“Trailers for ‘Elysium’ were like catnip for the left-leaning viewer: a near future where the masses, stranded in crumbling cities, outfit Matt Damon with a robot suit and send him to fight the bourgeoisie, who have Galted off the planet to Space Station Elysium, taking their shrubbery, Spanish-style mansions and cancer cures with them,” Gavin Mueller writes at Jacobin.
As an allegory for class struggle, the movie “Elysium” promised everything the earnest radical and social reformer could want from a genre that has so far failed to shove left-wing values into the mainstream. Those viewers are bound to be disappointed though, Mueller writes. “Elysium” has plenty of blood and guts, robots, space travel, sword fights and other staples of Hollywood science fiction, but offers only a simplified representation of class struggle.
It’s a shame, because Blomkamp once again has an excellent concept to work with. The space station concept nicely dramatizes the spatialization of class that geographers like David Harvey and the late Neil Smith have written about for years. Elysium collapses the gated city and the militarized border into one potent metaphor, and Blomkamp’s not afraid to show the privileged defending their picturesque suburbs against crippled children with deadly force. Perhaps the most novel idea is to collapse citizenship with health care. A ticket to Elysium grants you citizenship and access to miraculous life-preserving technologies, a powerful point as citizenship is one of the biggest holes in the Swiss cheese that is Obamacare. Blomkamp’s able to see how the overt authoritarianism of apartheid biopolitics (where blacks were denied citizenship, had their movement strictly controlled and had a life expectancy at least a decade shorter than whites) hasn’t been abolished. Instead, it’s been globalized, covered with a thin neoliberal veneer of market and meritocracy. In Elysium the struggle is not for the means of production, but the means of reproduction, as the vast majority of Earth is treated as a surplus population left to die lest they waste precious resources.
The future’s ruling class withdraws from practically all contact with their inferiors, scarcely able to tolerate breathing the same air. Robots replace the police force that disciplines the Earthlings, as well as the servant class, whose proximity has been a source of perpetual anxiety for the rich for centuries. They’ve even managed to automate affective labor — Damon’s tin-can parole officer (more than a little reminiscent of Johnny Cab from Total Recall) can detect his sarcasm, and offers mood-altering pills in response. So it’s a bit curious that Damon works at a robot-building factory filled with hundreds of human workers — they’ve already replaced a lot these workers with machines, haven’t they? Though it does provide a clever flip on that famous line from the Manifesto: here it’s the working class who produces its own grave-diggers in the form of robot soldiers.