I saw Elysium about a week ago, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. For the first thirty minutes, it’s a devastating film, portraying a world that does not feel too distant from our own: a land where the one percent of the one percent of the one percent (literally) floats above most human miseries, safe in a space station from the chaos below. Folks down on the ground still work for their distant overlords, but their lives are as bad as any third world ghetto: not enough food, no reliable medical care, and a brutal police force that seems more concerned about bullying civilians that stopping gangs. In fact, the residents of our future Los Angeles (the year is 2154) use the Brazilian term, favela, to describe their shanty-towns: full of stolen cars, run by drug lords and crossed via dusty roads. Spanish is spoken as often as English, and either car designs have stopped changing much or people are driving frames that are about 150 years old (which, given other means of locomotion in very poor parts of the world, might not be out of the realm of possibility).
|What the surface looks like in Elysium|
The movie’s plot is pretty stupid, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan raised by Spanish-speaking nuns who’s childhood best-friend and first-love, Frey (Alice Braga) manages to get out (not to Elysium though) and become a nurse. Meanwhile, Max did some time for stealing cars for the local kingpin, Spider, and is trying to get his life back on track and maybe even convince Frey he’s worth another shot. But then, conflict! Max gets nuclear radiation poisoning, has five days to live, does a few favors for Spiders, and winds up with information that could literally save everyone on Earth with the push of a button. Like I said, it’s pretty stupid, and if you’re going for the plot, don’t go.
But the first hour—well, really just the first 30 minutes—is spellbinding. Director Neil Blomkamp has already proven his ability to portray abject poverty with compassion, even beauty, and yet somehow also without sentimentality. In his science fiction apartheid parable, District 9, he flipped the typical alien invasion story, portraying refugee camps full of mysterious aliens who brought terrifyingly powerful weapons without a lot of knowledge of how they worked, or, for that matter, knowledge about much at all. They were unskilled migrants who just showed up, provoking xenophobic anger from the natives and setting nefarious corporate interests to work, figuring out how to exploit yet another mass of unprotected labor, or, if not labor, then just plain flesh. Perhaps because that movie’s grand finale is a bit less ridiculous—and also because it’s just a lot funnier—that movie is worth seeing both for the plot and for it’s devastating social conscience.
That conscience is also what makes the first 30 minutes of Elysium so remarkable, given Blomkamp’s unapologetic insistence on throwing our fat American asses right into the deep end of global inequality. It’s perhaps no coincidence that a director with roots in Africa doesn’t show us the perils of American prisons, the insecurity of inner cities, and the dangers of drugs. Instead, he shows us the diseases that kill because their easy cures can’t be afforded, the homes made of cardboard, the very real possibility not of our kids being malnourished or diabetic or obese but, simply and slowly just not eating until they die.
That’s not to deny the very real problem of the North American inner-city, and it’s certainly not to claim that all of Africa (or the rest of the developing world) is that poor. It is to say that such poverty actually exists in the world, with real people dying from it everyday, and it’s not just a welcome relief to have a director talking about something else but it’s also incredibly important for us to be reminded. Because look, we might not have a magic ship in the sky that immediately cures our cancer, but we do have access to drugs and treatment that keeps us alive, access others lack, and so they die. It is simply unimaginable to me that people in the United States still want to deny people this basic care, but we’re still a long ways away from having conversations about access to health care for everyone else in the world.
It’s not just conscience-pricking that makes the first 30 minutes great. There’s lots of ways to prick a conscience, and most of them are annoying, sanctimonious, and cloying. What’s remarkable about District 9 and Elysium is that their presentations of poverty are not cheesy feed-a-kid commercials: they’re real worlds, with decent people trying to make a living, and other people who aren’t so decent, but who still care about somebody else, and then cops who are nearly always mean, but not always, and then kids who try to steal your stuff but then you laugh about it with them, because honestly, what do you have to steal, and then everyone else. I’m fascinated by the worlds Blomkamp creates, and, especially for Elysium, the rock-em, sock-em adventures distracts from our exploring it. Frey has a house in what looks to be a lower-middle class suburban neighborhood. What’s that like? How do the pretty rich—but not rich enough for Elysium—live? We see factory owners commuting between the space station and the surface, but we don’t know much about how the world works—either on a global level—there appears to be a one-world government but what that means is unclear—or on a local one. How does Max get his life back together? What would have happened if he had just tried a more straightforward unionization effort instead of the ridiculous idea (spoiler) that a reprogrammed computer could change everything? While machine labor seems to be replacing just about everything—there’s a great scene in which Max’s parole officer is a robot—they clearly still need humans for something.
Yet what was most exciting about the first 30 minutes was an insistence that good old-fashioned socialist cinema is still around. In the United States (and in South Africa, I imagine), our class consciousness can too often be clouded by racial kumbayaism: because the U.S.'s many races are getting along a lot better (and they are, though, if you look at 1965, that’s not saying much), clearly class isn’t a problem. Class and race are too easily conflated, and if we’re making progress on race, then by golly we must be making progress on class too, right? Yet that’s obviously not the case, as our country’s (and globe’s) rapidly increasingly inequality keeps showing. Elysium is part of a grand tradition of movies and books (War of the Worlds, Metropolis, among many others) to imagine a future in which the very rich mercilessly dominate the very poor. Those works warned their audiences about what would happen if the workers of the world did not unite. It’s a warning we still need. And what’s nice about Blomkamp’s work (well, District 9 anyways) is that, unlike the terrible socialist realism of the mid-century, it’s actually good.
Yet we can’t be too smug watching the movie. Like all those intellectuals and petit bourgeoisie and everyone else who’s neither living in a cardboard box nor on a yaught, we’re in a weird class position. The movie’s first thirty minutes was a knock-me-over-moaning punch in the gut, forcing me to think hard about my class privilege and what I can do to change this world. Compared to that, getting nuked with five days to live is nothing, and unlike Max, there's no button I can push.