‘Elysium’ (2013) and the question of the sci-fi allegory.

26 Aug

Elysium posterSometimes, allegorical movies can drive the point home with a gratuitous amount of gusto. Take director Neill Blomkamp; his two major movies thus far have been 2009’s Disctrict 9, and the recently-released Elysium. District 9 was widely praised by critics, though its message was hardly a subtle one. It wasn’t about apartheid – it was about APARTHEID! In a similar vein, Elysium tackles the issue of INCOME INEQUALITYwith the brazenly blunt force of a sci-fi battering ram.

Elysium is a perfectly fine lesson in dystopian sci-fi escapism: Matt Damon is among the millions of poor (literally and figuratively) unfortunates stuck on a dilapidated yet futuristic, advanced yet crumbling Earth, which acts as a gargantuan sweatshop for the fortuitous few that reside on Elysium, an orbiting space station bursting with pomp and luxury. It’s 2154 AD, and wealth disparity has grown interstellar.

Cue spaceships, robots and the reliably unreliable acting that typically graces these sorts of films. It’s all fairly standard – it’s nicely shot and people speak in funny tongues (Jodie Foster in particular sounds like a member of Tom Hanks’ futuristic tribe from Cloud Atlas, what with her bizarre pseudo South African/Oceanic accent). The plight of an underdog versus the elite is an immortal one, captured in many cinematic genres over the years.

But lets get to the allegory for a second. Elysium examines, albeit through a highly dramatised and exaggerated lens, the modern-day notion of the ‘99%’; a social movement, predominantly encapsulated by American capitalism, headed by groups such as Anonymous and movements like Occupy Wall Street. This is a current, modern and ongoing problem. Those who fall into the negative side of income inequality will have a tough time affording healthcare, education and will, therefore, suffer a lower quality of life.

Even this image could be construed in a modern context: be it from the Middle-East or 'Gears of War'.

Even this image could be construed in a modern context: be it from the Middle-East or ‘Gears of War’.

If the teeth of District 9 can be pulled as a result of its tackling of an already-solved problem (apartheid), then Elysium can also be lampooned as an unnecessary allegory. In the past, science fiction acted as cautionary tales rather than analyses of current affairs. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers famously warns of Communism; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is about the inevitable task of facing one’s mortality; The Andromeda Strain is a look at the threatening aspects of space exploration and the discovery extraterrestrial life. The list goes on.

Elysium is fun for what it is – a picture where Matt Damon represents the proles against their dictatorial robot masters. But to label this as ‘science fiction’ is dubious at best; this is an action movie set against a futuristic backdrop of spacial wonder. Its allegory is unnecessary – if you’re going to make a film about income inequality, make it a documentary, a drama; as a sci-fi movie, it falls flat.

Simon says: Matt Damon blowing stuff up is cool. Plugging in social commentary downgrades the whole experience.

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