Elysiumby Kavish Chetty / 30.08.2013
In 2154, “Elysium” is a luxurious space-station which hovers above a ravaged Earth. To Elysium – a name which invokes the classical Grecian concept of an “afterlife” – belongs the (largely European) wealthy, and to Earth, a dispossessed multitude of others. This is Neil Blomkamp’s under-imaginative vision of the end of Earth’s history: triumphal capitalism has now organised a super-planetary division of labour, the “core” floating in their gorgeous simulacra of upper-crust Los-Angeles, the “periphery” adrift in the flotsam of a post-Earth humanity. But we should not be so quickly lulled into its dystopian stupor, believing that Blomkamp is offering us a progressive critique of the modern world. Rather, his politics are rapturously Republican; his vision is that of the conservative. Elysium is a glut of sci-fi clichés (see Oblivion). Ordinarily, such reliance on the exhausted tropes of cinema would be the mark of an adolescent talent, and little else. In Elysium, however, such bordered thinking is productive of a disastrous Eurocentric order.
Elysium only offers one earthly territory for consumption, all other geographies of the world left to the margins of its vision. This is an unrecognisable Los Angeles, one in which the Mexican proletariat have burst its fragile borders and taken over. Los Angeles is reduced from its first-world splendour to the disorganised, dusty chaos of the “favela”. Resources are limited, jobs are working-class, white Americans are not integrated amongst this Mexican wave. Instead, and tellingly, Blomkamp’s idea of dystopia is one of Mexican expansion, the prophetic anxiety that its “immigrants”, thirsty for green cards, will intrude upon American soil, corrupt its sanctity. The sociology of this Earth is made through its fractious relations, its aesthetics of poverty (dirt, dust, vintage technology), and patrolled fiercely by its militant androids, working on behalf of the Elysian powerful.
A prologue introduces us to two childhood sweethearts, decidedly “Mexican” protagonists: Max da Costa and Frey. However, when the chronology lurches to 2154, da Costa is no longer a young Hispanic boy, but an adult American male (Matt Damon), replete with American accent and lily complexion. How are we supposed to interpret this decision to anaesthetise the would-be Hispanic hero of this film, and to insert in his place the “universal” white male protagonist? Whiteness is the universal signifier of humanity, so expansive is its reach that a director can rip out the culture, physiognomy, accent and language of one character, replace it with a white male, and expect this eerie transmutation to pass without reproach. In this move, Elysium replicates the Eurocentric position of “zero degrees” – white males are neutral, can sub in on behalf of other peoples, can erase their histories and speak for them in a universal idiom. In a world in which females protagonists are consigned to the back covers of videogame art (Bioshock: Infinite) because of an anxiety over hostile audience reaction, Elysium suggests that white males are the universal standard for human empathy, and that an Hispanic hero is a culturally-situated, divisive figure. This politics of representation is atrocious; is, dare I say it, racist.
It is almost unthinkable that the reverse would occur. I recall Paul Mooney’s joke on the Chappelle Show several years ago. After thinking about the absurdity with which the whitest of males, Tom Cruise, was cast as The Last Samurai, he asked, “What’s next? A film called The Last Nigger on Earth, starring Tom Hanks?” If you remain unpersuaded, consider that only the “hero” of this film is forcibly re-assigned to whiteness; the multitudes of workers, women, civilians and children who make up this apocalyptic planet are all Mexican: in accent, in their digressions of Spanish, in looks. Amongst this world, where Mexicans represent a faceless, Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation, only a white man – who stands apart from the crowd by virtue of his race – can be given true salvational power.
The name “Elysium” evokes ancient Greece and its philosophers, and in doing so, evokes the idea of “civilisation” and its heritage. Curiously, Blomkamp also makes the choice that the future galactic enclave of privileged capitalists will draw on European civilisational signifiers. He ignores the rise of a ferocious Eastern capitalism, and he ignores the kinds of cultural influence that these new hegemonies will come to preside over our imaginations. On Elysium, the film introduces two primary political players. The first is, if ever there was a token appointment, a President Patel, who is a misplaced brown fleck among the porcelain vastness of his fellows, there to suggest a false cosmopolitanism (an Indian president is thinkable, but only within a New World Order which is culturally Euro-American). The second is Jessica Delacourt, the Secretary of Defence, played by Jodie Foster in the worse performance of her entire four-decade career. On the subject of defence, Elysium appears to have almost no on-site security (strange, given the immigration parallels that the film misfires for), and instead out-sources its anti-aircraft missiles to various rogue assassins on Earth. One such assassin is Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley), an enormous inside-joke, with his predictably tiring and semi-comic routine of local slang, rape-ish demeanours, and raw accents.
However, Elysium does not only disappoint at the representational level. Its whole vulgar essence is that of second-hand sci-fi clichés. Its affections for the mediocre are uncountable. Max da Costa is a blue-collar machinist with a “bad past”. He is trying to “go clean” and get to Elysium. He is lured by “one final job”. He has a “childhood sweetheart” he is secretly in love with. He has a mission, but he also has a vendetta, and the two will come to converge upon another. The stakes are artificially ramped up when he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation poisoning – in a poorly dramatised, unbelievably scripted early episode – giving him only a few days to live (this development means nothing, because he is given medication which magically prevents this mortal reckoning from exerting any material limits on his functioning). Elysium also manages to reconcile micro- and macro-narratives in cheaply undernourished ways. The grand redemptive subject of the film is a child with leukaemia – but Max’s mission to save her ends up rescuing the entire planet, flattening personal and global quests for salvation into one easily-achieved happy ending, the most unsatisfying of utopias. Blomkamp’s technological aesthetics are Windows 3.11 and DOS, but the film also continues in that Independence Day tradition, whereby heroes can bring their incommensurate hacker technologies on-board a space-station, and through universal launch codes, take down a whole complex in one move, by jacking in some network cables. In this techno-dream fantasy, the world is saved therefore, not by hard work and revolution, but USB.
Blomkamp mobilises curious immigration and health-care allegories, most of which are so far contorted beyond their real world analogues as to lose critical traction. The despair of Elysium is really that its film-makers have managed to squander such a cluster of political and sociologically-charged ideas, and produced instead a film that tells us nothing about how the real struggles of everyday heroes might be imagined in a world defined by radical imbalances in the global distribution of wealth and advantage. I could go on – about its Mass Effect aesthetics, about its plagiaristic citation of every sci-fi genre on the planet (cyborg action, space action, action action), about how this film resembles the wet dream of a Pretorian adolescent boy… Instead, we might summarise all these critical impulses by saying this: any hope that those born of our periphery would bring an alternative, decolonial energy to the colossal apparatus of the Hollywood movie-machine are dashed. What we need, instead, are film-makers who resist representational orthodoxies, narrative conventions, generic seductions; what we need is nothing short of a war against cliché.