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Elysium and Our Deepest Need

Elysium is set in the year 2154 where two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine space station city called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The government of Elysium enforces strict anti-immigration laws to preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That is all about to change when ex-convict Max (Matt Damon), who has always longed to go to city of Elysium, finds himself desperately in need to save his life from fatal radiation poisoning. He needs a machine on Elysium that can heal anyone. The big question is will he get to Elysium?

Luckily for him his old patner in crime Spider [Wagner Moura] has a plan that involves extracting bio-organic information from the head of Armadyne's CEO, an Elysium firm operating on earth. As expected, Max succeeds but little does he know that the new information holds the key to Earth and Elysium's future. His actions however attracts the attention of Elysium's Defence Minister Delacourt (Jodie Foster) who unleashes everything at her disposal to stop Max getting to Elysium and using the information to change the world. The conflict between Max and Delacourt is essentially where the film rests.

I think it's not giving away too much to reveal that Max gets to Elysium  and provides health care for all. The fascinating aspects of the film does not relate so much to any twists and turns, there are none, but to the basic concept of a reluctant hero who plays the people's champion and frees everyone held captive by their mortality due to lack of access to medical care. This plot is supported by excellent use of memories to frame our hero's story in order to better understand what motivates his unusual quest. The action is visually pleasing and adds to the fast pace of the film. The use of imagery is also on point. For example early in the action Max is compelled to violently put on an innovative body suit that comes to typify the self inflicted pain our hero must endure on behalf of  Earth’s underclass to deliver their salvation.

Unfortunately, these good bits are outweighed by weak acting of important characters especially Jodie Foster. The predictable nature of the plot is not compensated by any sound character development. If you like movies where you can know more about characters every time time you watch it, this is not it! Even the locations are not fully developed. There are certainly some fascinating parts of Elysium but we don’t really get a feel for life there. Therefore we left a bit unsure of what would be lost were Elysium to be made open to rich and poor alike.

However, the film is certainly not simplistic in its themes. It is unflinching in delving into the political and moral questions facing the world especially on the topical question of access to health care. It does not take very long into the film to set out its central cargument : health care is a right for all because it is ultimately about human freedom. The tragedy of Elysium is that only the rich have access to good health whilst the poor wallow on earth in disease even as they slave off to prop up the rich  in Elysium!

The relationship between the rich of Elysium and the poor on Earth is nothing short of economic apartheid fuelled by greed and corruption. The rich represented by corporations stand against defenceless poor children. Children feature heavily in the film  and in many ways the real heroes. It is not missed that Max whose passion to get to Elysium was sown during his vulnerable childhood as an orphan now needs the wisdom of another vulnerable child to remind him that the point of life is helping others - and the alternative is materialism that leaves you lonely. The film’s message throughout is clear : those in poverty are innocent victims like children facing an evil political system that perpetuates economic injustice.

Although the film is perhaps too direct and crude in this assessment, one can’t fault the courage of the producers in highlighting an important moral problem afflicting western society today. There's surely something immoral about a society that allows inequality of the sort depicted to prevail. We see it within the United States where net wealth among whites and blacks is out by a factor of four. Across the globe there are huge disparities between former colonial powers in the Western world and countries in the Global South that had previously been exploited by western powers for minerals and labour.

The film's scorn on the political culture that has created such inequality of access is refreshingly honest! The politics of  Elysium is cut-throat, with the likes of Delacourt more than willing to mount political coups against the democratic will of the people. It is almost screaming that regardless of the politics of health care, in the end the true evil is inequality fuelled by Darwinian consequentialism, market fundamentalism and extreme hedonism of the rich. The problem with inequality is that the rich can never guarantee true political  freedom because in the end their greed and insatiable appetites will ensure that they turn on each other.

Unfortunately, the movie is not without philosophical flaws. Yes, the world is broken by inequality, but it fails to demonstrate why health care should be a universal right of man. Addressing that challenge requires us to answer a prior question: what is man? The film answers us through the Catholic nun who looked after Max and Frey as orphans. She once told Max “look how beautiful we [on Earth] look from up there [Elysium]”. Except there is no explanation of why human beings are beautiful and should not be regarded as nothing more than machines.

The film fails to explain why the rich should care about the poor. Why is it morally wrong to live in Elysium and let people starve on Earth? When the film ending is fully considered it appears the only possible answer to that question is that inequality is economically unsustainable. Everyone needs equality because the majority poor will revolt and overturn the status quo. The right to health care is therefore nothing more than a political necessity. In many ways the universal health care model championed by the film is largely predicated on utilitarian benevolence rather than a question of righting injustice. In effect the film appears to ultimately argue against what the producers may have original intended to convey. 

Similar problems arise when we consider what the film regards as the fundamental problem confronting all human beings. The film's existential dilemma is how to share finite resources and care for our planet in the midst of greed. According to the film what prevents human beings living fulfilled lives is the rich who have created a system that oppresses others. It seems to be saying human progress that leaves others behind is not progress at all. In the end the poor will rise and overthrow the system. Stability and security therefore requires that we share with one another. This diagnosis is promising but again fraught with difficulties. 

In the final scene Max opens up Elysium to everyone and programs the androids to guarantee freedom and health for everyone on earth. But how do we eternally secure this new found arrangement? The films solves the dilemma by using androids created by humans as enforcers of freedom. This creates a worrying contradiction. The androids are quintessential products of inequality having been created by the rich through exploitation of the poor. Now these become the guardians of the new world. The film solves the problem by putting androids as benevolent overlords. Unfortunately in doing so it demeans man by placing him beneath the androids.

So whilst the movie is correct that in the end we cannot make it by ourselves, we need outside help, its solution only serves to demean man. It also leads to a bizarre idolization of health. In the film human health is the most important thing in life. That is certainly true to a point. As the Chinese proverb says, your health is like the number one. It does not matter how many zeros you have if you have not got “1” you have nothing. If you don’t have health you have nothing. The problem is that the film treats medical care as a “new god” for which the "Christ figure" Max must exchange his life for to give "salvation" to everyone.

Even more telling is that the film's vision of a different world fails to achieve full resolution. At the end of the film we are left with many questions. How will the rich react to the new system of free healthcare for all? Will they revenge against the poor? How will the poor cope with their new freedom and power? Will the Spider be the new overload with a record of street terror or will he submit to the androids? Can the androids eternally guarantee to police themselves?

The Bible like the film Elysium is clear that we cannot get out of our predicament through human ingenuity, even by super man-made computers. What we need is a Saviour who is wholly other (transcendent) and yet understands us more than we understand ourselves (immanent). Only  Jesus Christ who is fully man and fully God fulfils those conditions. In the end our deepest need is not a better body courtesy of the miracle machine of Elysium. What we need is a perfect sinless body of Jesus Christ that has been broken for us on the cross of Calvary to take away our sin and has now risen from the dead so that we might have life eternal. Not just living forever, but living as God intended us to live in the here and now.  

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013


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