Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Movies: Elysium

Saw Elysium today.  It was moderately enjoyable and completely silly.  That's a shame: it was directed by Neill Blomkamp, who also made District 9; the latter movie being, I think, almost completely unique among American science-fiction films, in that it managed the trifecta of creating a plausibly complicated world, raising hard questions worthy of Actual Real-Life Pondering, and keeping me entertained with some genuinely whiz-bang action scenes where stuff blew up.

By comparison, Elysium only managed the third, and kind of the second, but probably not in the way it intended.

The movie's world is superficially pretty interesting: technology has apparently progressed, leading to the automation of most jobs.  Robots don't just run production lines, but also serve as cops, waiters, and parole officers.  (Actually, one of the movie's more subtle inconsistencies--or, if you want to be generous, ironies--is that living, breathing human beings do still work in production lines.  This leads to at least one horrifying onscreen industrial accident, leading me to wonder if everyone wouldn't be happier if we put the robot waiters in the factories.  Anyway.)

This leads to two major economic consequences, both of which are somewhat cleverly extrapolated from existing trends.  First, mass unemployment--it's implied that virtually no one has a job.  And second, extraordinary concentration of wealth.

Okay, so none of this is really said in the film.  But it's clearly what has happened, and it's a pretty smart take.  This, after all, is the great puzzle of advancing technology.  Increased productivity means that per capita wealth increases--but since virtually all modern economic systems distribute wealth primarily on the basis of work and employment, a problem quickly arises.  The gains of increased productivity fall mainly to those still working, and the people whose jobs have been replaced actually suffer as a result.  The wealth, in short, concentrates at the top, and without adequate methods for effective redistribution of resources, the concentration intensifies as technology improves.  The world of Elysium is one where this process has reached its natural conclusion: the ultra-wealthy manage the world, and almost no else does anything that matters.  And they're dirt poor.

Oh, wait!  I forgot an important detail.  The ultra-wealthy manage the world... from a space station.  Called Elysium, naturally.  It's huge and contains entire suburban neighborhoods (right down to loopy arterial roads), which are full of white people doing white person things.*

Anyway, the space station looks like the Hamptons and Earth proper looks like... well, the slums of District 9.  Everything that isn't people seems to be extinct (giraffes get a callout) and overall the terrestial neighborhood has gone completely to seed.  Matt Damon lives on Earth and want to get to the station.  Hijinks ensue.

But here an odd twist emerges.  The real benefit to living on the station isn't just that you get to stand around all the time, drinking white wine, owning golden retrievers, and talking about Portlandia over brunch, although that appears to be what's happening every time we check in up there. The main perk is that you get access to free, universal health care.  And not just any health care, but Magical Healing Pods, which instantly diagnosis and repair any conceivable medical condition.  (Some choice examples, drawn from the dialogue of the movie itself: dismemberment, old age, cancer, shanking, and radiation poisoning.)  The hoi polloi, you see, don't want access to Elysium itself, but to this very specific resource, which the Elysiumites apparently control in its entirety.  It's this conflict--over access to medicine, not over the distribution of wealth--which propels the movie forward, as the sick and dying attempt to find their way onto the station.**

And so we've arrived at the source of virtually all the movie's problems.  Problem number one: the medically afflicted population of Earth appears to be composed exclusively of angelic children of color, suffering from some grotesquely, comically horrible condition like "multiple severe compound fractures" or "coma induced by late stage leukemia."

This is a cheat.  One of the more wonderful qualities of District 9 was Blomkamp's willingness to make its aliens really pretty gross to look at.  It was not hard to see how people could dehumanize those aliens, and as the film increasingly took their perspective, the feeling it elicited in audiences might be described as honest-to-god empathy, earned through experience. Here, the movie doesn't trust us to care about its teeming masses unless they're comatose, adorable, and carried by their long-suffering, tear-streaked mothers. It's kind of appalling, in that it conveys a real concern by the film's creators that we might find aliens of the undoucmented sort more reflexively repugnant than District 9's giant cockroaches.

Problem number two: wait, how do the economics of this make any sense?

