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Class struggle in 2154 AD: Elysium


Film review by Don Longo

(iMax 2013, Dir. Neill Blomkamp)


Nothing changes. The future is like the past, only worse. Humanity is irremediably divided. Power is in the hands of a ruthless oligarchy. Equality is forgotten. Liberty is meaningless. Highly developed technology gives life to the few but brings repression and death to the many.

The vision of the future presented by independent progressive film director Neill Blomkamp in his new film, Elysium (iMax, 2013), is a ragged sci-fi dystopia about social inequalities and class war taken to their logical extreme. By the end, however, the film is unable to sustain its message and is more convincing in its critique than in its resolution.

SF and class struggle

Science fiction has frequently been a vehicle for social commentary. Blomkamp himself used it in 2009 in his first film, District 9, which was a virulent attack on the apartheid in his native South Africa and on racism generally. But SF has a long pedigree of dramatizing social divisions and class warfare. Two famous examples will suffice: in film, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) presented a vision not unlike Blomkamp’s where hapless proles work in subterranean obscurity to provide luxuries for the privileged elite on Earth’s surface; in literature, H.G. Well’s Time Machine (1895) offers a terrifying and pessimistic prophecy about classes morphing into near-distinct species where humanity’s internecine war ends only with one class becoming food for the other.

Blomkamp’s vision

Blomkamp elaborates his political parable in the first 15 minutes of the movie and it rivals Lang’s or Wells’ in its power and audacity. It is an apocalyptic vision of the future and it is mesmerising.

Earth is a ruin, a wasteland of post-modernity, polluted beyond belief, overpopulated, inhabited by a poverty stricken proletariat living in a favela-like LA and toiling in nuclear factories under shameful conditions to provide the necessities for the wealthy. It is a picture of 3rd world desolation, physical, moral, spiritual. The fist of the state is present everywhere in the form of androids who patrol the devastated land and who speak with programmed politeness while meting out summary justice (read, death) to any rebel, real or imagined.

The wealthy elite live elsewhere, in a space station reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s wheel in 2001, with a flat inner surface full of gardens and cities where order reigns and disease and injury have been banished through healing machines called Med-Pods. Fantastic technology gives power to these ‘gods’. It is a vision of a heavenly Olympus where everyone is wealthy, clean, attractive, mostly white and frequently blond. And like today’s 1st world, it is nominally run by civil authorities but is in reality at the mercy of big corporations (represented by the CEO William Fichtner – John Carlyle) in cahoots with the military (in the figure of homeland security chief Delacourt – Jodie Foster). Any refugees from Earth who attempt to reach the space station are mercilessly destroyed by Delacourt or ruthlessly hunted down by the proto-fascist legionnaires of the regime led by Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Into these worlds comes Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a legendary car thief who did a stint in prison and now works on Earth in a ‘respectable’ but degrading job in one of the nuclear factories. An accident means that his only defence against imminent death is to get to the Med-Pod on Elysium. This goal is given further impetus when he re-establishes contact with a childhood sweetheart, Frey (Alice Braga) with a sick daughter who will die if she is not able to be cured by these same machines. To achieve this end and at the same time free the denizens of Earth from their exploitation and poverty he is assisted by Spider (Wagner Moura), a sort of people smuggler specialising in getting illegal immigrants into Elysium.

And so?…

There is no denying the power of this vision of class war in the 21st century, nor Blomkamp’s commitment to the egalitarian gospel preached in the film. And to judge by the online discussion threads relating to Elysium, the message is strongly told and unequivocally received by left- and right-wing commentators. To that extent, Blomkamp has succeeded in establishing the social cleavages that will frame the global class struggles to come. His film can still proclaim a meaningful message for that part of the Left that is still listening.

However, Elysium doesn’t achieve the grandeur of its initial premise. It shuffles between a fatalistic vision of social division and a naïve belief in social re-integration. It initially posits a class war but its resolution relies on the redemptive power of the individual hero who sacrifices himself for the community. It gives us rebels who run a refugee outfit like a business, so these 3rd world proles never really attain the class consciousness necessary for effective and lasting political change. And by the end of the film, even the potent moral value of Max’s sacrifice is lost among the detonations and pyrotechnics of routine action sequences. Thus the political parable gets lost in facile, conventional hero-worship and the shoot-‘em-up mayhem of Hollywood blockbuster conventions. The intensity of Blomkamp’s initial vision is not sustained and what could have been a great film becomes mediocre. A pity.

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