Elysium (21 August 2013)

Movieetos Rating (Movie Cheetos)

(75% Movieetos, 25% gourmet)

From time to time 100YSS Scientist (and movie critic), Dr. Ronke Olabisi shares with us her views on the latest science fiction movies. She provides insightful, and sometimes humorous, movie reviews with lots of science reality thrown in.


If the Ancient Greek realm of Hades resembled the Catholic Purgatory, then their Elysian Fields (or Elysium) resembled Heaven. It is a place for heroes and demi-gods to reap their rewards in the afterlife. In the Odyssey, Homer described its location as the western edge of the Earth. Blomkamp’s Elysium is such a paradise in orbit above a dystopian Earth. Instead of heroes, this Elysium is reserved for the very rich: it is the 1% removed to a place where the 99% could never disturb their staggering privilege with anything so beneath them as an Occupy protest. This movie has a strong social perspective and uses science fiction as a means to present it. Although there were problems with both, overall it was a well-made film that had moments of good on-the-edge of your seat tension. In order to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of the science and the social aspects of this film, I must discuss what happened: there will be spoilers.

This movie is rich with social commentary: wealthy Elysians are shown sparkly clean and speaking British or New England sounding English or European French. People from Earth are dirty and grimy, speaking Latin American Spanish or English with a Latin American accent. Elysium is portrayed as largely European/white with a smattering of racial minorities while Earth (at least Los Angeles) appears to be entirely Latin American/brown with a smattering of whites (Matt Damon). Full disclosure: I love it when science fiction movies make social commentary. Few films achieve this better than The Matrix did. “The Man” is shifted from the figurative to the literal in the form of agents such as Mr. Smith, who are exclusively male, and exclusively white. Even when women or minorities are taken over by agents, they are taken over by white male embodiements of “The Man.” Unable to secure Will Smith for their hero, the directors chose Keanu Reaves, an actor who self-identifies as half Asian. The heroes in The Matrix are female and minority, and the only other prominent white male among their group turns out to be the traitor. A compelling commentary on the racial structure of power in our society that went in unnoticed by many because the science fiction story was so very good.

Elysium’s commentary is not as subtle, nor its sci-fi as good. We see illegal Latin American immigrants trying to make it to Elysium for medical care for their children. While crossing the border of outer space, their lives are not safe from trigger happy officials and should they make it to Elysium alive, they are unceremoniously deported. On Earth, their lives hold little value too, as robots in charge mete out ineffective health care and overly aggressive policing. Our hero, Matt Damon is raised speaking Spanish among Latin American nuns with other Latin American children. It is not explained why he alone grows to speak unaccented mid-western English, while everyone else he grows up with has more of a Latin accent. Through a turn of unfortunate events, his childhood dream of escaping to Elysium becomes a necessity and through very dear sacrifices, he winds up saving the rest of us on Earth. And here are where the problems with the social commentary begin. In real life in our current society, although the 1% are largely white, there are minorities who are extremely rich. This is still true in the fictional Elysium, as we are shown samples of its population. Similarly, although as much as 45% of underprivileged minorities are born into poverty in the US, by sheer numbers there are more poor whites than poor minorities. This was not shown in the movie. If you want to make a commentary about social class and not about race, then you have to show poor whites as well as poor minorities. Otherwise, instead of a movie about a man who happens to be white saving all of us here on Earth, it becomes a movie about the last poor white guy on Earth saving all the helpless brown people who are left — a Great White Hope. Ways to avoid this — cast a Latin actor instead of Matt Damon, or show poor white mothers trying to get help for their children too.

The medical devices on Elysium are miraculous, and nonexistent on Earth. It all seems so simple to share, yet Elysians selfishly want all the privilege for themselves. The analogy is unmistakable — we are the first generation ever with the capability to end hunger worldwide; scenes in Elysium looked like they could have been depicting impoverished Mexicans attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. It all seems so simple to share, but most of us selfishly want to give those 7 bucks to Starbucks rather than to hunger relief efforts. The Occupy movement is a direct response to an ever expanding gulf between the very rich and the very poor, which is larger than it’s ever been. Many people protest that the problem is not that simple. The attempt to overthrow Elysium and the aftermath argues that it is that simple.

