Like Gattaca, the movie Elysium paints a picture of a dystopian future. Both movies explore questions of human rights and exclusion. That’s pretty much where the similarities end.
Elysium’s Social Justice Message
Elysium is unashamedly a sci-fi action flick in mainstream Hollywood tradition. It’s heroes and villians ride in guns blazing. If that’s your thing, then you’ll enjoy the ride.
If not, underneath the hero myth, it’s a movie with a serious message. It deals with economic and social extremes in our world today. The future is just a mirror to help us see the present more clearly. In that sense, its science fiction doing what science fiction does best.
As director, Noel Blomkamp, comments in an interview with the Guardian, the movie is an allegory of current extremes of wealth and poverty. The movie can serve as a metaphor for social divisions from gated communities in up-market suburbs to immigration policies closing borders of whole nations. We see Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) as a slum dweller struggling to survive a grinding life of poverty in 22nd century Los Angeles. Blomkamp has commented that the slums in the movie are real slums in present day Mexico. Some of the scenes in ‘Elysium’ are shot in Toronto. This is not the future.
Elysium and access to healthcare
The rich have escaped to Elysium, a space station in the sky. It is a haven which they guard fiercely, making sure no one else can get in. Delacourt (Jodie Foster) serves as its hardline ‘Secretary of Defense’ who doesn’t shy away from shooting down refugee filled shuttles. Of course, we’re dealing here with current immigration policies which aim to keep asylum seekers out of the rich ‘north’.
But it’s not just that the rich of Elysium live in a peaceful paradise. They have access to almost magical life saving medical technologies. These technologies extend their lives and are inaccessible to the slum-dwelling inhabitants of Earth. That’s perhaps one of the most striking realities the movie is able to convey. Denial of access to modern health-care is a current reality that saw life expectancy in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa plunge to the levels of colonial times at the height of the HIV epidemic. We might see similar patterns with the current ebola outbreak. In parts of the world lacking healthcare infrastructure, or where access to medicine requires financial resources you don’t have, life saving medical treatment might as well be on a mythical space station, because it’s just as inaccessible.
This isn’t Blomkamp’s first foray into social justice movie making, Elysium follows District 9, a quirky exploration of anti-immigrant/apartheid racism in South Africa, Blomkamp’s country of birth. In a subtle dig at those who criticised his portrayal of Nigerians in District 9 as racist, a major bad guy in Elysium is Africaans, Blomkamp’s own ethnic background.
Elysium also has an explicit focus on the issue of citizenship. The rich citizens of Elysium get its the benefits. Non-citizens do not.
Absence of citizenship is the vehicle by which the human rights violations of Elysium are perpetrated. It’s a reminder that citizenship laws and equal human rights are uncomfortable bed-fellows. If we need citizenship to access basic human rights; they are no longer human rights. Simply being born human should be enough to guarantee basic human rights.
If it’s not too much of a give away, it isn’t killing the bad guy that saves the day in this movie.