The Failure of “Elysium”

In the summer of 2013, Hollywood released “Elysium,” which was a big budget science fiction movie from the director of “District 9.” Unlike “District 9,” “Elysium” didn’t do as well as the studio wished. The basic elements of a good story are there, but something’s lacking. After studying the movie for a while, I think I know what’s wrong.

In most movies, the hero is stuck in a dead end life but the people the hero cares about are often doing just fine. Then the villain shows up and threatens to wreck the lives of the people the hero loves.

In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s wife is doing just fine in her new job. Then the villain takes her hostage and threatens to kill her. In “Elysium,” the hero loves an old girlfriend, but her life is already in shambles just by being stuck on Earth with the rest of the poor people. She has a daughter who needs medical help or she’ll die. So right away, the people the hero loves are already in deep trouble, and the villain hasn’t really done a thing yet. In the end when the hero helps his girlfriend’s daughter get medical help and live, it’s not much of a victory over the villain because the villain wasn’t really responsible for wrecking the little girl’s life in the first place.

Compare this to “Star Wars” where Princess Leia is doing just fine until Darth Vader comes along and captures her. Now the villain directly threatens her. In “Elysium,” the hero’s girlfriend’s daughter is already dying long before the villain has even done anything.

Now the villain’s goal usually involves Horrible Consequences that creates suffering for lots of innocent people as well. In “Terminator 2,” that Horrible Consequence is the loss of the human race’s resistance leader that will lead to complete annihilation for the human race. In “Elysium,” innocent people are already suffering before the villain even does anything. The villain’s goal turns out to be the mercenary on Earth trying to take over Elysium. If this happens, the people on Earth will never have a chance to get to Elysium, but if the villain fails in his goal of taking over Elysium, the people on Earth still don’t have a chance to get to Elysium. So whether the villain achieves his goal or not is irrelevant since the people on Earth will be screwed either way.

Because of this, there’s no sense of urgency or importance in stopping the villain from achieving his goal. Whatever happens, the people on Earth are going to lose anyway, so stopping the villain doesn’t really save anyone from any Horrible Consequences because they’re already suffering such Horrible Consequences.

“Elysium” starts off with everyone on Earth screwed regardless of what the villain does. So the people on Earth have nothing to lose since they’re already lost right from the beginning. In most movies, innocent people are doing okay and then the villain threatens to make their lives worse. In “Elysium,” innocent people are doing horrible and the villain promises to keep them that way.

So the lack of Horrible Consequences of the villain’s goal makes it far less important for the hero to stop the villain. Without this sense of importance, like Luke trying to stop the Death Star in “Star Wars,” “Elysium” turns out to tell a much weaker story. Despite the nice special effects, the story in “Elysium” is weak. When you start off with a weak story foundation, no amount of acting and special effects can save it.

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