By Fazila Farouk · 4 Sep 2013
In the film Elysium, Jodie Foster’s character confidently strides into the fabulous living area of a house overlooking a superbly manicured lawn wearing an Armani suit. Foster plays Jessica Delacourt, Elysium’s Secretary of Defence. The audience immediately understands that hers is a world of wealth, privilege, excess and exclusivity.
All the signature cues marking the sophistication of the elite classes are referenced in this scene - champagne, strawberries, Foster’s character switching effortlessly between French and English. Her screen entrance is cued by the sound of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite. We ought to remember that as accessible as it has become today, the classical music of 18th century composers, such as Bach, was in fact composed for the royalty and nobles of their day. It’s a musical cue that most effectively signposts Delacourt’s status.
In Greek Mythology Elysium was a place of perfect bliss. In South African born and raised, Neil Blomkamp’s, science fiction action film set about a century-and-a-half from now, it is a space station that the rich have retreated to. They live in mansions on a gigantic spherical satellite free from want, disease and environmental hazards. They have abandoned Planet Earth, refusing, even, to breathe our air. It’s a place of extreme wealth and exclusivity - a sanctuary for the rich and a zone of exclusion for the poor.
Think of Johannesburg’s gated elite suburbs, Hyde Park and Westcliffe; imagine their fabulous mansions on an exclusive space station orbiting Earth. This is what Elysium looks like. Hyde Park Corner housing Khanyi Dhlomo’s Luminance, the high-end Burberry and Porsche fashion stores, to name but a few of the elitist and grotesquely overpriced outlets of the superrich, would fit perfectly into Elysium.
Earth, on the other hand, is a very different place. It’s been devastated by the selfishness of the absentee elites. Global warming appears to have taken its toll. People live under appalling conditions. The environment is extreme, toxic clouds of smoke hang in the atmosphere, there are no tarred roads, there is dust everywhere, services are limited, education and healthcare are virtually non-existent. Earth’s residents are poor, malnourished, largely unemployed and mentally stressed.
The film’s protagonist, Max Da Costa, an ex-convict and former car thief played by Matt Damon, finds himself working in a factory that could resemble any Chinese or South Asian factory where workers with no rights toil under shocking conditions in lockdown facilities. It is poignantly ironic that Da Costa works in a factory, which produces the very robots that patrol the planet on behalf of their masters on Elysium. These robots control Earth’s population through the strict enforcement of regulations. Their fondness for violence as a method to contain the public is fiercer than anything we’ve seen from South Africa’s trigger-happy cops.
Elysium’s plotline is thin and it’s feel-good ending simplistic. But in the battle between the haves and the have-nots, at least the have-nots are allowed to win in the fantastic celluloid fantasies of a filmmaker.
Damon’s character is exposed to an extreme dose of radiation at the factory where he works. It leaves him with cancer and just five days to live. But, he can be cured on Elysium where every home is equipped with a “med-pod” that scans and cures humans of any disease or damage. Just as there are people that stealthily smuggle immigrants across borders for huge sums of money on present-day Earth, so too, is there someone who flies Earth’s hopefuls to Elysium. Many are shot down while approaching the space station. Da Costa cuts a deal with this human smuggler, is fitted with an exoskeleton that gives him super-human strength and given the task of hijacking a rich Elysium businessman being shuttled between the planet and the space station in order to gain access to his personal data, including bank codes.
But when Da Costa downloads the data from his chosen target, he finds that he has also downloaded secret codes that can free Earth’s inhabitants from their misery. All he has to do is get onto the space station and insert the codes into the satellite’s computer mainframe to make every inhabitant of Earth a citizen of Elysium. And so begins Da Costa’s epic and action filled battle with Elysium’s Secretary of Defence, Delacourt, and her mercenary secret agent, Kruger, played by South Africa’s Sharlto Copley.
Elysium is not a warning about the future. It is about here and now. Blomkamp has said in an interview with the online magazine, I am ROGUE, "Growing up in South Africa…I knew that I wanted to make a science fiction film about the haves and the have-nots."
But we see more than South Africa’s stark inequalities in his view of 22nd century Earth, we see the collective suffering of today’s downtrodden mirrored in a future society where there is no hope.
Imagine the squatter camps of Marikana, a post-Operation Cast Lead Gaza, the Rio favelas or the migrant shantytowns that have emerged on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. They represent a hybridized version of the post-apocalyptic society the planet has become in Blomkamp’s Earth of 2154. The Earth scenes for Elysium were in fact filmed on the garbage dump of a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, Iztapalapa, a densely populated district plagued by high youth unemployment, socio-economic marginalisation, crime and drug abuse.
Blomkamp’s choice of a poor Mexican neighbourhood to portray a devastated Earth is no accident. He was once arrested in the U.S./Mexican border city of Tijuana and has experienced the vulnerability felt by Mexican immigrants walking along the American border. His movie masterfully reflects this experience.
Elysium is a movie about inequality, zones of exclusion and the privileges of the rich that are increasingly encroaching on the rights of the poor and the middle class. Indeed in Blomkamp’s futuristic Earth of 2154, there is no middle class. The middle class has basically vanished after years of growing disproportion where the privileged have simply leapfrogged into a dimension of extreme wealth and exclusivity leaving nothing behind for the rest of humanity.
Blomkamp refuses to be called out on the political meaning of his movie, but it does deal with the array of social issues rooted in today’s struggles of inequality. The right to healthcare, workers’ rights, freedom of movement and a life of dignity.
As our country and the world hurtle towards greater inequality, Blomkamp’s Elysium may not be a call to arms, but it is a call to consciousness.