Sunday, 25 August 2013

Elysium Now: One Planet, Two Worlds

So it is Hollywood not arthouse, but the movie "Elysium", from the Director of the powerful "District 9" provides a thought-provoking as well as action-packed story, in the best traditions of science fiction. Similarly, as with all good sci fi, it is as much about today as it is about any future.

The premise is that by 2154, the world has become so overpopulated and over polluted and, by implication, so dangerously unequal, that the richest have literally fled the Earth to a gigantic orbital space station known as Elysium (the name of heaven in Greek mythology). Now we know what the bankers mean when they say they will go somewhere else if we make them pay their taxes.

There, in a santised world of great mansions and green gardens, the wealthy truly live in a bubble, their every need met by the resources sucked up from the poor on Terra Firma below. It's a sort of Stepford in Space, or maybe an off world Kensington, populated by smug people  who can live in ignorance of the unwashed below - on a rare visit to a factory on the surface, the Elysium-dwelling owner rebukes his foreman for not covering his mouth when he speaks to him. This revolting elite is able to live for a highly extended lifespan thanks to medical technology that they only allow to be available to themselves - a simple scan can wipe out cancer and apparently even exploded skulls can be mended in a few minutes. In sharp contrast, down on Earth, queues form at rare public health centres where the simplest medical treatment is rationed and staff have to work shifts lasting several days at a time.

The parallels are strikingly and clearly deliberate - in our current austerity driven western societies, at the very time scientific advances are creating all sorts of terrifyingly amazing possibilities for medical advance (including huge expansion of life expectancy), the economics of inequality are ensuring that even basic medical treatment is gradually becoming less readily available to many, even in the wealthiest societies on Earth. And it is medical need that drives the film's main protagonist, Max da Costa, played by Matt Damon. After a work accident caused by punishing schedules and faulty equipment, he is dying of radiation poisoning, while his former girlfriend's daughter is in the final stages of leukaemia. On Elysium, technology could save them in moments, but on the surface of the Earth, living in a planet-wide slum, their only prospect is death.

And so the adventure begins: with a strong performance from Damon and an all too brief role for Jody Foster as the pugnacious Defence Chief of Elysium, a struggle commences for control of the celestial Pleasuredome. The scripting is elegant and amusing by turns and the characterisation strong - and the denouement, without spoiling anything, will make you believe again in the great potential of humanity.

Keeping true to original American film tradition, there are themes around insurrection and injustice, but perhaps one unsurprising fault is the almost inevitable central premise that just one person can make all the difference - though to be fair Matt does get a bit of help from his friends.

But then it wouldn't be Hollywood if, instead of the hero's dash into space, there had to be a committee meeting followed by a card vote and an impartial selection process for a balanced team of co-insurrectionists.

Nor would it be half as enjoyable to watch.

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