All Commentary
Monday, September 23, 2013

Matt Damon vs. The Space Republicans

Science fiction with technology that's more realistic than its politics

It’s rare to encounter a film where the prospect of irradiated cyborgs battling in space better comports with reality than the director’s grasp of economics. That’s what writer and director Neill Blomkamp has achieved, however, with Elysium, which explores interesting social and political themes that mostly involve Matt Damon fighting straw-man Republicans in space. It’s like the Occupy Wall Street movement remade Blade Runner.

Blomkamp came to cinematic prominence four years ago with District 9, a low-budget but high-quality science fiction thriller designed to mirror apartheid in his native South Africa. In his latest endeavor, a far greater budget is matched by an equally large thirst for social commentary that even sympathetic progressives will find overpowering. Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley star in this preachy sci-fi romp.

Here is the plot: Matt Damon lives in future Los Angeles, a decaying urban sprawl with a bad economy and an abusive police force. (So far, so good.) He is on parole working as a blue-collar grunt at a robot factory, where part of his job entails carting machines into a large microwave. Due to what we can only infer is an auspicious lack of union activity, poor Matt is subject to a flagrant safety violation while tending to a mechanical issue inside of the microwave. Our hero is inadvertently radiated and will thus die within five days. Unless…

Even though Matt Damon and the rest of the teeming masses live in abject poverty on a sepia-toned Earth, floating above it soars Elysium, a luxurious space station where apathetic rich people and their offshore bank accounts live. It is a gated community of such abundant wealth that its economy appears to function entirely through swimming pool real estate transactions. Its denizens are so insanely affluent that they sometimes break into uncontrollable bouts of French. If Damon can sneak into this celestial Beverly Hills, he can use their miraculous healthcare technology to heal himself.

There are many obstacles to doing so, including Jodie Foster. Her character is the head of “Homeland Security,” which could possibly be some kind of subtle reference to our own Department of Homeland Security. Secretary Delacourt and her mega-rich ilk do not like the prospects of grubby refugees from Earth fowling up their neighborhood, so she shoots “illegals” (their words) down by the shipload whenever they approach. With the exception of Matt Damon, all of the undocumented immigrants are Spanish-speaking Latinos, which I theorize could also be some kind of social commentary. As part of a larger coup, Delacourt hires a South African mercenary played by Sharlto Copley to kill Matt Damon using as many explosions as the film budget can sustain.

In the end, after a laudable number of explosions, Matt Damon succeeds in breaking into the gilded space station. As the film concludes, the orbiting plutocrats watch in astonishment as their flying ambulances zip off to Earth at the behest of our hero, there to heal disease and (huzzah!) share the wealth.

We can forgive Blomkamp for indulging in a little Malthusian anxiety, since sci-fi dystopias routinely lean on this fallacy. Though it is a fallacy nonetheless: as societies prosper, their birth rates decline. The wealthy nations of the world have shrinking populations, and developing nations have fewer children per family as they shift from agrarian economies to modern ones.

What I cannot overlook is Blomkamp’s cartoonish portrayal of income inequality. At any given moment I expected Jodie Foster to cackle and drink orphan tears out of a brandy snifter. In Elysium, rich people stand around idling in their posh golf courses, because in that universe wealth isn’t created. It’s simply captured by greedy people as it (quite literally in the film) drops from the sky.

Let us momentarily disregard that Elysium’s orbital capitalists have an exquisite (presumably private) healthcare system they are loath to share, while everyone down below makes do with a shoddy alternative. If such a disparity existed, wouldn’t the Space Republicans see a market opportunity? If Elysium is stockpiled with unused medical miracle devices, presumably an entrepreneur would realize he could make a tidy sum selling them in Los Angeles. Even the greediest of capitalists would recognize that a fit and healthy population would be a more productive and lucrative labor force. This is discounting the possibility that Elysium has within its confines any philanthropists or charities, which is all but certain. With that many rich people clustered together there’s bound to be an Episcopalian church.

I don’t disagree with all of Blomkamp’s positions. We are of one mind on not shooting refugees with rockets. I assume we are both for significant immigration reform. His film brings up the terror of drones and a society so mechanized as to disenfranchise its citizens. But Blomkamp strongly conveys the idea that poverty exists because rich people are too selfish to share their wealth. The flush do not become so by working, innovating, or creating goods and services. They simply throw cocktail parties where they scheme about how to retain their big slice of the pie.

This is best illustrated by the fact that at the end we realize the people of Elysium could have at any time unleashed incalculable good on Earth by merely pressing a button to share their opulent lifestyle. You know, a bit like a certain director could have by distributing $115 million to charities instead of using it to produce a Bernie Sanders fever dream. Elysium grossed an estimated $30.5 million its opening weekend, so its makers still have time to atone for their wealth before Matt Damon dons a robot exoskeleton and slays them all.

While the writing is ham-handed, the special effects in the film are spectacular, the acting is good, and it’s nonetheless a fun summer flick. I recommended downloading it illegally, to avoid creating any more nefarious Space Republicans. Just ask your nearest teenager for help.