‘Elysium’: How Possible Is Its Technology?

Elysium is finally arriving in theaters this Friday, and its vivid depiction of a used, worn-out future is undeniably part of the appeal. But how likely is the tech we see? More likely than you might think.

Some is more real than others, of course. Here we’re ranking the technology we see from the most credible to the least likely to be up and running by the film’s date of 2154. Needless to say a lot can happen in 140 years or so…

A big part of the movie is the exoskeleton Matt Damon has attached to his body, and that’s pretty much not science fiction at all. There are several different designs of military exoskeleton, including Lockheed Martin’s HULC (yes, they really called it that) and Raytheon’s XOS 2, not to mention several medical exoskeletons essentially designed to replace wheelchairs.

The only real problem is power; for these suits to operate for any reasonable length of time, they need either massive batteries or to be plugged into a main power source. Of course, batteries are getting smaller and more powerful all the time, so exoskeletons are going to become more commonplace fairly quickly. Probably the only surprise is that not everybody is wearing one.

They might have been theoretical while the movie was filming, but leave it to Boston Dynamics (Motto: “Your Nightmares, Our Products”) to defictionalize it. Working with DARPA, Boston Dynamics has built an autonomous, bipedal robot called ATLAS that actually looks quite a bit like the ones Matt Damon frags in the trailers.

And considering part of its job is to bash through walls, it’s fairly safe to say DARPA doesn’t have any cuddly ideas in mind for it. So it seems likely that by 2154, bipedal robots enforcing the law will be a way of life.

Believe it or not, this also isn’t that far from reality. Mostly that’s thanks to really, really rich people like Jeff Bezos, who shocked everybody by revealing Blue Origin was actually getting objects off a launchpad, and Richard Branson, who is, well, Richard Branson. True, we’re not at the point where you can just hop a jumpship, but there’s billions of private dollars being invested, and let’s not forget the public space programs. By 2154, especially if the rich want to get the hell away from poor people, it seems likely we’ll have at least some form of working jumpship.

This… strains credulity a little bit. Not that we haven’t made enormous strides in battling cancer: We’ve given cancer AIDS, forced it to commit suicide, and are using gene therapy to stop relapses.

The problem is that cancer is not one illness, but hundreds of different ones, each with different treatments and effective methods. So it seems unlikely we’ll ever have a tanning bed that only fries malignancies, but by 2154 it’s not inconceivable that curing cancer will largely be a matter of paying for it.

This, though, we’re forced to call shenanigans. Elysium, the satellite Matt Damon is aiming for, isn’t just a big floating space wheel. First of all, it’s enormous; easily miles in length. Just building something that big is a project on the order of trillions of dollars.

Secondly, it’s basically indistinguishable from Earth: It’s got an atmosphere, gravity, simulated weather, the whole nine yards. That’s a rather tall order, considering the current state of the art in, say, artificial gravity is essentially putting a carnival ride inside the International Space Station.

On the whole, though, we could be living in a world with Elysium’s technology. Just not, hopefully, its environmental apocalypse.