This is an opinion column disguised as a movie review. It contains no spoilers.
Neil Blomkamp’s first outing in big-budget movie making was District 9, a science fiction thought piece on racism and xenophobia. “Big budget” is a relative term, and Blomkamp was no doubt able to put together the $30 million District 9 cost to shoot because of his position as a protégé of Peter Jackson, the man who may have turned New Zealand permanently into Middle Earth.
When this “small” independent film earned costs of production back in the first weekend and racked up four 2010 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, it was safe to say Blomkamp’s next outing would be on more than a wing and a prayer.
This year, we have Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster and released by TriStar. When a relative rookie like Blomkamp makes his way to the big time with a political statement, it’s fair to wonder if he will stay with the inherently risky plan of making people think with their popcorn.
Blomkamp has answered the question in a summer when most of the big action movies were dead on arrival. I speak of mega-duds Pacific Rim, White House Down, After Earth, and the one shot out of the saddle by several in these pages even before it fizzled at the box office, The Lone Ranger.
If District 9 used science fiction to dissect racism, Elysium does the same with class. The year is 2154, and our world has become an overpopulated hell-hole, unfit for the tender sensibilities of the rich, who have decamped to a gigantic space station in near-Earth orbit named after the paradise of Greek mythology.
Everybody is in the DNA database and coded as an Elysium-dwelling citizen or a non-citizen. The privileges of citizenship, in addition to clean air and water, are access to medical pods that can cure any ailment known to humankind. Non-citizens are, should they get past the shoot-to-kill agents of Homeland Security and arrive on Elysium, “illegal immigrants.” Sound familiar?
This state of affairs offers endless answers to the question, “What could possibly go wrong?” Without giving away the details of how things fall apart intentionally and otherwise, I’ll say that Blomkamp delivers enough whiz-bang action and CGI slathered over top-notch acting by both the stars and the supporting cast, that I’ll venture to guess Elysium will stand out in the Summer of Duds.
I found myself imagining the arguments I’ll have with my conservative friends, because I’m sure they will see it.
First, they will taunt that I’m always taking up for illegal immigrants, and it’s unfitting for an American Indian. I have two answers to that taunt. First, it chaps me that one set of illegal immigrants claims such great superiority to other illegal immigrants, apparently based on race. Second, the illegal immigrants I most often see mistreated are from Mexico and farther down in Latin America.
The Spanish colonists may have been murderers, rapists and thieves, but they kept very good records in their churches, which was the only place to solemnize a lawful marriage. Based on those records, we know that most “illegal immigrants” from the south are about 80 percent of indigenous blood. Some of them speak their languages better than they speak Spanish, let alone English.
Next, my conservative friends will point out that the story is told from the point of view of the non-citizens. The politics are biased. I’ll give them that. The dump where the Matt Damon character lives is better than the dump in which I was raised. When you ask me if my ideas of justice would differ had I been born to privilege, how could you trust the answer any more than I could trust the answer? Shall we disqualify the political opinions of all folk not born swell?
Finally, they will tell me to look at the problem that has defiled Earth: overpopulation. If rebels or spineless liberals make Elysium share the medical pods, won’t the overpopulation just get worse, since disease is God’s plan for limiting the number of poor people? If Elysium is forced to share, there’ll be no Elysium for anybody, and humanity will be worse off.
Now, I see the point. The interests of humanity are identical with the interests of the swell folks. Those who would upset the natural order of things—rule by the smartest and strongest—will destroy the species, because the unfit always outbreed the elite.
Isn’t this a science fiction exemplar of the dilemma predicted by Robert Malthus? In his own words: “That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence, That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population is kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.”
In my generation, Paul and Anne Ehrlich updated Mathus in The Population Bomb, predicting widespread famine and disease by the late 1970s/early 1980s. I attended a speech by Paul Ehrlich when I was in college. He was very convincing.
Malthus was wrong because he was a man and could not picture women as equal partners. The Ehrlichs remain prominent in academic life at Stanford University and influential voices in the environmental movement. They have had to backtrack a bit but have not recanted.
Here is what appears to happen in the real world. When (1) the infant mortality rate drops such that women have confidence that their children will live to adulthood and (2) women have control over their own reproductive decisions, then they decide not to be pregnant all the time and the population curve levels out. This has happened in the most affluent societies, where people use more resources per capita, and so declining population in affluent societies does more to protect the earth’s carrying capacity than a similar decline in pre-industrial societies.
The rise of modernity equals the fall of fundamentalist religion, which always stands in the way of women’s equality. The rise of modernity also brings down the infant mortality rate. A Malthusian would say that providing medical care and food for the poor would just cause the inferior creatures to overbreed and therefore create the suffering it purports to end.
A Malthusian does not live on Elysium because he can, but rather because it’s the only moral choice.
What about the people who will die in upsetting the status quo? Think of them!
Indeed. But there is no way they equal the number of deaths caused by the status quo.
Elysium spends stupefying amounts of available resources on Homeland Security. Neil Blomkamp was born in South Africa and came to adulthood in Canada. I doubt he’s failed to notice that the United States spends more on “defense” than the entire rest of the world combined.
Defending privilege is expensive, expensive enough to ask if similar sums were spent, say, doing the work of Doctors Without Borders, if we made ourselves marginally poorer by sharing, would we need so much “defense?”
At this point, when greed becomes the point, my thinking slips from “we” the United States to “we” indigenous peoples.
Those tribal governments still having a land base can choose to live in the past for as long as the dominant culture will support them in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Some of that is pretty good, but a lot of it has become intergenerational victimhood that looks like where I was raised and like the earth is imagined to be in 2154.
Contained within the power to maintain traditions is the power to choose one’s own future. For those who are happy with the status quo on their reservations or even find the infant mortality rates, alcoholism rates, crime rates, and unemployment rates acceptable, the only political issue is how to keep federal funding relatively stable.
Those of us who are not happy as individuals can leave and take our chances.
Those who are not happy as tribes need to think about 2154.
The Greeks thought about Elysium as the afterlife for demi-gods, the righteous, and the heroic.
I hesitate to quote Indians who did not write for themselves, for they’ve been poorly used by white men’s pens, but I cannot resist the words attributed to Many Horses (Oglala), a contemporary of Sitting Bull:
“I will follow the white man's trail. I will make him my friend, but I will not bend my back to his burdens. I will be cunning as a coyote. I will ask him to help me understand his ways, then I will prepare the way for my children. Maybe they will outrun the white man in his own shoes.
“There are but two ways for us. One leads to hunger and death; the other leads to where the poor white man lives. Beyond is the happy hunting ground where the white man cannot go.”
I suspect the white man who translated that speech was translating wasichu, understood in modern times “takes the fat.” Many Horses was talking about where the greedy cannot go.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.