[This is a guest post by Matt Faherty, an undergraduate history major at the University of Chicago.]
Before I describe Elysium, let me preface my review by saying that on the whole I enjoyed the movie. It was aesthetically beautiful, and despite some directing issues, Neil Blompkamp is a visionary creator who could become a great film maker over his next few movies. This review primary concerns my evaluation of the philosophical and political ideas promoted either explicitly or implicitly in the movie, and despite my criticisms, I still recommend seeing the movie on its aesthetic value alone.
Please be aware of a SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review: I’ll be giving away the plot. Also, for clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to the movie as “Elysium” (with italics) and the orbital platform within the movie as “Elysium” (no italics).
Elysium takes place in 2154. Earth is now “polluted and overpopulated,” etc. so that everyone on Earth lives in poverty. Most of the movie takes place in Los Angeles, which looks like the poorest parts of Mexico with bits of super advanced technology thrown in. At some point the wealthiest people in the world have retreated to an orbital space platform called Elysium where almost all of the super technology available to human beings is hoarded for the exclusive benefit of the rich. One such technology is a machine which heals any ailment in seconds, including cancer and paralysis.
Elysium is a straw man depiction of the lives of the rich. It looks like something dreamed up by a paranoid leftist wanna-be novelist. It gloms together stereotypical 1950s America, gated communities, and Occupy Wall Street literature into an absurd picture of opulence and “greed.”
Nearly everyone in Elysium is white, except for the Indian president and maybe one black person in the background. They all wear super clean, fancy, lightly colored clothes complemented by tightly done-up hair (which is nearly always blonde). In virtually every scene where we see non-governmental citizens of Elysium, they either appear to be at an upscale party, or swimming in their personal pools. They speak a mixture of haughtily-accented English and French and always use big words with impeccable articulation.
The Earthlings get by as best as they can but all dream of someday somehow getting to Elysium. In response, Elysium sets up strict anti-immigration measures directed by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who literally shoots immigrant space ships out of the sky.
Max (Matt Damon) is an ex-con working in a robotics factory run by an Elysian. He has a work place accident and is left with mortal wounds which give him five days to live. In desperation, he goes to his mafia immigrant-smuggling friend who agrees to give Max a ticket to Elysium (and use the healing machine) in exchange for pulling off a risky criminal job. Meanwhile, Delacourt plots a coup against the Elysium government because she believes they are too soft on immigrants and are risking Elysium’s safety. Max’s job coincidentally complicates her plans, and so she unleashes Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a psychopathic agent on earth, to hunt Max down and recover some sensitive data he is holding.
- The Rich get rich at the expense of the Poor.
- The Poor are poor because the Rich hoard the wealth they have.
- Closed borders are evil.
- Health care is a human right.
- Sacrifice is good.
In Elysium it is implied that the people of earth are impoverished because the people in Elysium are wealthy. The audience is constantly presented with contrasting scenes of the two habitats. We see children playing in landfills on Earth followed immediately by socialites drinking champagne on Elysium. We see the perfectly polished mansions in Elysium and then Max’s shack on Earth. We are obviously supposed to say, “Wait, there is something wrong here. Elysium has all of this luxury and wealth while the Earthlings struggle to barely get by in squalor. Clearly there is an injustice at work.”
HUGE SPOILER: At the end of the movie, Max hacks the computer which runs Elysium’s robotic law enforcement and infrastructure and registers all of earth’s population as full Elysian citizens. This causes the system to automatically send spaceships to earth full of healing machines to save the earthlings from all of their ailments. This is treated as the answer to the injustice. The wealth gap is solved when the Rich are forced to share their wealth with the Poor.
This last scene represents the classic anti-capitalist fantasy. Progressives look at the Rich and the Poor in the world today and conclude that there is something wrong with the Rich and what made them rich, rather than the Poor and what made them poor. They see the problem of poverty as one of inequality and distribution, rather than production and independence.