The basic difficulty is that the film makes no attempt to connect the Magical Healing Pods to any notion of resource scarcity.  If anything, it actively promotes the idea that there's plenty of Healing Pods to go around.  And that, you'll note, makes the elite's unwillingness to help the masses pretty friggin' hard to explain.  It would cost them nothing!  They don't even have to get their hands dirty, because there's a robot army to do the actual lifting-and-carrying-of-dying-orphans for them.  On the other hand, there are lots and lots of very good incentives to embark upon some sort of humanitarian mission, even if we assume all rich people are purely self-interested.  Chief among those is the incentive of preventing their space station from getting invaded by looters and, to use a technical term, completely jacked up, which is of course exactly what ends up happening.

It might seem like a minor oversight, but it totally strips the film of any political currency it might have otherwise.  Scarcity is the motivating fact behind any and every dispute over the distribution of wealth; thus, by building a world in which scarcity plays no role in the decisions of the powerful, Elysium ensures the harsh choices made by its villains are essentially motiveless.  Simply put, these people are really, really bad and that's all we need to know.  

The essential political flatness of the film holds true no matter which side of the whole take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor thing you're on.  After all, in real life, the key to the dilemma is that you are taking from someone, and you've got to figure out a way to reckon with that, to be sure the taker is more deserving than the takee.  By suggesting that nobody is losing anything in the process--justly or otherwise--Elysium avoids the heart of the issue and gives reformers an easy out.  Coming from the other direction, the film is equally toothless.  Even the most ardent libertarian could probably get behind the film's proletarian protagonists, because, again, no wealth or property is lost.  The only political sensibility the film appears to be testing is what the audience believes about the all-important "should little girls with leukemia die or not" question.

What's especially frustrating about this is that any indication--any suggestion at all--that there simply isn't enough Super Magic Medicine to go around would suddenly make Elysium into a very interesting movie.

It wouldn't absolve the movie's rich, of course.  They'd still be ignoring tremendous suffering while stockpiling vast wealth for themselves.  But their ability to ignore suffering without working to ameliorate it would represent a sea change in the workings of society, the kind of thing that very good science fiction movies are often about.

What am I saying?  Well, creating entitlements is pretty much Subverting Political Radicals 101.  From Imperial Prussia on to today, every politician worth his salt has known that giving the underclasses a sop now and again is a pretty good way to keep torches and pitchforks at bay.  But, as Elysium almost-but-not-quite points out, it doesn't have to go on like that forever.  Put the people at the top of the pyramid on a space station, thousands of miles away from any angry mob.  Let robots do manual labor instead of the poor.  Through the concentration of wealth and advancement of technology, the rich have completely escaped the need to appease the masses and can safely forget about them.  In that movie--which again, doesn't exist--the rich have, in escaping the planet's gravity, escaped society's political gravity as well.

But this alternate Elysium couldn't proceed the way it does or end the way it does. Without discussing too many plot details, it's enough to say that compromises would have to be made that aren't made, and certain heroic characters would be a good deal more middling.  Instead, it's the movie itself that's middling.  It wants to be seen as political while dodging all politics, which leaves us watching Matt Damon punching robots in space and Jodie Foster inventing the strangest accent you've ever heard.  If that last sentence sounds like half a recommendation, I'd say half's about right.

*Nerdy physics tangent: due to the improbable size of the station and its distance from Earth I assume it's parked at an Earth-Moon Lagrangian, which, as I understand it, would be a pretty good place to put a space station.  That hardly matters but it's interesting to consider why I assume anyone has bothered to think about this: the aesthetics of Neill Blomkamp's movies are fine-tuned to suggest that they have some basis in Actual Science, and that impression remains strong well beyond the point that the rational brain should reject it.  Elysium, for instance, managed to sustain my belief in its overall scientific soundness far longer than I'm proud to admit: past the miniature VTOL space shuttles, past the robotic military exoskeletons, even past the Dune-style personal deflector shields, only crashing down into the rocky shoals of incredulity after a magical medical pod, for all intents and purposes, rebuilt a gruesomely disfigured man from scratch, including a perfectly groomed beard.  I think he (Blomkamp, not the reconstructed man) does it by including idiosyncratic details that serve no real purpose but do get the mental wheels turning; when a merc picks up a gun labelled "ChemRail," the odd name suggests a reference to something outside the audience's experience, when it may in fact be a reference to nothing at all.

**The movie quickly establishes a direct parallel between these trespassers and modern-day illegal immigrants, as they're rounded up Homeland Security and "deported" back to LA.  From here it's not too much of a leap to see the entire movie as an anti-Obamacare parable, seeing as how it literally does depict universal health care as an inducement for aliens to sneak across borders and leech off the tax dollars of real citizens and so on.

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