I try not to give away the plots of films I review. As I write my second piece within a week of seeing Elysium, I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who has not yet seen it.
The last paragraph of that review is our starting point, when I said
But considering the political itch I’ve been scratching the past few days, I’m happiest to see a film take such an unequivocal position. It’s too dark for Frank Capra, but I have to wonder if films can change the way people vote. If so the Republicans will not like this film.
So with that in mind, and my wish to remain spoiler-free, I’d like to look at the film’s politics. It’s particularly intriguing because at least one review I saw considered the film a disappointment compared to the director’s previous film District 9. I believe that the difference between the two films is that Elysium is so smooth in its construction that it will suck in audience members (as I was sucked in), consumed by the suspenseful story. If we could interview George Orwell about the matter I am sure he’d say that films with concealed messages are likely more manipulative than those that are obviously complex.
If we’re to consider the influence of such a film it can’t be upon Republicans or Democrats. The people who matter in this kind of discussion are not solid members of a party, so much as those people in the middle-ground between the two big parties. Let’s leave aside those people who self-identify as committed members of either party; we wouldn’t expect such people to reconsider their beliefs, and certainly not on the basis of a single film. Close elections are won or lost on those people who show up or stay at home, and perhaps also the undecided who suddenly commit one way or another on election day.
This film will be seen by a great many people, particularly young and impressionable people who have not yet cast a vote. Here’s why I believe it could have an impact.
1) The planet Earth shown in Elysium is in bad shape. The rich have fled the planet to an orbiting sanctuary. “Elysium” is what the Romans called heaven, and also the name for the orbiting sanctuary, the last remnant of our ecology. For anyone reading of the incipient disaster in the biosphere –for example the images in the NY Times a few days ago—Elysium seems like an accurate projection. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have done much on this issue, so it really doesn’t matter much.
2) The gap between the rich and poor is already an issue in both Canada and the USA, a disparity that appears to be growing. The Occupy Wall Street movement emphasized language of class struggle, such as their slogan “We are the 99%”. In Elysium the disparities are much greater than anything we’ve seen before in science fiction. The privileges of the rich in this film are a life-and-death matter, and become the basis for the plot.
3) Universal Healthcare, at least as experienced in many European countries may seem like the stuff of science fiction. The irony of this aspect of the film is that the normal privileges of citizens in European cities may be so far removed from fact as to feel like fiction to those who have been pummelled by the rhetoric of despair emanating from the GOP since Obamacare was implemented. To this Canadian, the oppression of the Californians is outrageous, but a logical extrapolation from the lies already forced upon them by conservative media.
Even so –that is, with the ignorance of the American populace about what many countries (even Cuba) consider normal –societal disparities in access to healthcare drive the plot of this film. Californians at this time have less access to good healthcare than, say, Canadians. The citizens of Elysium have access to magically powerful healthcare (recalling Asimov’s axiomatic observation that sufficiently advanced technologies are indistinguishable from magic), but that’s okay, given that Elysium is melodrama.
Who—other than hardcore fans—quibbles with the inaccuracies in Star Wars? But speaking of inaccuracies, if you’re an American chances are you don’t see the connection between this film –where Californians are desperate and destitute—and real life. Steve Lonegan’s pronouncements in pursuit of a seat in the Senate seem reasonable to Americans because they expect nothing from their government:
I’ll be as callous and uncaring as you can imagine. I have no interest in paying for your health care. I’d hate to see you get cancer, but that’s your problem not mine. I’m going to pay for my health care, I’m going to take care of my children’s health care and tend to my wife.
I feel it’s appropriate to mention Ralph Nader, who called the USA a third world country. The line plays very differently outside the USA (where he makes a lot of sense) than inside (where he’s perennially a marginal candidate).
4) Workers rights in a non-union world come up as well. A crucial moment in the plot revolves around the complete disrespect for the worker in this world. The CEO is outraged when production stops for a worker who has sustained a lethal dose of radiation, and has been condemned to a horrible, painful death within a week’s time. No wonder then that one of the protagonists wants to get to Elysium, a place where the healthcare system could save his life.
Again, if you’ve been persuaded that unions are bad and that workers deserve nothing, then the ideology of this film will bounce off.
5) Police & civil rights also figure in the film. Governments are treating civilians with less and less respect. The latest in Syria & Egypt, inconceivable to civil North Americans, may be setting the bar even lower for what we should expect. Most of the time we’re the luckiest people in the world, but every now and then, you get something like the G20, or Sammy Yatim’s killing (although the murder charge that the constable faces suggests that the society simply won’t accept that level of violence: at least not yet).
It occurs to me that the headline actually has at least two meanings.
- Elysium is a dystopian story; the trajectory to it can be understood as our collective pathway to destruction and ruin
- And Elysium is the ideal place we seek, with universal health care, a heaven that’s our escape from this flawed world
The film is a Rorschach test of political allegiance, of faith or despair in our collective future. In other words i recognize that the film will play differently, depending on your background context.
I am not without hope.