We say you should not judge a book by its cover. However, when you have nothing else to go on, the cover will do. In film, our first impression takes shape from promotional materials, the most descriptive of which tend to be trailers.
From what we have seen so far from Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his 2009 breakout hit District 9, he appears bent on further developing that film’s none too subtle social agenda. The official synopsis of Elysium:
In the year 2154, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined planet. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the crime and poverty that is now rampant throughout the land. The only man with the chance to bring equality to these worlds is Max (Matt Damon), an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission – one that pits him against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her hard-line forces – but if he succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well.
In the trailer, we see Foster’s Delacourt order the destruction of several “undocumented” shuttles carrying illegal immigrants from Earth to Elysium. Clearly, we are meant to connect the imagery to real-life immigration scenarios. Like Cuban refuges braving a 90 mile trip in small boats for a taste of the American dream, the space-bound huddled masses of Elysium risk life and limb to escape untenable circumstances.
Added to the immigration meme, we detect the tone of Occupy Wall Street. Damon’s Max seeks to save the people of Earth and “bring equality to these worlds” through the use of force, justified by his “desperate need.” Though not overtly mentioned in the trailer, capitalism appears in the cross-hairs. An apparent industrial accident caused while in the employ of a corporate Elysium contractor, leaves Max with five days to live. The means to survive exists on the space station, medical pods which can apparently cure any illness or repair any injury. However, the only way to access one is to take on the Man.
If Blomkamp was inspired by the Occupy movement, it shows in his confused portrayal. Neither of the two worlds at odds in Elysium exist under a capitalist liberty.
The robotic police force which challenges Max at a checkpoint, assaulting him when he refuses to directly answer a question, indicates a world were individuals are not free to act upon their own judgment in pursuit of their own values. Under true capitalism, a company could not recklessly harm its employees without civil consequences, as appears to be the case when Max meets with his industrial accident.
The worst notion which appears to be portrayed in Elysium is that a people’s quality of life depends upon either excluding others, as the citizens of the space station do, or seizing the wealth of others, as Max and his earth-dwelling proletariat seek to. This idea holds enormous sway in our public policy debates, wielded by both political parties in various contexts. The vital understanding of how people create values goes largely unrecognized.
Let’s consider the world of Elysium and imagine how its problems could be truly solved. The issue of immigration to and from the space station would become moot the moment its government sought only to secure the rights of its citizens. Rather than employing a governmental agency to keep undesirables away, the property rights of citizens could be enforced, enabling them to determine with whom they want to do business. If they want to accommodate immigrants, they can. Otherwise, trespassing laws apply.
Likewise, the path to prosperity for the earth-dwelling underclass is not a violent takeover and cannibalism of Elysium, but the liberty to produce their own values in pursuit of their own happiness. In either case, as in real-life, the solution to social problems is liberty.
It would be refreshing to see that idea affirmed in a setting like that portrayed in Elysium. Given Blomkamp’s previous work, and Matt Damon’s propensity for leftist advocacy, we probably won’t get to see that here.