Elysium: “technology as mystification”


Spoiler Alert. Not that the ending it isn’t totally predictable anyway.

The plot: In the near future, Earth’s ecosystems have been destroyed by industrial development and all its habitants live in slums. All the rich people live in a luxury space colony orbiting the planet. On this colony everyone has access to complete healthcare by means of these magic-heal-all pods which remove all the illness in their body through some Very Advanced Technology. All the rich people are white and speak French, and all the poor people (who live on Earth) are not-white and speak Spanish. Except Matt Damon, who plays the protagonist, Max. Max is in love with his childhood sweetheart,  Frey, who’s a nurse with a sick daughter. He gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in a work accident, and decides to risk everything in order to get to Elysium and its magical healing machines. A bunch of stuff happens, he gets to Elysium, fails to heal himself but does cure Frey’s daughter, hacks the space-colony’s computer mainframe, changes the piece of code that classifies all citizens of earth as “illegal” on Elysium, and dies. Poof! All of Earth’s citizens are now legal, and thus entitled the automated healthcare system on Elysium, which promptly deploys medical care to the (entire?) planet. So everyone is happy and everything is fine now? Right? I mean, don’t worry about entrenched racism or irreparable ecological damage or anything guys – the poor people now have shiny smooth aspirin-like ships full of medicine, so it’s all good. Thanks, Matt!

Ok. So.

If you’re going to posit a future society in which all of Earth is a slum and all the rich people live on a off-world space colony orbiting the planet, and you’re going to make this story reflect current disparities between the first and the third world, that is, you’re going to make all the poor people in this posited society be brown, Spanish-speaking folk, and all the rich people be white, English/French speaking-folk,

then you are telling, like, a story about, as I’ve said, racism, among other problems. Right?

So. Good. It’s good to tell stories about racism, to remind ourselves that it’s a problem, that it exists now and probably will continue to exist in the future and that it is bad and that we should combat it.


Like. Seriously. In this movie, EVERYTHING that is wrong with this future world is fixed, at the end, by a character editing a line of computer code to change the classification of residents of Earth from “illegal” to “legal.”

Friends. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you want to defeat institutionalized racism and economic injustice, if you want to tear down society and rebuild it as a more just, moral and generally better place to live, IT TAKES A LITTLE MORE THAN REWRITING A FEW EFFING LINES OF CODE SWEETHEARTS. I really wish it were that simple, but it isn’t.

I know that’s obvious. You’re like, Sally, calm down, it’s a Hollywood movie, it’s not meant to be realistic. The reason I found this movie so irritating is because it reflected a trend in pop science fiction that I find morally troublesome. It’s something that science fiction writer and critic Joanna Russ has called “technology as mystification.” By this she means a simplistic yet schizophrenic attitude about technology which posits that it is an autonomous force for good or evil, that it in a sense has agency of its own.

The problem with this attitude is that, while it’s all very fun for us to sit around and talk about “the role of technology in human society” and to think about how it shapes us, such discussions tend to occlude the actual issue at stake, in this case, namely, the fact that burdens and consequences of environmental destruction are now and will continue to fall more heavily on the poor, and that the poor are now and will continue to be non-white people.

To posit such a convenient solution to this injustice as the simple act of editing  a line of code is to suggest that the injustice itself was merely the result of a line of code. The bad guys in Elysium are the evil people who decided created the space station and decided that only certain people could go there, but the apparently they have no power or consequence beyond their ability to manipulate technology – so in a sense it is technology that is the bad guy. At the same time, all it takes for the Earth and its people to be saved is the arrival of Elysium’s magical healthcare ships at the movie’s end – never mind the fact that the planet is still in shambles. So technology is the ultimate good guy too.

This contrast is why “schizophrenic” is an appropriate term to describe the attitude Elysium and other recent pop science fiction takes toward technology. Technology is either a god or demon, and though the movie superficially attributes agency to human beings, at the end of the day, it is more interested in glitzy tools and sexy computers. It is more interested in hysterically interrogating the meaning of these technological objects than on honestly inspecting the human society itself. The social message of the film is just some pretty wrapping paper used to cover up a shallow, materially-obsessed fantasy about the importance of having stuff.

Also, seriously, if you’re going to make a futuristic allegory about illegal immigration, don’t make the protagonist white. I mean, just, come on.


7 thoughts on “Elysium: “technology as mystification”

  1. King Louie

    Your cogent analysis is spot on.It. The suggestion that a moment of nerdic typing is a naive as the belief that a few lines of legalese will make a similar change. you cannot legislate Morality any more than you can hack a few lines to change the color of the sun ( yes i am prepared for a million snotty snarks photo edited pictures showing a funny colored sun)
    We have often labored under the idea that official words or mechanistic manipulations will change everything. Real; change comes when we make it come from within the hearts of men and women.
    as far as “oh get over it it is just a movie.” Well our Pop culture acts as an agent of Propiganda, soothing fears with simplistic illusion. Bread and circuses instead of Liberty and satisfaction.
    You go right ahead, and critique these illusion peddlers we’d like to see films with meaning not just Pollyanna-ish distraction.

  2. Drew Burk

    Or… producers, writers, moneymen and the like know that there’s the money for the tech movie but not the racism movie. They know as well they can be so super blatant via structure and casting and all the little signals that say a certain thing, even if the market dictates that they cannot discuss it directly. There is room in a book for the complete discussion. There is not room in a film of this sort. That it makes you ask these questions, that probably others also have the same response and think and talk more about racism than they had been before seeing the movie… maybe there’s someone involved that intended that.

