If there’s injustice then the Hollywood answer is to look for an individual hero to come up with the solution. This is merely a variation on the Christ story from the Bible where the oppressed are just sitting and waiting for someone to lead them into paradise. All that’s needed is a brave, fearless and self-sacrificing individual to come to the fore. This is basically the theme of the film Elysium.
Sometimes they chose themselves, sometimes they fall into the role by accident, sometimes they start off with selfish motives only to realise, during the struggle, that what they are really fighting for is the common good, often with a Damascene conversion event that tips him/her (although it must be said that the Christ as woman is the exception rather than the norm) over to the bright side.
We also have this repeated in the historical, political context. Auguste Blanqui in France in the 19th and Che Guevara in 20th centuries are merely modern equivalents of the Christ Redeemer. All right, they might have had good intentions but they got it entirely wrong. When such like movements have been able to gather a reasonable amount of support they inevitably end up being destroyed, with a greater or lesser loss of life. The movement in general suffers a set back, sometimes for a generation or more, and the ruling class are able to parade the dead body of the ‘messiah’ to show their foolishness and the futility of bucking the system.
Blanqui lived long enough to see the real way forward with the attempt of the Parisian working class to seize political and economic power in the Commune of 1871. It failed and tens of thousands paid the ultimate price of daring to challenge capitalism, but that failure was taken on board by Lenin who used the negative lessons to ensure the same didn’t happen during the October Revolution of 1917. Guevara’s body was thrown into the Bolivian jungle from a helicopter so that his grave wouldn’t become a place of pilgrimage and a possible rallying point for revolutionaries in the future. And the commercialism of his image in the almost 50 years since his death has had the effect of diminishing whatever revolutionary position he might have held.
Elysium also brings up another issue that plays in dominant role in 21st century society. That is the one that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’. We see a flash back of the young hero looking up at this huge ideal place in inner space – close enough for the poor left on Earth to be taunted but far enough away so that they pose a limited threat. The accumulation of filth and pollution has made the planet an undesirable place to live for the rich and powerful and they have chosen to live in the present day equivalent of a gated community, where life can go on with the problems and distress of the vast majority of the population ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
(Here it might be worthwhile stating that the original idea of Elysium (or the Elysian Fields) comes from Greek mythology and it was a conception of the afterlife reserved for mortals related to the Gods – so not a place reserved for most of us! In fact, even dreaming about going to such a place is as meaningless as the promises given by all religions which was parodied in the popular song of the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) and written by Joe Hill in 1911. This song had a famous line which promised ‘Pie in the sky, when you die.’)
Those living in the slums which, in 2154 when the film is set, cover the whole of the planet, seek to get to this paradise which they can see every day (presumably only just through the thick layers of atmospheric pollution which over-population and lack of care for the environment has created over all the cities). They risk all, their wealth – which they hand over to gangsters to enable they to even make an attempt to reach the New Jerusalem, and their lives when they are the target of the missiles which are sent to blow them to smithereens when they get too close. This is an obvious reference to the way that immigrants risk all to get to countries they see as a better life opportunity than the countries in which they were born.
That’s not the problem with the film. It’s a clear allegory about present day society and what is happening all around us, in all parts of the world. That is the intention of the film-makers, their ‘good’ intentions in making a critique about the injustice that exists in the world, even more so in these days of ‘austerity’ when the brunt of the most recent economic crisis is being borne by the poor and the rich are getting even richer. (They even film in an existing shanty town of Mexico City – so the image of a future world of deprivation is already a reality for millions of people.) The problem with the film is the facile way in which it suggests the issues of inequality and injustice are to be resolved.
Immigrants have always got the dirty end of the stick. They leave their homes to go into an unknown. When they get to the place of their dreams, or even on the way, they are discriminated against, abused and robbed. (The reason there’s such a large population of Irish descendants in the Liverpool area is not because their ancestors chose to settle here, they were robbed of their meagre wealth by smart-arsed wide boys and they were stuck with nowhere else to go.) In present day Britain politicians of all political hues are out doing each other on the immigrant card, pandering to the lowest common denominator in the British population and similar is happening in Australia, all in preparation for upcoming elections and the thirst for power and having nothing to do with a considered policy on the international movement of people. And that’s not to mention the building of a barrier hundreds of miles long to prevent Latin Americans from crossing the Rio Grande and entering the ‘land of freedom and opportunity – bypassing the Statue of Liberty.
We get a perpetuation of the myth that it’s better to move away (run away, more like) from all the issues that exist in so many countries; the pollution, the overcrowding, the limited education, the lack of opportunities, the crime, the environmental degradation, the unemployment and the soul-destroying jobs when they do exist, the problems associated with drugs and booze, the racism, the sexism, the violence and all the other negative consequences that have arisen from and thrive under a class society. To where? To a place that all these things have miraculously disappeared? But that place doesn’t exist, at least for the majority of the population, and never will unless the underlying power structures are challenged and changed fundamentally.
In the place called Elysium everything that is negative on Earth is absent. The rich just spend their days having drinks parties out in the sun, lying by the swimming pool and their every whim being pandered to by subservient robots (human servants also having been replaced by machines). It seems quite bizarre that 150 years into the future the rich are still doing the same as they do today, only a few miles up from the surface of the planet – showing that there’s certainly no real development left within the capitalist system. It also seems to follow the argument of those who deny the human effect on climate change in that all we have to do is to place all our faith in technology, but here it is clear that technological advances are only for a select few.
Yet again the we are left with the impression that the poor are responsible for their own condition, that they choose to live in the filth that surrounds them. And to an extent they are, but not in the way that the film depicts. To build something the size of a small country in space would have taken an almost unimaginable amount of resources, and the only place they could have come from would have been the planet Earth. What were the people doing when their wealth was being stolen from them over the course of many years? Why did they assist in this plundering of scare and non-renewable resources? Why did they sit back and allow themselves to be robbed of what could have made the lives of the majority more bearable? Why did they allow the creation of an exclusive society that developed technology that virtually eliminated illness and death yet left the billions on the Earth’s surface with no resources to treat everyday common illnesses, diseases and infirmities? Why did they just let the rich do what suited them and to hell with the rest?
(But we don’t have to wait 150 years before asking those questions.)
They were probably watching mind numbing reality TV shows, soap operas or films like Elysium. The same attitudes that have led to the acceptance of the situation the world finds itself in at the moment, in mid-2013, where in country after country the people are being openly robbed by capitalism and in the vast majority of cases few are really fighting against it. Throughout the world too many people are thinking that maybe, just maybe, they will win the lottery and in that way escape from the bleak future which lays ahead. They want to join the rich, not make sure the rich aren’t able to treat the rest of us as chattel and servants to their desires.
The makers of Elysium might think that by proffering a hero led revolt against the elite that they are making a social comment, which might even stir people into action, but what they have made is a film which seeks to maintain the status quo. It might provide some viewers with the same sort of good feeling that I witnessed in a showing of Aliens in 1986, when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) takes the controls of a huge machine to do battle with the Alien which raised a cheer around a packed cinema – something I’ve not experienced very often – but when they walk out the multiplex the situation will still be the same. That is, unless they forget the dream of a super hero coming to save them and get together and do the hard work of eliminating such privilege themselves – and making sure that it doesn’t return in the future.
And are we really supposed to accept that ‘the world will be turned upside down’ by the mere re-booting of a computer, however ‘super’ it might be?