Sci-fi for the 99 percent

Still from Elysium

Like most who have seen it I was somewhat disappointed by Elysium, the new film by Neill Blomkamp about a rebellion by the inhabitants of a polluted and impoverished Earth against a space colony open only to the rich.

Hopes for this movie have been high. Blomkamp is seeking to revive the tradition of political science fiction that died sometime in the 1980s. His first movie, District 9, was a clever apartheid allegory. Elysium is more radical still, an unabashed story of class struggle and revolution, sci-fi for the Occupy movement. The trailer looks fantastic.

As has been amply documented it doesn't fulfil that promise. The opening half hour or so is enthralling, depicting a plausible future in which the division between the 1 and 99 percenters is taken to its logical conclusion: not just gated communities, but separate worlds. But the movie descends (or in this case literally ascends as the action moves to the space colony) into a rather interminable chase, concluding in a standard issue showdown between the good and bad guy, which has been done much better by more conventional action movies.

But that said, many of the film's images will stay with me.

The space colony Elysium is a beautiful contemporary CGI realisation of one of the most striking visions for a future home in the stars that first appeared nearly 40 years ago, during the halcyon days of space exploration. It is essentially a version of the Stanford torus, a design dreamed up in the course of a 1975 NASA study at Stanford University: a ring shaped rotating space station, generating artificial gravity, atmosphere, sunlight, gardens and lakes.

Stanford torus under construction (Image: Wikipedia)

The original NASA illustrations depicted a cheerful space habitat peopled by smiling, industrious and seemingly classless colonists living in suitably futuristic steel and glass constructions. But Blomkamp's Elysium is a straightforward transposition of a wealthy western world neighbourhood to outer space. As they do today, on Elysium the elite live in white walled Spanish style mansions, set amidst swimming pools and manicured lawns. Golf courses and exclusive shopping malls are nearby. The dress code is Armani suits for work, polo shirts and chinos for leisure. There are servants too, but to guard against the possibility of internal revolt, domestic services on Elysium are provided by robots.

One of the film's boldest statements is to depict virtually all members of Elysium as white, Anglo-Saxon protestants, and virtually all down below on Earth as Hispanic or Afro-Carribean. This is undermined somewhat by casting a white actor (Matt Damon) as the leader of the rebellion, but is nevertheless commendably clear-eyed by comparison with the sentimental harmonious multi-racialism of the Star Trek franchise. Hopefully one day things will be like that, but there's rather a lot of work to do first.

By setting the action in space the film also succeeds, I think, in capturing with visceral force the desperate motivations of immigrants and asylum seekers. To get to Elysium would-be immigrants have to travel across space, not just guarded borders or oceans. And yet they make the effort, even though the likelihood is that their space craft will be detected and blown out of the skies as they come within range of Elysium's 'homeland security'.

It's interesting that Blomkamp envisages a future in which the primary motivation for immigration might not be economic opportunity so much as the possibility of accessing advanced health care. Every home on Elysium is equipped with a 'health bay', a kind of magical sunbed capable of detecting and curing disease within minutes. Nothing like that exists on Earth, of course, with its filthy, ramshackle hospitals. To cure themselves or their children immigrants are prepared to risk all to get to Elysium, run from the space craft, break into a home to use the health bay, then accept immediate deportation once apprehended by the authorities. For me these were the film's most powerful, eerily prescient, scenes.

Elysium could have been better. I wonder how much Blomkamp's vision was compromised by a requirement to deliver mainstream thrills in exchange for the film's generous budget. But setting today's most pressing political issues in space serves to make them more vivid, not less: we see with fresh eyes that all this is happening now, on Earth.