We live in a world where artificial islands have been built (Dubai) for the very rich to live and Elysium seems merely like a high-tech graduation from the artificial island to the orbital oasis. I would like to believe that it is not. At present, NASA and other international space agencies corner the market on space travel. If you’re thinking, “what about commercial space companies,” consider this: the single biggest customer in the market for the spacecraft generated by these companies is NASA. All of these companies are dependent on government support whether directly or through NASA — through the years SpaceX has received over $911 million in NASA contracts and in federal subsidies, it received $440 million in 2012 alone. Right now, governments are needed for space exploration. So the likelihood of a private venture like Elysium is unlikely for the foreseeable future. A NASA sponsored Elysium? One of NASA’s mandates is to improve life on Earth through space exploration. If you don’t believe this it’s because you simply don’t know what these improvements are: filtered water, shoe inner soles, cell phones, satellite radio and TV, GPS, scratch resistant glasses, Invisalign and a type of heart pump all are products of space exploration, in addition to the other 6,500+ patents NASA has licensed since its inception. Elysium decidedly did not improve life on Earth, and any NASA sponsored type of Elysium would break my heart unless it was open to all.

The Science:

  1. The best part of the science fiction in this film was anything concerning the code (I’m not the best programmer in the world, but even I recognized what “*legal” signified). I am not referring to where they wind up storing that code, just what it looked like.

  2. The next best part: the space station that was Elysium. Rhett Allain of Wired magazine calculated that Elysium had a radius of approximately 34 km (about 21 miles) and was spinning at about 0.17 rad/s, or 1.6 rpm. He made certain assumptions (that the spin was designed to precisely mimic Earth’s gravity), but his assumptions were reasonable. The gravity is explained with the rotation we see, but what isn’t explained is how the atmosphere is kept in place (they do not appear to have shields as immigrant ships are quite capable of entering the Elysian atmosphere). Mars had an atmosphere once, but when its core stopped rotating it lost its protective magnetic field. Put simply, this magnetic field diverts the sun’s solar wind and prevents it from interacting with and washing away our atmosphere. These winds create an opening in the field at the Earth’s poles — our Auroras are the beautiful result of these solar winds interacting with our atmosphere and magnetic field through that opening. What protects the Elysian atmosphere? Is there protection against radiation? Because this is a concern for astronauts, especially on long duration missions. Although these questions are unanswered, not everything needs to be answered in a movie. As long as they did not get anything glaringly wrong, this is forgivable.

  3. The third best part: the weaponry. Tenth century Chinese fire lances are considered the first guns, with 15th century European advances bringing us the handguns we recognize today. Considering that in over a millennia, our guns still involve the rapid acceleration of metal projectiles, it is far more believable to witness futuristic guns that follow the same format. Sound emitting laser bursts are not very believable. Guns that fire timed-exploding bullets — more believable and cool.

  4. The worst part: I am a biomedical engineer. I was sitting next to a surgeon while watching this movie. Medicine and biology are science too. It is a huge mistake to get some parts of the science right and other parts very, very wrong.

  5. A. Radiation sickness:
    I once spoke with a man who performed an autopsy on a victim of a nuclear accident. The man tried to run from the blast, and fell over dead in under a minute. We spoke in depth about how ionizing radiation kills. Even if you are not vaporized instantly, ionizing radiation will kill in a certain predictable way based on exposure. It can take moments or years. When it happens within seconds, it is because pretty much every atom and every molecule within every cell in your body has been ionized. Aside from the broken chemical bonds, the new undesired chemical bonds that form, the DNA damage and the free radicals, your cells function based off of pretty specific interactions between ions, and disrupting this disrupts every bodily function at once. At the cellular level. Killing them all simultaneously. In Elysium, one of our characters is subjected to ionizing radiation and given 5 days to live. Such a prognosis is accompanied with severe leukopenia, severe fever, severe diarrhea, vomiting, severe headaches, cognitive incapacitation, shock, and severe electrolyte disturbance. In other words - you ain’t walking around. Our character is told to take some pills for 5 days to maintain function until death. Occasionally the character displays one or two of these symptoms, and it is unclear how the pills can manage these symptoms yet be unable to prolong life. If they are painkillers, then our character should be still be suffering radiation sickness symptoms without feeling the pain from them. If the pills are managing the symptoms, then why can’t they manage them indefinitely? The character was briefly sick and seemed to power through radiation sickness. This was ridiculous. This link to the most famous radiation deaths will show you how ridiculous.

