Monday, August 19, 2013

Humanity On Trial: Elysium And District 9

What I liked most about Elysium is the beginning when Max (Matt Damon) is just a kid.  He dreams of someday going to Elysium.  It’s a utopia beyond the clouds.  A heaven seen from the Earth.  An escape from extreme poverty, sickness, and hopelessness.  Elysium, orbiting above a future Los Angeles in 2154, seems to be another moon, except it’s in the shape of a wagon wheel.

The top one percent have left the ruin of Earth to live in simulated perfection around this artificial ring of Eden.  Every home has a medical atomizer which detects and cures all disease, erases cancer, even reconstructs broken bones.  It’s Star Trek technology for the upper crust. 

Take a look at the trailer:

[spoilers after the jump]

I love this premise.  It’s a creative tour de force that describes a future where the rich get richer, and the poor are everyone else.  Now throw into the mix current U.S. politicians who want to build a wall to immigration and keep millions without insurance from getting health care, and this dystopian future becomes a parable about the results of such policies:  the loss of a vibrant middle class, the loss of a healthy environment, and the loss of any concept of equality.  Elysium uses extreme measures to keep out the impoverished masses.  It’s a place that hordes medical care equipment.  The “illegals,” those who still live on Earth, have no access to any of it.  Does any of this sound familiar for the impoverished in 2013?

The creative force behind this movie, Neill Blomkamp, seems to have a knack for the intersection of modern politics and science fiction.  In his previous film, District 9, he takes direct aim at South Africa’s apartheid past.

Wickus van de Merwe is tasked with evicting aliens from District 9 to a refugee camp outside Johannesburg, South Africa.  The genius of this plot is that Wickus is infected with alien DNA and begins to mutate into an alien.  He is then treated just as inhumanely as the “prawns” who are exploited by Wickus’s corporate employer.  Thus, an oppressor becomes one of the oppressed.

The villains in both these movies are unchecked corporations.  The Armadyne Corporation built Elysium and engages in unethical behavior to maintain its defense contracts.  Multinational United (MNU), on the other hand, is hired to relocate District 9’s aliens, but they have secret labs where experiments are performed on the prawns in order to unlock the workings of their technology.  Alien weapons will not work without prawn DNA.

Though I give both movies a thumbs up, I do have my disappointments.  Some of the storytelling is just too contrived.  The Elysium plot requires Max to be given just five days to live.  This is achieved with an industrial accident that irradiates his body.  The incident is 100% avoidable.  I find it improbable that an advanced manufacturing process does not have a simple failsafe to shutdown a radiation room when organic material is detected.  Moreover, do all the personal injury lawyers just disappear in the twenty-second century?  Max has a job that should be done via automation, or at least by all the advanced robots who can use weapons and engage in TSA style inspections (perhaps that’s a bit harsh to the TSA).  It’s bizarre that a robot can press a trigger, but not a button in a manufacturing process.  I have a list of such nit picks which distracted from the enjoyment of the movie, but I think I’ve made my point. 

The same disappointments are in District 9.  There’s no plausible explanation given as to why the aliens are such idiots.  I mean, for science fiction’s sake, if aliens can build advanced spaceships to traverse the galaxy, why are they exchanging advanced weapons for cans of cat food?  I’ll say no more.

Perhaps these story frustrations are intentionally inserted.   Instead of going into a mode of disbelief, I think Blomkamp wants me to me to be disturbed that Matt Damon, Hollywood golden boy, can just be dumped on the street after corporate malfeasance.  Because, even in our current world, such acts are not beyond believability.  They happen.  My iPhone is an advanced Apple product manufactured by Foxconn, and yet I didn’t want to believe a story about nets being erected at their facility to keep workers from doing suicide jumps.   

I also think Blomkamp wants me to be just as disturbed that groups of beings are ignored by the rest of the world.  My gut tells me that the Earth’s first contact with a derelict spaceship should create a worldwide response to the plight of marooned aliens.  But with District 9, the rest of the world is shut out.  We only get a narrow viewpoint where the locals call the aliens the unflattering moniker of “prawns.”  Though I found this aspect of the movie to interrupt my suspension of disbelief, it forced me to think of how clans of people are marginalized while the rest of the world does nothing.  And isn’t that the point of District 9

So to come full circle, when the super rich - who own the lions' share of corporations - are not held accountable with regulations and a more equitable distribution of wealth, the future looks grim indeed.  Should we tolerate a world where only the privileged have access to premium health care within their walled communities while the poor go without?  Elysium doesn’t think so.  It is a call to revolution, where Latino gangsters become Robin Hood stealing health care for the rest of us.  Contrived plot twists or not, these movies put the current state of humanity on trial.  And I think the verdict is not good. 

By Mark Schelske