Elysium: South Africa Light

Elysium-imax-poster-matt-damonLast night, I watched Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction opus Elysium, which was about as underwhelming as his previous work, “District 9.”

Though most American viewers will miss it, it’s impossible to watch Elysium without thinking of South Africa. Elysium is the name of a giant gated community in the sky that we mostly don’t get to see. The residents of Elysium live in huge mansions, complete with swimming pools and trimmed lawns. Most salient to the story is their access to medical care which allows them to live forever.

Elysium is propped up by a single corporation, which manufactures robots for use on Elysium as servants, and as security on Earth below. Our hero Max is a shanty town dweller and former criminal who works on an assembly ling of one of the factories. He gets hit with a lethal dose of radioactivity, and must get to Elysium to get medical care or die in five days.

Fine. What’s striking is all of the references to South Africa’s apartheid government, which propped up state protected private monopolies to keep and consolidate power for the white minority, while insuring a steady flow of cheap and disposable labor.

Max’s nemesis is the hulking Kruger, the only obvious South African of the film. We see him enjoying African BBQ and drinking Castle Lager, an obvious allusion to the South African 32 Battalion, sent to fight the communists in Angola and along the Namibian border during the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, his spaceship (?) has a (current) South African flag emblazoned on it.

The most despicable character of the film is dressed up to emulate IMF chairman Christine LaGarde. Oddly, Ms. LaGarde has deviated from her more mundane duties of monetary policy and gone militaristic, happily shooting down ships filled with crippled children looking for medical care.

In the end, the computer controlled hegemony of Elysium is toppled, though, not through the collective uprising and political struggle of the poor majority, but through the nameless efforts of a smuggler. Blomkamp, for all his detailed references to South Africa’s history, delivers it a cheap shot by excluding this important detail.

Of interest, though, is the final move from a designed state protected private economy, to a presumably socialist economy, where health care is available for all. While I like the move to freely available and quality health care for all, it’s odd that the film doesn’t do much to address how the economy is to move forward.

But the economic questions are the most perplexing of the movie, but then the economy of the South African apartheid government and even the present government are perhaps equally bizarre. Why would even the most wealthy concentrate all their wealth into a single, non-competitive space? We can assume that the wealthy in Elysium are obtaining socialist kick backs from their oppressive form of government, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that someone on Elysium wouldn’t go it alone and seek other opportunities. In this sense, the people are Elysium are at least as oppressed as those on Earth. You’d wonder how they’d put up with it. Wouldn’t someone get bored?

Also, with so many humans on Earth, you’d assume that someone might think of this as a major opportunity for investment. It’s pretty clear that the people on Elysium don’t have to use cash, but on Earth, the potential for grass roots markets seems limitless. One of the main characters of the film has tapped into the market of smuggling people up to Elysium for medical care. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive on Earth. Wouldn’t someone on Elysium try to tap into this, reacting to market demand and helping people at the same time? This was certainly the story in expanding access to HIV antiretrovirals in Africa (in a really, really simple sense, don’t flame me, man!). There’s no reason to assume the same wouldn’t play out here.

But that’s asking too much, and I digress.

Elysium’s two dimensionality is really what hobbles the film. Like District 9, what could have been a really clever allegory for unequal societies and the structural problems which produce and support them, Elysium fades off into a bland world of polarized, Hollywood science fiction. It fails to explore how humans push back against inequality and fails to educate its audience as to what it all means. Blomkamp clearly understands the issues. Hopefully, he’ll deliver the goods next time.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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