One of the great hallmarks of speculative fiction is that like theology, it looks at the present through the lens of the future. In the church we struggle with both ontological future and the immediate “worldly” future – the consequences of our current actions in their imagined possible contexts. This forward thinking is helpful for considering empathically the long-term consequences of policies, laws, habits, interpretations, exegeses, eisegeses – when we choose to use it. Science fiction looks at the same concerns with a critical eye, trying to demonstrate possible futures, alternate futures. And what’s most interesting in both theology and science fiction is that the attempt to create utopia is one of the core features of most dystopias.
It is in that spirit, then, that a film like Elysium must be considered. It is, in many ways, a classical form of this old dichotomy – in order to have utopia (the space station Elysium where the rich lead manicured, pastoral, and almost unutterably dull lives of disease-free security) someone, somewhere, will live in dystopia. The natural consequence of zero-sum economic thinking is that unbalance naturally occurs, even if that economics postulates an unlimited market for growth. When security (economic, military, social) is pegged to an unrealistic or untrue standard, the inequality “naturally” created by any system will be magnified.
Elysium tries to look at this in the most straightforward way possible. It simply imagines our current problems, accelerated by technological advances and a continuation of zero-sum economics, and sets its story in that future. That future is both a very possible and not-too-distant reality. The film was largely shot in Mexico City, presenting a futuristic favela-state where jobs are scarce, pollution is rampant, overpopulation has overtaken prudence, and the Earth has become a refugee camp.
One of the reasons to appreciate a film like Elysium (which in other regards is a fairly formulaic sci-fi military shooting movie) is its unrelenting populism and optimism. The characters and scenarios are attempting to take a remote (read: brown) problem to a modern audience by giving it a sympathetic (see also: man, white) point of view that allows them to relate to it. The world of Elysium is not a distant future – it exists in this exact moment. Elysium’s contention is that the poverty, deprivation, and inhumanity that we allow to exist as our neighbors are as dangerous as trying to contain a massive fire. Half the world is consumed in a battle for resources – most scarcities of which are caused by economic factors (see also: corporate greed). The battle (?) will spread, and consume the planet unless the thinking and patterns that have caused the conflagration itself are addressed.
The film, like advocates and activists the world over, believes that those who need to see the inevitable reality – who can still do something about these patterns – can and will see that so-called “3rd world problems” are becoming our own problems – and very, very quickly. While it is sadly predictable that we would be shown these problems through the eyes of a white, male protagonist, one of the things I appreciate enormously about this film is how much it lives with, and is driven by, the needs and concerns of the poor. The poor don’t want to invade Elysium because they want to live there: they want basic healthcare. The central concern of the poor in the film, like the poor in the world, isn’t populist triumph over the wealthy. It’s getting by. It’s fixing basic problems that circumstance and deprivation have created, by whatever means necessary.
While I can safely say that there are better science fiction action thrillers (See: Lockout) and better poverty parables (See: The director’s previous film, District 9), it’s the marriage of these two genres, at the height of the summer movie season, that I appreciate. If film – the most blatantly obvious moneymaking scheme ever devised – can treat the future consequences of poverty seriously in a movie largely dedicated to Matt Damon shooting new and exciting guns – why can’t the church dedicate the same public attention and resources?