Elysium, the newly released sci-fi film from 33-year old director Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon as the proletarian hero Max, is not to me an escapist artwork. Instead, I believe Elysium to lie within the contemporary genre which we might call “art of the transition”—that is, which depicts the struggles and various contradictions and negations of the ongoing historical shift away from capitalism and rampant social brutality. (Other prominent recent examples from the world of film I would include in this line would be Children of Men, Blomkamp’s very own District 9, Avatar, and the Matrix, among others.) Invoking (and inverting) a trope seen in classic sci-fi art works like Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which contrast social conditions on an emancipated anarchist planetary body (Anarres/Mars) versus those seen on the capitalist-totalitarian Earth or its stand-in (Urras, in LeGuin’s world), Elysium is a revolutionary slice of life from the seemingly-apocalyptical landscape of Los Angeles in 2154—wherein generalized impoverishment and oppression are starkly present, reminiscent of “Baghdad” (says Damon)—which contrasts with the orbiting space-station Elysium, home to the affluent and capitalist overlords. While on Elysium there any many green, open spaces, with mansions adorned by pools and maintained by robot servants, Earth-dwellers inhabit a veritable hell. That the Earth scenes were filmed in a landfill in Mexico City (reportedly the second-largest in the world), with the Elysium scenes shot in Vancouver, BC, speaks clearly to the types of inequalities Blomkamp concerns himself with in his new work.
I do not wish to spoil too much of the film’s plot, so as not to degrade the experience of those others who have not yet seen it. Yet, briefly, to explain: Max, the protagonist and hero, is a presumably orphaned child raised by Mexican (or Central American?) nuns who comes to land a job working assembly-line production of robot police-units after having done time for stealing private property for a few years. As in George Lucas’s THX-1138—Lucas’s very first and his most anti-authoritarian work, which I would claim directly inspired Max’s assembly-line occupation in Elysium—disabling accidents take place at the workplace, with no accountability processes in place to check managers and upper administration. Max falls victim to such a workplace accident, due to negligence and pressure from his overseer—who flatly warns Max that, if the latter refuses to perform the risky maneuver, he will demand Max’s resignation and easily replace him with any number of other prospective workers, to be called up from the mass labor-army reserve. Following this negative turn of events, and with mere days to live, Max tries desperately to find a way aboard Elysium, where seemingly every building famously contains a highly advanced therapeutic machine which can free the body of all ailment and disease. To get Max onto Elysium is a difficult demand to fulfill—as Max’s clandestine/criminal electronics collaborator Julio knows well, various spacecraft carrying wounded and ill Earth-humans have been incinerated by the capitalist security forces as their desperate voyages approached Elysium’s perimeter.
To observe the scenes from the Elysium station—particularly those involving Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster)—is to confront legitimate depictions of the closely-knit ties binding the most privileged to State repression. Blomkamp is certainly presenting a left-wing account of politics here, with the wealthy minority turning ever-increasingly to fascist means to uphold their privilege—a tendency observed last century by Herbert Marcuse, as by Chris Hedges in the present one! On the other side of the dialectic, a veritable revolutionary humanism informs the struggle-from-below shown in the Earth scenes, as symbolized most centrally in Max’s journey from proletarian to disabled ex-worker and artificially augmented revolutionary militant. In positive (and realistic) terms, the Earth-based opposition we see in the film is ethnically diverse—mostly Latin@, with Max as the exception—as against the white-washed country club of Elysium. Unfortunately, a specifically feminist critique of the hegemonic oppression depicted in Elysium is largely lacking—Delacourt, at the top, coordinates the Elysium station’s “defensive measures” against incoming “undocumented” space-flights of refugees from Earth (thus depicting “liberal feminism”), while the only other female lead, Frey, is a nurse and mother who, other than for helping to heal a wound incurred by Max in his escape, is largely passive in her roles.
The film provides a great opportunity to reflect on prevailing power relations, and how it is that they might project into a future like that shown in Elysium. While the film’s course does not directly examine the historical turns and negations which led Earth into near-total oppression, with the physical separation of the ruling class into an orbiting station—the film is not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which dedicated two episodes to a time-warp to Earth which takes the crew to a time just before a popular uprising by the poor, which would ineluctably pave the way for the transition beyond capitalism and the founding of the Federation—it viscerally demonstrates to the audience how that likely did arise: through militarized, unchecked exploitation of the Earth and its working classes by the vampiric capitalist class. Dialectically, in its presentation of globalized (and extra-terrestrialized) solidarity and resistance to the machine—and particularly in Max’s impressive strength and combat skills, as exercised against the guardians of the system—Elysium also advances an anti-statist, internationalist message which speaks to the revocability of given oppressive power relations. In this way, the film explores an important set of principles that arguably correspond to present and future hope for the human race: mass-struggle, as through the multitude.
So then, assuming the rule of Elysium is indeed overthrown and the formerly privatized advanced medical technologies socialized (I will not say whether the terrestrial proletarians are victorious in the end), the question arises: what would the peoples of Earth decide to do? How would they respond? Would they also socialize production on Earth and fairly redistribute the concentrated wealth previously held by the overlords of Elysium? Would they collectively decide to dedicate significant resources to address the catastrophic ecological changes wrought on Earth by the capitalist system—insofar as this is possible? As a first act, they would doubtlessly abolish the gross inequalities separating Elysium from Earth.
To contemplate the prospect of overthrowing the neo-feudal powers-that-be, as Elysium helps us to do, is an exciting prospect. Regardless of what Blomkamp feels he must say so as not to alienate potential investors in his future films (“It’s just human nature” that “the gap between rich and poor on Earth will simply get worse and worse, no matter how hard we try to change it”), to watch Elysium might perhaps serve to strengthen one’s hopes for and commitment to the successful future anti-capitalist revolution.
Hopefully it will not take until 2154 to achieve.
Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.