    B. Exoskeletal suit:
    if Earth’s medical facilities are so lousy, but a back alley mechanic can install an exoskeletal suit by drilling it into your skeleton in a decidedly unsterile room, then the screenwriters needed to consult a medical practitioner for their script. Even the worst quack on the planet could have told them, “No. Just no.” There are so many things wrong with this scene: infection, blood management, neural engraftment to the suit (we actually do have biorobotic arms, and it takes the recipients time to learn their operation, yet in Elysium control is instant). Anesthetizing someone for orthopedic surgery is nontrivial. Being anesthetized does not simply mean being knocked out. They also have to paralyze you because in your sleep you are likely to fight the people cutting into your body. That’s why they have to intubate you too - because you can’t breathe on your own when you are paralyzed. So the surgery they performed would have been believable if Damon’s character were X-men’s Wolverine, Heroes’ cheerleader, or, you know, just already dead. Plus, after you wake up from orthopedic surgery, you are pretty much in excruciating pain. Which is also debilitating. Forgetting the surgery to install it, even if an exoskeletal suit enables its wearer greater strength, it does not confer increased strength to the bones into which it is drilled. If I drill a screw into my finger bone, and then yank on that screw really, really hard, you can bet that if anything is going to break, it’s not going to be the screw. The opposite of what I am describing literally happened in this movie. All of the motions of this exoskeletal suit should have caused it to be ripped from the underlying bone skeleton.

    C. Elysium’s medical beds:
    These beds reminded me of the sarcophagus used in Stargate to revive the aliens on both the movie and the television series. It could return people from death. In Elysium, it could return people from death, reconstruct their destroyed tissue on an atomic level, all as long as there was no brain death. But in this movie, a grenade to the face did not qualify as brain death.

    D. Downloading data into the brain:
    It was not clear why this was necessary. I have a flash drive that stores 32 GB. If someone wants to steal it, I don’t have to worry about being kidnapped to get the data out of my head. Nobody would do this unless it conferred upon them special knowledge like instant Kung Fu, or language mastery. Yet in the film, the recipient is like a flash drive without personal access to the data until it is downloaded into another computer. And if you are going to include a safeguard that kills thieves who try to download your precious data, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the killing happen before they get the data? Not after they successfully use it? At that point, it just seems like a “revenge” feature, rather than a security feature. An actual security feature would prevent thieves from using a program, rather than killing one after using said program. All of these. Not good. Just why?

Lingering annoying plot points:

Dr. J: Did Foster’s character refuse the nurse’s assistance and choose to die because she was ashamed?

Me: Her character in the movie was pretty 2-dimensional, and nothing about her suggested this to even be a possibility.

Dr. J: Why did everyone in LA have Mexican accents? Did this mean LA was now a part of Mexico?

Me: And if Damon grew up in Mexico, why didn’t he have a Mexican accent?

Dr. J: That parole leg band Damon had on in the beginning was pretty clunky compared to all the other high tech hardware in the film. Wouldn’t they just implant a tracking device in jail?

Me: Yeah, it’s the 22nd century, but they prefer 1990s technology to track their criminals.

Dr. J: They even identified him on Foster’s screen during the robbery, but couldn’t track him later. And he has a tracking device on. Also, when the 3 immigrant carrier ships invaded Elysium space, why didn’t the first two “dodge” the incoming missiles as well?

Me: Maybe they were hoping to outrun the missiles.

So, while I thoroughly enjoyed this movie while watching it, there were many moments when it was just junk food for the brain. It wasn’t quite Movieetos (movie Cheetos) — there were some moments of gourmet-ness to it, but it was more like gourmet popcorn than gourmet gnocchi.