This is not to say that wealth inequality is always a result of honest capitalist dealings. The wealth inequality in Venezuela or sub-Saharan Africa is largely a result of theft, not production. Is the inequality in Elysium due to (good) production inequality or (evil) legal inequality? I have no idea. One of Elysium’s most subversive tricks is that it doesn’t bother addressing this question in any way. Rather, it glosses over these details and lets the audience use its imagination to fill in the blanks with implied evil acts committed against the poor earthlings by the wealthy Elysians.
Elysium sets up a thought experiment to validate its political claims. But the thought experiment involves so many gaps, and makes so little coherent sense, that it is rendered entirely nonsensical and meaningless as a vehicle for social commentary.
What is really baffling is that we never actually see how the Rich on Elysium got or stay rich. We almost never see anyone on Elysium doing any work, except for bureaucrats, politicians, military agents, and two thuggish government scientists.
Who grows the food in space? Who built those massive mansions? Who manages the equipment necessary to run a huge space station? Who cuts the impeccable lawns? What are these people doing when they aren’t swimming or hanging out at cocktail parties? The answer to at least a few of these question is: robots. We see human sized robots doing some labor, but that still leaves the question of who builds and designs these robots.
The robots are built on earth by earthlings in massive corporate factories run by Elysians. We see Max and other Earthlings filing into grimy industrial factories to build the robots that serve the Elysians and preserve the law on earth. This is meant to evoke comparisons to sweat shops, where the Elysians represent the greedy capitalist Westerners who use cheap third world labor to make all of their cool toys.
As genuine capitalists know, the employer-employee relationship is based on the trader principle. The Elysian robot business gets its robots and the Earthling employees get money. Clearly Earth and Elysium are gaining from this interaction. We are never given the population figures for Elysium, but the space station appears to be massive, so surely there are quite a lot of robots to build. This means that Elysium must be pumping a lot of money into Earth, yet we never seem to see anyone on Earth with any significant level of wealth aside from the criminals.
Maybe that’s because Earth has a massive population compared to Elysium so the Elysians can pay the Earthlings low wages. That may be plausible, but it brings up the single biggest hole in the entire thought experiment: For the whole movie, all of the earthlings try to get to Elysium while the Elysians try to keep the earthlings out of Elysium. Why doesn’t anyone just try to make earth more like Elysium?
The movie never attempts to make even a bad argument as to why the Elysians don’t voluntarily trade their technology to earth. There are a lot of earthlings, and even if they aren’t rich, they still demand food, drink, healthcare, housing, etc. With super-productive robot workers and the technology powerful enough to launch and manage Elysium, surely the Elysians could set up countless profitable ventures on earth which make both themselves and the earthlings wealthy.
A potential objection to this argument is that the Elysians are so wealthy that they wouldn’t care to take the effort to help the poor.
This argument doesn’t make sense, either in reality or in the movie. In reality, human desires are infinite. No matter how nice their mansions and robot servants are—the robots actually look pretty ugly—there are always bigger and better things to strive for. There is also the factor of personal productivity; even the Elysians must get bored of going to up-scale parties and swimming. In the movie, the head of the major robot company (William Fichtner) is very concerned about keeping his job and his company, even to the point of supporting a coup when it looks like he is about to lose a government contract. Assuming he isn’t an anomaly, the Elysians must have aspirations beyond lazing about in Eden.
What about the costs? Can only the biggest companies afford an Elysium-to-Earth venture? No. We see space ships fly back and forth in what seems like a matter minutes and at little apparent cost. Even scrappy black-market smugglers are able to come up with multiple transport ships.
This point becomes blatantly obvious at the end of the movie when the ships carrying the miraculous medical machines fly down to earth. When they arrive, they open the doors to reveal rows of the machines guarded by armed robots. The Earthlings file in to use the machines. Well, that was easy.
Why weren’t the Elysians doing that before? Like the space transport, the machines appear to have almost no cost per use (probably just energy and maintenance). They heal any wound, so the earthlings would doubtlessly be willing to pay for them (especially since we see them giving their life savings to gangsters just to get on a smuggling ship to Elysium which might be shot out of the sky). Even purely from a charity angle, the costs are so miniscule that you have to wonder why there aren’t any benevolent Elysians who loan out their healing machines on the weekends.
