On the weekend I saw the new film “Elysium” starring Matt Damon. I was blown away by it and its social commentary. Although at times it resembles an action film, it is in reality an allegory for our present times. It is a warning of what our future could be. Set in the year 2154, the world looks like Republicans and libertarians won the fight to dismantle the government. The inequality between the 1% and the rest has been driven to its extreme and all the rich people have evacuated Earth and are now living in a space shuttle named Elysium. Meanwhile Earth has descended to the level of an abandoned Third World ghetto.
Matt Damon struggles to get by in Los Angeles which has become a sprawling Spanish speaking ghetto, left to rot. To get to work he must undergo the massive lines of a rickety public transport system and withstand harassment from zero tolerance robot police. The hospitals are massively overcrowded and pushed to breaking point. Other than in the form of a repressive police force, the government does not exist. Devoid of opportunities people turn to crime. The few jobs available are desperately held onto and people are willing to go to any extent to keep them. When a door jams on the radiation room, Matt Damon is ordered to go inside and unblock it or else be fired. Without unions or government support, workers are at the mercy of their employers (no unions here). So Damon has no choice but to go inside and ends up receiving a lethal dose of radiation.
Elysium on the other hand is a paradise where the wealthy live in idle luxury and speak French. Everyone lives in large mansions with expansive manicured gardens and robots to take of their every whim. Unlike on Earth, people ride luxury hover cars and have medical bays that can cure all diseases. It is an interesting perversion of Atlas Shrugged and the threat to “Go Galt”. As you can imagine, it is the dream of everyone on Earth to end up on Elysium and gangs attempt to sneak across the border in battered old space ships. The fear that “illegals” may enter their world is the one fear of the people of Elysium who are willing to take desperate measures to keep them out. The credibility of the film is enhanced due to the fact that both the ghetto and the luxury scenes were both shot in different areas of Mexico City.
Elysium has an interesting take on the rise of the ‘Robot Economy’. The level of automation in the economy is constantly increasing, leading economists to wonder what the effect will be. There are roughly two schools of thought on the matter. There are the optimistic Modernists who believe that advances in technology will make work so much easier that we will have far more leisure time and the same amount of money. Robots will make life easier, do the dirty and dangerous jobs and increase our standard of living (as on Elysium). Then there are the pessimistic Luddites who fear that the machines will take our jobs and live the rest of the population redundant. While robots will increase productivity, it remains to be seen who receives these benefits. If the rich capitalists control the machines then they may keep the wealth to themselves and leave the rest of the population in poverty (as on Earth). There are debates as to whether this will lead to the return of socialism or an increase in government redistribution, but Elysium is a warning of what could happen if neither occurs.
The whole film has a “District 9” feel to it, probably as they both contain the same director (Neil Blomkamp and main actor Sharlto Copley (as well as a general theme of South African mercenaries). There are action scenes thrown in so that the film doesn’t get too preachy, but make no mistake about, Elysium is the most political film I’ve seen in years. While there are certainly elements of sci-fi and fantasy to it, it contains enough reality to make it quite plausible. The characters too are well drawn, with neither being entirely good or bad and it is still possible to see the villains’ point of view. But most of all, it contains an important political message about what the future could be if the 1%’s power remains unchecked and the government shrinks away. The plight of immigrants struggling to correct the misfortune of being born in the wrong place and of the sick struggling to get decent healthcare is vividly brought to mind. Without a doubt, you should watch Elysium.