Elysium and the gap between rich and poor in sci-fi cinema

In the wake of the first trailer for Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, Ryan looks at a common theme in recent SF: the gap between rich and poor...

For some of us, director Neill Blomkamp had us captivated with just one image: that of an armoured, bearded Sharlto Copley unsheathing a katana next to the billowing pink blossoms of a cherry tree.

Blomkamp rightly gained attention and praise for his 2009 debut feature District 9, and his next film, this summer’s Elysium, appears to contain the same amalgam of intelligence and action; and that brief yet indelible shot of Copley and his Japanese sword seems, in a weird sort of way, to sum up what’s so compelling about Blomkamp’s filmmaking career to date: clever, oblique, and joyously cartoonish.

Although it’s impossible to say whether Elysium, with its bigger budget and higher expectations, can match the surprising excellence of District 9, its method of filtering current social concerns through a science fiction filter appears to be markedly similar.

In Elysium, it’s 2154, and while the poor eke out a miserable existence on a miserable, dust-obfuscated Earth, the wealthy live like kings on the orbiting space platform of the title. The contrasts between these two environments is made plain in the trailer; our cities are now ashen, crime-ridden slums, while the interior of Elysium looks like an expensive part of Los Angeles extended to the horizon.  

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Elysium’s mayor, played by a stern Jodie Foster in a sharp suit, owns a luxury apartment decked out with stone fire places, Persian rugs and oil paintings in gilt frames. Elsewhere, there are security droids, wide tracts of parkland, and medical scanners designed to rid the body of cancer.

On the other side of the social spectrum, there’s Matt Damon’s Max Da Costa, a lowly Earth dweller who becomes desperately ill following an accident at work. With time running out, he has his body augmented with an exo-suit (which, as the trailer demonstrates, gives Max the strength to take on a security droid in close-quarters combat), and embarks on a dangerous attempt to board Elysium and use one of its life-saving med-pods.

Just as District 9 used its science fiction scenario (aliens stuck in a guarded Johannesberg hellhole) to examine topics such as race hatred and segregation, so Elysium appears to use its futuristic setting as a means of exploring the division between the poor and wealthy. It’s a theme that’s become increasingly prevalent in sci-fi over the past five years – unsurprising, given the ongoing fallout from the 2007-2008 financial crisis. 

Whether in books, comics or cinema, science fiction has always reflected current concerns, from the fear of nuclear attack in the Cold War in the 50s and 60s (Invaders From Mars, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers) to the growing sense of governmental distrust in the 70s (Capricorn One, Soylent Green, Alien).

Whether they intend to or not, filmmakers often end up capturing the contemporary mood so precisely that the results are quite startling; when Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes first screened for critics in the UK in 2011, its scenes of angry primates smashing up San Francisco had eerie parallels with rioters breaking windows in the London streets outside. This was a pure coincidence, of course, but maybe its timeliness was partly responsible for Rise’s surprise box-office success; during an ongoing period of resentment towards banks and the establishment in general, it was cathartic to see a horde of the oppressed overthrow its masters.  

Shortly after Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes came director Andrew Niccol’s In Time, which dealt even more explicitly with the division between the moneyed and the skint. It depicted a future where time is a currency, and the rich have so much of it that they’re effectively immortal. For the less well-heeled, including perma-stubbled hero Justin Timberlake, life means working constantly in order to stay alive; and with everything from a cup of coffee to a bus ride nibbling away at his scant reserves of time, he decides to find a way to redress the balance between the classes.

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A compelling concept was unfortunately lost among a rather by-the-numbers thriller plot and some logical inconsistencies, but In Time was still notable for being one of several recent mainstream films which openly questioned, through the filter of science fiction, why the gulf between the wealthiest and the poorest should be so huge.

Last year’s Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, was itself a post-recession movie. Its near-future setting was clearly modelled on 30s Depression era America, with its crumbling, socially malign cities full of gangsters and the homeless, and violent crime offering one of the few lucrative career options for a generation of hedonistic young men. With poverty and violence going round and round in a vicious cycle, with the murderous actions of one generation affecting those of the next, only Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hero could close the loop. 

The disparity between rich and poor has come up time and again elsewhere. Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall relocates the 1990 film’s action to a dystopian Earth, where survivors of a global war live on opposite ends of the planet; the United Federation of Britain being a prosperous realm of elite rulers and their workers, while the Colony, located in Australia, is home to the slums of the lower classes.

The Hunger Games is set in a post-war America, where ordinary people are split up into districts while the rich live in powdered decadence in the Capitol. This year’s Upside Down, a romantic sci-fi starring Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst, imagines a pair of opposing worlds divided into rich and poor, where gravity itself keeps the classes apart.

Looking to the future, director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige) will be about survivors of a nuclear ice age living on a constantly-moving train; and like a typical train of the present, the carriages are separated into standard and first-class accommodation.

“The poorest people are in the back of the train,” explained cast  member Chris Evans in a recent interview, ” and as you move forward in the train the classes rise. Then there’s a revolt, a revolution from the people in the back to the front of the train…”

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Class divides were explored before sci-fi movies even existed, of course – take a look at HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) for one example – and was the central theme in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a genre cinema landmark. But the financial crisis – and our leaders’ various attempts to reverse its negative effects, from bank bail-outs to stinging austerity measures – appears to have struck a chord with sci-fi screenwriters and filmmakers, and brought the debate about the proverbial One Percent to the fore.

“The idea on Elysium is that it’s […] a mirror of how the west is now, with immigration,” Blomkamp told Indiewire. “A lot of people want to help out the rest of the world. They want to take that wealth and pour the glass half out to balance it in the rest of the planet. Other people want to close the borders.”

There’s a certain irony, perhaps, that many or all of the films discussed have been created or financed by the one percent they criticise. It could be argued, too, that these movies reflect the world as it currently is, but offer few valid ideas as to how it could be improved; In Time openly revels in the notion of redistributing wealth, but its final image of Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried robbing banks and dishing out time cartridges to an excited populace was more wishful thinking than workable solution. 

Even Metropolis, classic though it is, ends with a groan-inducing scene in which its heroine acts as the mediator between the working class and the intellectual rulers – a conclusion even its creator described, with the benefit of hindsight, as a fairytale. “I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now,” Lang said in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1998 book, Who The Devil Made It. “You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale – definitely. But I was very interested in machines…”

Blomkamp is equally interested in machines, as the Elysium trailer attests. Let’s hope that, if he does attempt to depict the rebalance of wealth and power in his finished film, he finds a compelling, plausible means to do so.

Ultimately, science fiction isn’t about offering answers in any case, but inciting debate and exploring concerns in a way that is vibrant and exciting. Although commonly dismissed as escapist entertainment, films like District 9 – and, we’re willing to predict, Elysium – allow us to engage with difficult and disturbing ideas, including how the lives of the wealthiest affect those beneath them.

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Science fiction is the sugar coating that sweetens reality’s bitter pill.

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