Neil Blomkamp seems to have cast himself as a master of the dystopian society. In District 9 we watched Wikus van de Merwe (portrayed by Shalto Copley) as a naïve dupe of the rich and powerful. District 9 was itself a film adaptation of a short-film of Blomkamp’s, Alive in Joburg. Blomkamp’s other works have offered equally dystopian looks into the near future, or how the disparities in the lives of the well-to-do differ from the lives of the vast majority of the world’s population who barely get by. And like all of Blomkamp’s work, the ending is somewhat bittersweet.
Elysium is where Blomkamp takes this trend to extremes that many might claim to be implausible, yet they mirror our current reality. Blomkamp has made no secret of the fact that his works are allegories.
In Elysium Sharlto Copley returns as another patsy of the rich and powerful, a cyborg mercenary by the name of Kruger. But this time, instead of being a naïve dupe, Copley’s Kruger is knowingly kowtowing to the wealthy in order to simply raise himself above the rest of the refuse on the Earth; oblivious to anyone’s needs but his own. Many other characters in the movie show similar selfishness, even those who seem to be aspiring to help the entire population of the withered planet have supremely selfish motives.
At least until Max da Costa (Matt Damon) has a mishap on the job, working to build the very robots that have put the entire planet out of a job (an irony that human labor has become so worthless that it is apparently more expensive to have robots building the robots rather than humans – is this a form of “Social Welfare” or just a mistake on the part of Blomkamp?). Max finds himself with only a few days to live. Max, it appears, has a colored past, being a reformed criminal, trying to make his way in this oppressive society. So he seeks out his former employer, a criminal boss, who controls most of the underground trade in technology (consisting mostly of trying to smuggle people onto Elysium, not to live there, but simply so that they can make temporary use of the medical technologies available on the space station, before they are either killed as illegal immigrants, or rounded up and deported back to the polluted and dying Earth) so that he might find a way to Elysium to fix his problem.
The movie explores many themes, and shows technologies which, while staggeringly advanced, look more like something we are likely to see in the next 20 to 50 years, not 150 years from now. And these technologies seem to be merely props to support the main message:
If we do not do something about the increasing inequality, then even this magic technology isn’t going to save humanity, but only those few with either the wealth or power to access such technologies.
Obviously, there is rather a heated debate among people of all walks and ideologies about this possibility, with some claiming that these technologies will usher in a utopian age of plenty (funny how all of those making this argument seem to be people who are surprisingly well off, and or powerful, or, like Kruger, those who worship wealth, hoping to feed on the scraps that fall of the table), and others warning that these technologies could mean the end of all life (or at least human life).
Yet Blomkamp is not arguing either of these. Obviously, these technologies do, in the movie, create a utopia. Yet at the same time, they created social and economic inequality that is far worse than any to ever have existed.
Many have opined that Elysium is Blomkamp’s take on the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It would probably be more accurate to say that Blomkamp is addressing the concerns raised by many organizations, such as the IEET (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies).
Blomkamp does come across rather heavy handed in his portrayal of the wealthy, which many have criticized (although, having grown up in this sort of culture, I instantly recognized different characters from the movie as either relatives or colleagues from my youth), but even if his portrayal of wealth and power are caricatures, the effects of current policies do seem to be exacerbating the problems, and not alleviating them. And, to be fair, many of the wealthy and powerful in the movie do have good intentions, they are just so entwined in the power structure that they are helpless to change things without risking status or their comfortable existence.
If nothing else Elysium forces this discussion in a way that past movie messages have not so clearly made explicit. And regardless of any personal feelings about the allegory involved in this story, the movie is a stunning work of art, showing technologies that are on the cusp of realization (Homayoon Kazerooni’s HULC exoskeleton, for instance, will one day become the same as those used in the movie by Max and Kruger), and that will radically change our world in some fashion. How it will change it seems to be the question Blomkamp is really asking.