Elysium is named for a Greek myth – a place that existed in the heavens where only those favoured by the gods were allowed to dwell. In his latest film director Neill Blomkamp pictures it as a fabulously luxurious space station that only the world’s richest might hope to inhabit. It seems like another of science fictions extremes … until you realise that this particular orbital platform might just as easily have been called The West.
Elysium is the long awaited second feature from the creative mind that brought us District 9. In similar fashion Blomkamp sets a science fiction stage to tell his audience some home truths. The year is 2154 and the continued plundering of the earth’s resources has resulted in a junkyard surface where 95% of the world’s population live in abject poverty. Life among the stars for the wealthy elite is radically different. The artificial habitat Elysium is like an exclusive resort where, like the myth, its inhabitants lead a blessed and happy life. Their whims are catered for and protected by an army of robots and, most importantly, they enjoy perfect health with access to technology that can cure every sickness imaginable.
It’s at this point that Blomkamp starts drawing parallels between his 22nd century fantasy and our 21st century reality. Refugees from earth are desperate enough to commit every cent they have to an illegal shuttle rides to the space station. Most perish along the way; many because of the defenses put in place by unfeeling hearts at the other end. The main goal is not economic advantage but a chance to get their children the healing they can’t obtain in earth’s slums. This is where Matt Damon enters the story as a lowly robotic technician named Max who will risk everything for medical reasons of his own. Striking a deal with the people smugglers, he’s prepared to have an advanced exo-skeleton grafted to his body in order to carry out a job that will pay his way. But in the end his simple effort to obtain a better life may result in the toppling of an entire oppressive system.
Elysium is a relentlessly paced science fiction thriller with special effects well worth the price of admission. However this velocity comes at a cost and it lacks the human heart of District 9. To be honest, I actually thought the story’s premise to be just that bit too improbable even for science fiction – that the world would somehow allow such a tiny number of people to keep to themselves every good thing it had to offer. But then I did a little digging and began to wonder whether the director had been conservative in his estimates.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who considers themselves to be ‘super rich’. However the bottom half of the world’s adult population holds around 1% of its total wealth. On the other end of the scale, 81% of the world’s wealth is held by less than 0.1% of its population. At the close of the 20th century this wealth was concentrated among the G8 and Western industrialized nations, and Australians rank highly amongst those lucky few. Our GDP currently ranks 12th in the world and the average Aussie has the 9th highest annual wage on the planet. We may not be sitting pretty in a space station but we enjoy what most of the rest of the world hasn’t even dreamed of.
I remember working in Uganda once on a World Vision documentary and being asked by a boy there what my home was like. His entire family lived in a single room that had bare concrete for a floor and no glass in the windows. I wasn’t sure he could even conceive of what it might mean to have a room to sit in and another to watch TV, as well as personal a room for everyone in the house and a ‘spare room’ just in case people decided to drop by. I might as well have been trying to describe Elysium.
Elysium is in fact the sort of afterlife humanity would design were it given charge of Heaven – one that measured its inhabitants’ happiness by home much their blessings exceed someone else’s. Sadly our Creator, the definitive expert on human happiness, only gets a proxy roll in this film. A young Max is told by a nun that though there is a higher power at work, it won’t do much more than point him in the right direction:
“Sometimes we don’t understand why things are the way they are. But I know one thing for certain: you are special and one day you will do something very important.”
And that’s where the film drifts back to fiction. Blomkamp has done a great job diagnosing the problem but his high-powered, even violent solution is hardly going to bring about his happy conclusion in the real world. Yes, we all have our part to play but the ‘very important’ action to relieve our poverty is one that is too great for us. Wealth needs redistribution on this planet because hearts need correction. And God opens Heaven to anyone who will allow Him to carry out the procedure.
Release Date: August 15 Watch Now: Nights Presenter Laura Bennett takes you to the Elysium red carpet Premiere.