8,640 in a day. Let’s drop the number to 8,500 to account for time spent getting in and out of the machine and recharging – that’s still a lot of people being healed every day. What’s more, each ship appeared to have about ten of these machines, so that means 85,000 people could be cured each day, for free, per ship. But there wasn’t only one ship, there were many! Let’s assume there were only fifty ships though, because while the movie wasn’t clear on this detail, it did tend to reinforce the idea that both the beds and ships aren’t too hard to make. With fifty ships, 4,250,000 people would be healed each day. With a population of 8.5 billion and 4.25 million people healed each day, it would only take five and a half years to heal everyone of all their ailments. And since not everyone needs these things right away – some of the denizens of Earth are healthy – so the wait wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The point is, this medical bay, if it ever existed, should absolutely not be hoarded by the wealthy; it should be shared with everyone. (We’ll save the conversation about overpopulation and resource depletion for another day….)
Hopefully by now you understand what I’ve been saying – that willfully misusing technology is one of the quickest routes to dystopia. And while some people do abuse modern marvels, I think humanity does a decent job of handling big innovations appropriately. Still, it’s science fiction like Elysium that reminds us all just how important it is to share the fruits of our technological labor.