I wanted to love Elysium. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was, as far as I was concerned, a watershed in the big-screen sci-fi world. It was gritty. It was weirdly realistic. It was socially aware. The conversation that I had with my early-teenaged boy after we saw it was an opportunity to address some important real-world social and political issues. I’ll never forget that afternoon.
Given this, I was pretty excited about the follow-up. While I was less excited to see ‘A-list’ actors, I figured that that was an expected economic move, and hoped that the story that was going to be told would be worth it. Based on District 9, this seemed like a viable expectation. So my partner and I took this same son—now nearly 17—and joined a good friend of ours to see Elysium.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that no one is making sci-fi that looks so good. Yes, there were moments in the otherwise disappointing Prometheus, and certainly Cameron did some things with bright coloured jungle that broke new ground in Avatar, but Elysium carries on Blomkamp’s particularly compelling visual feast that intersperses advanced technology with a dirty, declining Earth, and this is a vision that, for me, is very compelling in the era of climate change and overpopulation.
After we watched Elysium, our friend compared it to Pacific Rim, and complained over sushi that, for whatever else was going on in that movie, he thought that it would have made better sense if it had looked better—if it could have been more realistic for giant robots to be fighting giant monsters, because the world looked like one that we can identify. Once we got over laughing at (with?) him, I had to admit that, whatever improvement this may or may not have made to giant robots and monsters, it remains an area in which Blomkamp is very, very capable, and he made a fair point. (I’m hoping he has forgiven us for our mirth by now.)
In Elysium, Blomkamp paints a picture of a planet overburdened by population, and the inevitable consequences of this: pollution, crime, disease, rampant poverty, and a political and ‘justice’ system that depends on the iron fist of fascist control to maintain the massive inequality between the billions of inhabitants of the planet-wide favela, and the tiny proportion that live in luxury on an orbiting space station.
The One-Percenters who have taken themselves into space live in incredibly low-density luxury, being served by robots for their every need, and have technologies that allow them to cure any disease, or to fix any damage to a human body. (My son remarked that, in many ways, this looks like a prequel to Wall-E.) We are introduced almost immediately to the process of future-coyotes loading people onto ships after giving them stolen IDs, so that, if they manage to evade Elysium’s defences and land, they can find their way to a medical bed (every house in Elysium has one!), and then be cured from whatever ails them before being deported back to Earth.
In the film, this single issue becomes the primary symbol of the immense inequality between the inhabitants of the station and the billions on Earth. The coyotes are portrayed in the film as both criminals and revolutionaries, and the reformed-criminal-dragged-back-into-a-life-of-crime-to-save-himself-from-the-unjust-radiation-poisoning-he-got-because-the-system-is-unfair that Matt Damon plays has an extremely un-original ‘I was selfish, but now I’m selfless’ arc that allows his self-saving efforts slowly to shift to saving a little girl with leukaemia—the first one to be saved of what eventually becomes the whole of humanity.
Now, I know that, as human beings, we’re supposed to hold the preservation of human life as our single most important goal, both individually and as a group. In this film, healthcare is the symbol of this goal. Once the denouement’s revolutionary computer hacking is accomplished, making every inhabitant of earth a citizen of Elysium, the central computer’s solution to this is to despatch emergency medical stations to heal the health problems of the entire population of the planet. We watch the shuttles depart from Elysium for Earth as if they are angels descending Jacob’s ladder to dispense the grace of God. Damon’s sacrificial death plays up some vague christological parallel, without ever really teasing it out—we like white knights, don’t we?
But. I really wanted to like this movie. I kept hoping that, somehow, the logic of the inequality would be addressed. I kept hoping that the fact that the planet was massively overpopulated would somehow be taken into account. I kept hoping that, no matter how depressing it might be to talk about it, this big-budget imagination of a future 150-years-hence would face up to the realities of human behaviour in the industrial era.
It didn’t. Instead, this became ‘Occupy Sci-Fi’—a pie-in-the-sky (literally) approach to humanity’s (and the planet’s) ills that not only fails to address that the two are linked, but solves everything by extending the lives of the inhabitants of the grossly overpopulated planet.
Let’s be honest—at no point does this film address a solution for the projection of humanity’s current trajectory. Unless Blomkamp has something else going on that he just doesn’t bother to show us, it doesn’t really matter that the massively concentrated wealth of the 1% is poured into the ocean of untold billions on the planet’s surface, any more than it would matter if the massively concentrated wealth of the 1 or 2% of modern capitalist society got Robin-hooded to the rest of us.
Our planet is not plagued with inequity of wealth. It is plagued with the rapacious, species-wide activity that has, as a motivation, the production of this inequity. This activity, however, is neither limited to the One-Percenters, nor their sole responsibility. As Deleuze and Guattari (Anti-Oedipus, p. 238) put it, ‘How much flexibility there is in the axiomatic of capitalism, always ready to widen its own limits so as to add a new axiom to a previously saturated system!’—capitalism’s all-encompassing identity stains everyone with its participatory structure.
Suddenly providing universal health-care for the entire population of the 2154 Earth that Blomkamp imagines is no more a solution to its ills than feeding all the hungry, or healing all the sick of our planet would be. Universal healthcare is a part of a capitalist system—it provides the process with healthier workers, better able to participate in the process. Universal education is similarly oriented towards the increase of wealth.
We have actually to stop acting the way that we are, not re-brand it as ‘sustainable’. We have overspent. There is nothing left to borrow. Occupying Wall Street was a re-arranging of deck chairs.