How depressing is “Elysium”?

Of course I was going to see Elysium: it’s got Matt Damon in it, and I love science fiction. The movie’s world is divided vividly and cynically into haves and have-nots—the spinning satellite Elysium, a vacuously authoritarian offworld oligarchy, and an Earth inhabited by the oppressed 99%.  The movie ends (WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS) on a generally egalitarian note, with the humiliation of Elysium and a promise of magical free health care for at least some of the masses.

The movie’s most powerful political charge is probably the simple one of sympathy for the suffering—one of Dickens’s favorite didactic tricks.  The allegorical connection between America and Elysium sharpens the critical kick, since most of the movie was filmed in Mexico City, which stands in, Blade-Runner-style, for a degenerate future Los Angeles. This makes the depictions of impoverished and desperate Elysium-bound illegal immigrants shot out of the skies, or sickened workers cast off by a system that makes them politically invisible, all the more shameful. Do you remember a time when the thought of America as an oligarchy was outlandish and unrealistic?—because if that was ever the case, it isn’t any more. Worst of all, you can’t feel sympathy for anyone on Elysium, since their/our inherited privilege makes them blind and cruel.

Of course the plot makes some of this dire scenario bearable.  One sick girl—like Oliver Twist—gets saved. Matt Damon is awesome and noble. And the revolutionaries “succeed,” at least in magically rebooting the satellite’s “systems.” But then you think—so what comes next? and the ending starts to turn against itself.

We’re not given any backstory about the reason why Earth got so dirty and depressing, except for “overpopulation” and resource scarcity.  Was it that resources declined, and THEN the 1% retreated to maintain their lifestyle; or was it that capitalist contradictions finally immiserated the masses, siphoning all the profits to a wealthy elite? The latter version is actually more hopeful, since it lies within human control to change. But otherwise, you have to wonder whether Jodie Foster’s character (a rogue SecDef) isn’t right to want to maintain the borders of Elysium at any cost.  Earth seems to offer nothing to Elysium: no pastoral innocence, no hard-working engineers, no close-knit families—nothing but an endless vista of need.  Maybe at one point an egalitarian society could have been saved by a charitably redistributionist tweak to the tax code (hint, hint!) but the world depicted in the movie needs more wealth than looting a single offworld satellite can give it.

The bleakness and spiritual emptiness of both Earth and Elysium is part of the movie’s aesthetic coherence, and its social criticism, but it also makes the prospect of lasting change unreal. Nothing motivates the “revolutionaries”—a band of criminal hackers and human traffickers—except for the possibility of taking what the Elysians built. If this were Dune, at least there’d be a Mahdi, or a drug, or a religion creating some broad social movement to make the revolution interesting. But absent any imaginative historical or conceptual context to the marauders’ raid, it seems pretty clear that their breakthrough will simply be undone the next time Elysium’s “makers” reboot the system.

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