Science Fiction as Social Criticism
Science fiction is frequently at the cutting edge of social commentary. From Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed to Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9, science fiction writers commonly use allegory and dystopian themes to offer powerful critiques of the contemporary world.
Blomkamp’s newest film Elysium continues in this critical tradition; he set out to make a sci-fi film about the kinds of social inequality he observed when relocating from South Africa to Vancouver, Canada. Elysium tells the story of Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a troubled member of the future working class who must escape the poor and overpopulated Earth to obtain medical treatment on the luxurious space habitat for the rich known as Elysium. For Da Costa to save himself, he must also save humanity. While the first part of Blomkamp’s film provides a refreshing allegorical critique of today’s unequal and deeply divided world, its conclusion reinforces stereotypes that must be challenged.
Elysium explores a number of important themes including immigration, health care and poverty. The film is set on Earth in 2154; the gap between rich and poor has widened to such an extent that the wealthy now live on their own space station. Back on Earth, the wretched and dispossessed struggle to survive. The film opens with refugees fleeing to Elysium to procure necessary medical treatment; however, Secretary of Defence Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) orders the ships of the “illegals” to be shot down. After a workplace injury, Da Costa finds himself in a similar situation to the so-called “illegals.” In return for passage to Elysium to seek life-saving treatment, he agrees to aid a rebel group. For his ticket, Da Costa kills a CEO and extracts information powerful enough to take down Elysium. However, Delacourt employs private mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to protect Elysium and to try and stop Da Costa.
While the first part of Elysium successfully critiques today’s global inequality through allegory, there are three main problems with Elysium’s ending. First, despite representing a racially diverse society on Earth, the struggle to save humanity comes down, essentially, to a dramatic fist fight between two white men, Da Costa and Kruger. Secondly, the three main women in the film are ultimately relegated to stereotypical and marginal roles: Delacourt is the power-hungry ice queen, Kyra is Da Costa’s love interest in constant need of rescuing, and her sick daughter is just adorably cute. Lastly, instead of Blomkamp’s protagonist mobilizing the masses in a bottom-up struggle against inequality, Da Costa chooses to sacrifice himself in a solitary mission to ensure a top-down redistribution of wealth and resources led by a small rebel group.
Elysium’s conclusion closes off the channels of mass social action and wrongly suggests that the dirty work of changing the world is best left to white men with rebel backup.
As future installments of this column will suggest, popular culture is not simply a weapon of mass distraction. Whether it is movies, music, novels or comic books, working with, and offering critiques of, popular culture can serve as a way of introducing people to alternative ways of thinking and acting in the world. Critically engaging with popular culture must be part of our strategies to change the world. And with films like Elysium and other dystopian fantasies coming to the silver screen, such as Snowpiercer and the much-anticipated sequel in the Hunger Games franchise, there will be a great deal of material to enjoy, critique and debate widely.
Sean Carleton is an activist, educator and writer living in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), Ontario. He is a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, a founding member of the Graphic History Collective, and an author of May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (Between the Lines, 2012).