Again, these issues are made irrelevant by the film’s assumptions about the ultimate evil—its rich person straw man. The Rich are rich because they are greedy and hoard everything. Why do they hoard everything, even though investing and trading their wealth and technology has tremendous benefits, and in this case, little cost? The movie provides no answer.
This idea is also embodied in Elysium by immigration. The evil, rich Elysians block all immigration from earth even though the poor, desperate earthlings are just trying to survive.
In my view, national borders should not be closed to anyone accept criminals. If an individual wants to live in a place where he has been invited or has an implicit right to go to, then so be it. Nobody, governmental or otherwise, should have a right to stop him. Furthermore, immigration provides great benefits to both the immigrants and the home countries. The immigrants go to places which need labor and increase economic production. This leads to lower prices and a higher standard of living for everyone. Meanwhile, the immigrants get jobs and an economic and legal environment which is presumably superior to their old environment.
The makers of Elyisum agree that closed borders are wrong, but they never give a good reason why. Instead they present the evil, rich straw man Elysians as greedy while the innocent earthlings simply declare it to be their right to go to Elysium.
We see the Elysian government appoint a hardcore conservative defense minister who uses psychotic thugs to kill immigrants on sight. At one point, Delacourt explains why she is so hard on immigration (paraphrasing here): “We have built so much wealth for our children, and we can’t let it be destroyed.” Admittedly, this is an argument wielded by modern day anti-immigration conservatives around the world.
In contrast, we see the desperate Earthlings risk their lives to get to Elysium. In an early scene, the smuggler-gangsters launch three immigrant-filled ships to Elysium. Two ships are shot down but one makes it, at which point the earthlings sprint to the nearest house to use their miracle medical machine.
At no point in the movie does anyone posit that it might actually be good for Elysium to get immigrants. Maybe it would be cheaper to hire an Earthling to mow the lawn instead of buying an expensive robot. Likewise, no Earthlings ask why they have the right to use force to invade Elysium to trespass upon and rob from the Elysians. In fact, the climax of the film consists of the head gangster committing cyber-warfare against Elysium as he hijacks its entire government to force Elysium to provide medical aid to earth. Basically, the Earthlings commit a coercive government overthrow followed by mass-theft.
The issues of rights and trade are completely neglected in this film. Instead we are presented with the classic leftist fantasy: the Rich are evil and greedy so they don’t want to share; the Poor are noble and unfortunate and therefore have the right to take what they want from the Rich.
What if we take a step back and look at the moral paradigm set up in Elysium?
First we have the wealthy Elysians. They are portrayed as callous, greedy, evil cowards who hoard their wealth. The implicit suggestion in the movie is that the Elysians should sacrifice themselves for the poor Earthlings. At no point does anyone on either side say the Elysians should trade with the earthlings for mutual benefit; the implicit claim is that the Elysians should just sacrifice their wealth and safety for the sake of others. A good Elysian is a self-immolator.
Then we have the Earthlings. They are portrayed as scrappy, destitute, and helpless as they struggle to survive. The implicit suggestion in the movie is that the Earthlings have a right violently to take what they want from the Elysians by virtue of the wealth gap. At no point do the Earthlings argue that immigration can be mutually beneficial; the implication is that they should overrun Elysium for their own sake. A good Earthling is a parasitic thug.
If art is supposed to be selective recreation of reality based on the artist’s metaphysical premises—as Ayn Rand suggested in The Romantic Manifesto—then Elysium fails as art. The rich vs. poor paradigm is set up in the movie by ignoring fundamental facts about reality (especially economics and rights). The film purposefully leaves gaps in the canon to avoid the subtleties of these arguments and shoehorn its egalitarian message in.
Yes, the movie is aesthetically beautiful, but its moral premises are blatantly irresponsible and maybe even dishonest in their approach.