There is an evil maniac cyborg named Kruger in “Elysium.” He has robot arms, spine, and torso like Matt Damon, but he also has soldier training, a sword, and guns that shoot bombs that change direction mid-air and stick to guys. Kruger even has a pair of loyal minions for Damon to fight before their ultimate good-versus-evil showdown.
Except Kruger isn’t the real evil in “Elysium.” He’s the spice, but not the meat. The real evil of “Elysium” is society. This gets to the essence of what science fiction is, and why “Elysium” is great.
Science fiction has a function. Consider “1984.” In June, Americans learned of a top-secret government surveillance program called “PRISM,” which allows the National Security Agency to monitor Americans’ electronic communications. This has been a scandal. Not so much of a scandal, but still relevant here, is what’s happening presently in the tiny country Yemen. The United States has bombed Yemen at least nine times in less than two weeks.
I swear I don’t bring this up because I’m a liberal know-it-all complainer. I bring this up because of “1984.” When the news about PRISM leaked, sales of George Orwell’s sci-fi classic increased 4,000 percent. Which makes sense. Orwell’s book is about a dystopian future in which people live under an oppressive surveillance state perpetually at war.
We don’t live under the thumb of Big Brother. Our old newspapers are not being revised to change history. But science fiction takes place in the future for a reason. Orwell wasn’t saying, “This is what you’re doing.” He was saying “This is what’s going to happen if you keep doing what you’re doing.” He’s presenting the follow-through.
“Elysium” takes place 150 years in the future. The rich have left Earth and live on a vast, beautiful space station called Elysium. They have machines that quickly cure any sickness, including cancer. Meanwhile, Earth is a slum of unpaved roads and junked skyscrapers. The parents of mortally sick children will sometimes pay a futuristic coyote-type dude to send them to Elysium on “undocumented ships,” so they can try to find a health-care machine. The trip is incredibly dangerous, though, because missile security on Elysium is tight and powerful.
I have never forgotten this quote by Walt Minnick in an episode of the podcast “This American Life” called “Take the Money and Run for Congress”: “We pay—old people, young people, people needing a new cancer drug—pay eight or 10 times as much in America as they do in any other country. And that is directly a function of the amount of money the pharmaceutical industry has poured into congressional campaigns of members of both parties.”
And then there’s this, from the New York Times: “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the ‘negative consequences’ of the country’s high levels of pay inequality. . . . The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might mean less stable economic expansions and sluggish growth.”
And what might that mean if nothing changes over the next 150 years?
(When I was on the corruption beat at Independent Source PAC last year, I wrote about an education study out of Arizona State University: “In the USA if you scale states from those that are more equal in income distribution (for example Utah, New Hampshire and Iowa) to those that are much more unequal in the distribution of income (for example Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi) a strong trend appears. Dropout rates are much higher in the more unequal states (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Poverty and a lack of hope for a good future take their toll on youth in the more unequal states and students drop out of school at high rates. This costs our society a great deal of money through increased need for public assistance by these youth, the loss of tax revenues from their work, and the higher likelihood of their incarceration. Inequality and the poverty that accompanies it take a terrible toll.”)
This is not a fun topic. If fact, I may be typing these words for no one, since I can totally imagine a reader saying “Dude, I thought this was about ‘Elysium,’ not liberal bullshit.” If you’re still reading, many thanks.
But this is where we get back to the cyborgs. “Elysium” has a message about health-care greed and income inequality, but it also has cyborgs fighting robots. It has amazing weapons and a truly memorable, crazy villain. The director Neill Blomkamp is a master of staging sci-fi action, and he obviously wants the experience of watching this movie to be an entertaining one-and-a-half hours for his audience.
In that sense, “Elysium” succeeds wonderfully. Matt Damon makes an awesome unlikely cyborg action hero.
But then amidst the rousing technical thrills is a message. “Elysium” artfully expresses where society might be headed if income inequality swells unchecked for the next century and a half. We can consider what it has to say, or we can just watch Matt Damon parry sword strikes and throw desperate hydraulic-driven punches into the crazed face of Kruger. Either way, “Elysium” is great. Taken as a whole, it’s an amazing work of science fiction.