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!
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.
So, makers-of-Elysium, HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO IGNORE THAT PART OF THE STORY?
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.