‘Elysium’: a mirror on today’s world

2013-09-06 00:00

IN the film Elysium, Jodie Foster’s character strides into the fabulous living area of a house overlooking a superbly manicured lawn wearing an Armani suit.

Foster plays Jessica Delacourt, Elysium’s secretary of defence. The audience immediately understands that hers is a world of wealth, privilege, excess and exclusivity. All the signature cues marking the sophistication of the elite classes are referenced in this scene — Champagne, strawberries, and Foster’s character switching effortlessly between French and English.

In Greek mythology, Elysium was a place of perfect bliss. In Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction-action film, it is a space station that the rich have retreated to. They live in mansions on a gigantic spherical satellite free from want, disease and environmental hazards. They have abandoned Earth, refusing even to breathe its air. It’s a sanctuary for the rich and a zone of exclusion for the poor.

Think of Johannesburg’s gated elite suburbs and imagine their fabulous mansions on an exclusive space station orbiting Earth. This is what Elysium looks like.

Earth, on the other hand, is a very different place. It’s been devastated by the selfishness of the absentee elite. Global warming appears to have taken its toll. People live under appalling conditions. The environment is extreme — toxic clouds of smoke hang in the atmosphere, there are no tarred roads, there is dust everywhere, services are limited, education and health care are virtually non-existent.

The film’s protagonist, Max da Costa, an ex-convict and former car thief played by Matt Damon, finds himself working in a factory that could resemble any Chinese or South Asian factory where workers with no rights toil under shocking conditions in lockdown facilities. It is poignantly ironic that Da Costa works in a factory which produces the very robots that patrol the planet on behalf of their masters on Elysium. These robots control Earth’s population through the strict enforcement of regulations. Their fondness for violence as a method to contain the public is fiercer than anything we’ve seen from South Africa’s trigger-happy cops.

Damon’s character is exposed to an extreme dose of radiation at the factory where he works. It leaves him with cancer and just five days to live. But, he can be cured on Elysium where every home is equipped with a med-pod that scans and cures humans of any disease or damage.

Just as there are people who stealthily smuggle immigrants across borders for huge sums of money on present-day Earth, so, too, is there someone who flies Earth’s hopefuls to Elysium. Many are shot down while approaching the space station. Da Costa cuts a deal with a human smuggler, is fitted with an exoskeleton that gives him super-human strength and given the task of hijacking a rich Elysium businessman to gain access to his personal data, including bank codes.

But when Da Costa downloads the data from his chosen target, he finds that he has also downloaded secret codes that can free Earth’s inhabitants from their misery. All he has to do is get onto the space station and insert the codes into the satellite’s computer mainframe to make every inhabitant of Earth a citizen of Elysium.

Elysium is not a warning about the future. It is about here and now. But we see more than South Africa’s stark inequalities in Blomkamp’s view of 22nd-century Earth; we see the collective suffering of today’s downtrodden mirrored in a future society where there is no hope.

Imagine the squatter camps of Marikana, beleaguered Gaza, the Rio favelas or the migrant shantytowns that have emerged on the border between the United States and Mexico. They represent a hybridised version of the post-apocalyptic society the planet has become in Blomkamp’s Earth of 2154. The Earth scenes for Elysium were, in fact, filmed on the garbage dump of a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, Iztapalapa, a densely populated district plagued by high youth unemployment, socioeconomic marginalisation, crime and drug abuse.

Elysium is a movie about inequality, zones of exclusion and the privileges of the rich that are increasingly encroaching on the rights of the poor and the middle class.

In Elysium the middle class has vanished after years of growing disproportion where the privileged have simply leapfrogged into a dimension of extreme wealth and exclusivity, leaving nothing behind for the rest of humanity.

Blomkamp refuses to be called out on the political meaning of his movie, but it does deal with the array of social issues rooted in today’s struggles of inequality. The right to healthcare, workers’ rights, freedom of movement and a life of dignity.

As our country and the world hurtle towards greater inequality, Blomkamp’s Elysium may not be a call to arms, but it is a call to consciousness.


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