    1. nonsunblog Post author

      I disagree that there is not room in a movie for a decent, substantive discussion about racism. District 9 managed it, and it was also popularly successful. It was better than Elysium because District 9’s characters were complex and realistic, and their individual flaws enacted the movie’s critique of society as a whole — so it was about actual human beings and what’s fucked up with them and the human race. Elysium was about human-shaped cans of beans being processed in some giant futuristic factory managed by unknowable forces. I don’t buy the whole “it has to be dumbed down and blatant because they need to make money off it” argument. I think a movie that so oversimplifies its ostensible critique is worse than one that doesn’t even attempt critique – in fact I think it’s regressive.

      1. Drew Burk

        District 9 worked because it was aliens and so everyone got to watch it and think about it from a removed place. None of us has committed any atrocities against spacemen, so the movie’s not pointing at us, not accusing us of anything. And I do buy the necessary monetization argument, and I hate it less now as an old man than I did as a younger fellow because I’ve seen some folk do what seemed to me then as selling out, then go on later with they cred and they money and power and control and do good work after the monetization issue’d been handled. I think even an incomplete critique or a portrayal that does less than we would like it to is still better than none at all. The majority of folk I deal with outside the confines of this studio are kinda really stupid, and I think an infuriatingly slow incremental approach is a method better suited to yield advances in any discussion. So long as the issues, in whatever form and to whatever extent, keep cropping up, a larger argument gets made over time.

  3. nonsunblog Post author

    Well, sure. I did think about the fact that District 9 deals with aliens instead of people, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what makes it successful. I think what makes it successful is the main character is a clueless, unintelligent bureaucrat. What I mean is, it’s convincing because I believe in its characters. There is nothing remotely troublesome about Elysium, and that’s why it is ineffective as a piece of social commentary. It wants the social gain without any pain. If I already think the current immigration system is fucked up, then I see the movie and think, yeah, that’s right! And if I don’t, I see the movie and I think, what a dumb piece of propaganda. Whereas with a movie like District 9, it’s not just about the big general questions of good and evil, but about the small human attributes that cause systems to become fucked up. It’s the characters that drive the commentary, not the premise.

    I will clarify what I meant about the monetary argument. I don’t mean that it is never OK to cater to audience preferences in order to be financially successful, I just don’t think that’s relevant to my complaint about the movie itself. Too often when criticize films do I get the response “well, they had to make money.” I don’t care. It’s not the point. The fact that it was trying to be financially successful is not what caused it to be a bad movie. It is a bad movie because it’s bad.

    In my opinion Elysium is not— taking an “infuriatingly slow incremental approach.” That was I was trying to say in my original post, it’s taking an nicely-paced move backwards. That gist of my whole argument is, just because you talk about racism doesn’t automatically gain you Progressive points — we need to have higher standards than that. If you’re going to mystify politics and social problems with technological glitz, you’re giving everyone an excuse to ignore the real problem while they cheerfully imagine that they are being socially engaged. And that — that is why it’s a step backwards: ignorance that imagines itself to be wisdom is the most dangerous kind of ignorance. It’s like people who talk about how great Twitter is because the Arab Spring. It’s not just kind-of-unideal; it’s completely un-ok. I get that most-people-are-stupid-and-don’t-get-it, but I’m still gonna stick to my belief that we gotta have higher standards. I’ll let you know when I get cynical and give up on that.

    I mean, actually, you’re completely right, of course, in the end. But, like, the art, dude. The art.

  4. Drew Burk

    I was gonna call myself out on my “when I was your age I had to rail uphill, barefoot on my face through broken glass and crack-dusted snow” thing, but I thought it would be more fun to leave it uncommented upon. My shift into pre-geriatric pragmatism owes a lot to the fact that there’s a newer and shinier generation of better informed folk coming up behind.

    My friend science suggested that the vast majority of us are all gonna be just uniform brown one day, after we’ve had enough time for all of us to have sex with all of us. Maybe this is that world, and it really is that simple, just us v them, maybe the worst is that it’s on purpose gross oversimplification, and that there is that there’s no subtlety or nuance and it’s all either or, brown or white, have or not, is all meant… our deifying celebrity culture, materialism and general indifference creating for us something so bleak and idiotic we of course did not ever believe it could happen. And because we could not conceive of it, we couldn’t recognize it when we had it. And then pow: space habitat and Darwin and we all look like ants from up there.

    I should probably see the movie. Like, do they say everything is fixed and they show you the bright shiny future where the healed folk have likewise healed their ruined planet, or is it just that folk get a temporary reprieve from the suckfest of their lives, and probably a few minutes after the credits someone uploaded a patch and fixed the system and the one of the robot-controller folk was like, Okay, you know what? We’ve only gotta have this final moral lapse ONCE, so I’m gonna take one for the team and just wipe the lot of em out. Y’all feel free to voice a little outrage after, okay? (What’s French for y’all?) And then problem solved? Because if they don’t say otherwise, I bet that totally happened. Just nobody filmed it.

    1. nonsunblog Post author

      The french word for plural “you” is the same word as the formal “you”, which is “vous”, so it’s like important people literally count more than unimportant people. But french for “y’all” is probably more like “yew guyzz.”

      I mean the movie’s not as simple as brown vs white…obviously there are poor white people in the movie because matt damon is one of them. It’s set in the pretty near future, so it’s basically what things are actually like in the US now…. lots and lots of all kinds of poor and rich people, but with some obvious trends.

      And, uh, as for what you said in the second paragraph or your reply, I would say it’s the latter situation. Which is part of why I got grumpy. I was like, seriously, this isn’t going to last guys… the planet is still sucky and if you can make all the poor people of the earth become citizens of the rich-people-space colony with one simple hack, then they can probably fix that pretty quick.


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