by Steven Jonas
According to Wikipedia:
“Elysium or the Elysian Fields is a conception of the afterlife that evolved over time and was maintained by certain Greek religious and philosophical sects and cults. Initially separate from the realm of Hades, admission was initially reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life.”
In his movie “Elysium,” set in 2154, writer director Neil Blomkamp has a rather different view of the place. It is not reserved for the dead, but for the very much alive super/super/ultra-rich (read: ruling class) who have apparently survived the dead-zone for everyone else that their policies have created on Earth. And as is well-known by now to most readers of these pages, they have retreated to a vast satellite world that, even though they are hardly dead, they have for some reason named “Elysium.”
Perhaps it is because even now, there are members of the present ruling class, not only in the U.S. but around the world from here to China, to Russia, to the oil Kingdoms, to certain European and South American enclaves, who think of themselves as truly above everyone else. They are in their own minds god-like perhaps, and certainly totally entitled to their riches, even if in the process of gaining them they are dooming the rest of mankind to the kind of existence that Blomkamp portrays in his movie.
That is, one could imagine the Kochs, for example, or certain Saudi princes, or certain Russian oligarchs, or certain Chinese’s “princelings” (that is descendants of founding members of the Chinese Communist Party — who would be rolling over in their graves if they knew what had become of their children and grandchildren), thinking of themselves in the category of the “righteous and the heroic,” entitled to the life they have developed for themselves 140 years from now on their space-island. (Yes, entitled, there’s that word again. Well you have heard of “entitlements,” haven’t you? Indeed this, not pre-paid pension benefits like Social Security, is its real meaning: what the ruling class think they are entitled to, come what may for everyone else.) Indeed, Elysium does seem to be international, for English is not the only language spoken there; French, the international language of the 19th century, is also.
“Elysium” is a movie that says many things to us, not, perhaps, all of them intended to be said by Mr. Blomkamp. Let me get my criticisms out of the way first. First, without giving it away, the movie has a happy, or at least apparently happy, ending. One must presume that this is one of Mr. Blomkamp’s bows to Hollywood, necessary to get made what is a very expensive, VERY high-tech movie (with marvelous special effects, which I happen to love). But the ending is jarring, to say the least, and very unrealistic. It’s sort of like the ending of Roland Emmerich’s (otherwise) masterpiece “The Day After Tomorrow” in which millions of Nord Americanos, fleeing a new ice age (which indeed could be a short-term consequence of global warming, as is explained in that movie) are welcomed with open arms south of the border. Oh yeah!
Second, in “Elysium” there is some confusion about what the real issue is between the masses trapped on the ravaged Earth and their rulers on Elysium: the total misery and oppression of the masses that has been created by those rulers on Earth out of which there seems to be no way, or the question of illegal emigration to the satellite and how that is managed. Blomkamp seems to be trying to deal with both issues side-by-side. For me this led to some confusion about what the movie is really about. Third, there is no history: how did this all come to be, in the 140-or-so years from now until then? We know already what capitalism and its evil twin global warming are leading to: the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, Flood, Plague, and War. But for the reality of the movie to have been achieved, how did the masses become so totally oppressed and repressed, how did the ruling class manage to get away with it, apparently unscathed, and how did even they manage to accumulate the capital for what would be a very expensive enterprise: Elysium itself?
However, there are many excellent features of the movie, and I don’t have space to deal with them all here. First of all, one doesn’t have to imagine 2154 to see what life is like for many millions of humans, right now. For the future slum of Los Angeles in the movie was actually set in one of the present slums of Mexico City. The reality of health care faced by the masses is brilliantly portrayed by an emergency room scene likely not that different from those in many poor countries right now, and by the fact that cures for all sorts of ailments are readily available (in the movie provided by a magic, 22nd century fix-whatever-it-is-that-ails-you machine), but only on Elysium. Which is how many people around the world must now feel about the lack of available medical care, and in the U.S., where modern medical care miracles are widely distributed, for those who can afford them. But if in the U.S. you don’t have health insurance, fuhgeddaboudit.
The cops are vicious, violent, automatons (not that all present cops are, but there are plenty like them). Max’s “parole officer” is a sappy automaton, in function probably much like certain members of that profession in real life, now. “Homeland Security” is ever-present (as it is becoming more so, now). The “Defense Secretary,” Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster, is a vicious, scheming Dick Cheney-like character for whom “defense” is primarily against all the people left behind on Earth. She can see events on Earth that might present some kind of threat to her realm, in real time (and the NSA is already checking out the technology available to her). And she uses working class traitors to help her keep the working class oppressed. Then there is workplace reality faced by the movie’s hero, Max, brilliantly played by Matt Damon. You see it all: speed-up, unions long gone, no occupational health and safety regulations, minimal pay for dangerous work, the foreman clearly acting as an intermediate oppressor, the boss of it seated in a sealed container overseeing the shop floor, but not wanting to even smell it, much less descend onto it. And so on and so forth.
Blomkamp does present a vision of what Earth could look like in the future, and not necessarily 140 years in the future, with global warming already wreaking havoc and capitalism becoming ever more ferociously profit-centered. What we need next is how this all is going to be prevented. Since that is going to take leading parties and the next generation of socialist revolutions around the world, don’t expect to find that story in a Hollywood movie.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS, is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at the School of Medicine, Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books on health policy, health and wellness, and sports and regular exercise.