Thursday, August 8, 2013

Elysium, Misanthropy, and Technophilia

Is the star of the movie the one looking away
from us, or the one looking at us?

As allegory, Elysium is less risible than its predecessor, in that it doesn’t equate apartheid victims to slimy space bugs. But it’s ultimately even less concerned with the social issues it pretends to tackle; any focus on wealth inequality or the failures of the health-care system basically evaporates once the heavy artillery comes out.
I do not wish to take umbrage with Dowd for having found District 9 to be "risible," criticizing him for suggesting that Neill Blomkamp's masterpiece about how we dehumanize minorities—say by likening them to "slimy space bugs"—was somehow laughable, but instead suggest that here Dowd simply doesn't understand what Elysium is about either.

District 9
In District 9 Blomkamp called attention not only to our ability to dehumanize those we consider to be alien, but how our alienation of others can become so engrained that we experience genuine horror at the idea of losing our sense of self by in any way mixing with said aliens.  As Sharlto Copley's Wikus slowly becomes one of the aliens we are made to witness the sad truth that, contrary to our idealistic hope that we can evolve a sense of empathy, it is only by such a sudden and violent transformation that we can take on the perspective of the alien, of the other, and see the world through their eyes.

In Elysium we find Blomkamp returning to these themes once more, only now the alien other is a human other, a poor, polluted, unhealthy other.  Yet here the central figure is already one of the others, for which reason the transformation that we witness is the obverse of that of District 9, as Matt Damon's Max becomes instead one of the elite.  The elite he becomes however is not of the wealthy, godlike Elysians, but rather one of their robotic servants.  If in District 9 we had the hierarchical dualism between humans and aliens, in Elysium we find instead a hierarchical tripartite structure of Elysians, robots, humans.  In other words, Elysium presents us with the idea that we are moving towards a future in which it is humans who are the aliens.

Clash of the Titans
The Elysian space sanctuary is thus a Mount Olympus, and, much like the Olympian gods of Homer and of Harryhausen, they see the humans below as mere playthings at best and as insects at worst.  Hence whereas Dowd believes that this movie is meant to be a commentary on inequality with regards to resources, I believe that this movie is meant to be a commentary on inequality with regards to identity.  If we cannot become gods, then we'll take becoming robots as consolation.  Anything to stop us from having to continue as frail, weak, mortal humans.

It is thus a mistake to think that the real social issues in the movie "evaporate[] once the heavy artillery comes out" as it is our fetishization of heavy artillery that is the real social issue at the heart of the movie.  Much like Pacific Rim, this movie centers around the plot device of being able to connect ourselves with machinery if we have any hope of achieving our goals.  It is no coincidence that I am only able to achieve my goal of writing this blog by connecting myself with my MacBook.  You likewise are connected to whatever device you're using to read this right now.

If we are concerned with wealth and health inequality today it is almost entirely because we are living in a world divided into technology-have's and technology-have-not's, as is the world of Elysium and as was the world of District 9 (remember the interest in the aliens was for their ability to create weapons much as the only remaining interest in humans in Elysium is for their ability to create robotic weapons). It is for this reason that Blomkamp is not dropping the ball when it comes to the issues that confront us but is rather addressing the issues beneath these issues, issues like our hatred of all things human and love of all things technological, robotic, cyborg.

And if you ask why we hate humanity and love the idea of the Singularity, Blomkamp has Damon tell us the answer over and over again: "I don't want to die."  For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death will we not part from our beloved dreams of machine immortality.

So go watch Elysium, but remember to turn off your iPhone during the movie.  You have a psychic link with it by now anyway don't you, so it's never really off is it?

Update: Our local NPR station's movie reviewer Ryan Wilson discussed this post recently on his show Take 5, which you can now listen to here:

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