No one will be allowed to escape. No one will get a separate peace. No one gets to have a good life. We’re going down, and we’re going down together – because in the wasteland of modernity, that’s what it is to be human.
Neill Blomkamp, late of District 9, returns to form in Elysium. Once again, the white South African (who lives in Canada, naturally) preaches the egalitarian gospel that has reduced his once proud homeland into just another failed state. The year is 2154, and Earth is an overpopulated, polluted wasteland. Los Angeles seems to be an almost entirely Spanish speaking Third World sprawl reminiscent of Mega City One – or some of the more “vibrant” neighborhoods of Venezuela. Animals like giraffes are gone, the American flag seems to have vanished (or isn’t even worth mentioning), and the intrusive “government” that rules over the proles seems to be administered mostly by droids.
Blomkamp achieves something important in this vision. As technology advances, it’s conceivable that neural implants, robotics, microtechnology, and 3-D printers could create people so improved and well supplied that a reckoning for decadence could be postponed inevitably. The Traditionalist cycle of History would be trumped, at last, by the power of technics, and the artificially powered Last Man would stand triumphant and unashamed at the end of History. This is the Whig Version of History taken to its logical conclusion, as propagated by pop scientists like Michio Kaku when they speak about the bored bourgeoisie harnessing the “Power of the Gods.” It would be the values of modern America – only powered by technological wizardry and a godlike IQ.
Blomkamp gives us a more realistic vision. In his world, knowledge can be downloaded directly into the brain, droids can accomplish security tasks, and “Med-Pods” exist that can instantly cure injuries or disease. However, the world in general is populated by resentful nonwhite peasants waging their petty conflicts and indulging their lowly vices. Fantastic technology coexists alongside the ruin of the black and Hispanic slums.
In truth, the modern world is a race between global dysgenics fueled by egalitarian cant and the growth of technology fueled by the lust for profit and the love of innovation. We live in a world where poor Africans posses cell phones with more processing power than the craft America used to reach the moon – and the Sudanese use this technology to spread rumors about witches stealing their penis. In Blomkamp’s world, the race ends in stalemate, as humanity is neither exalted nor degraded by technology, but simply stumbles on as it always has.
Matt Damon plays Max, a blond-haired, blue-eyed throwback who has somehow survived in this new nonwhite world after being raised by nuns. A once legendary car thief, Max is now resolved to lead a normal life after a stint in prison. He pines after “Frey,” who despite the reference to the (male) Nordic god of fertility is the de rigueur intelligent, giving, and supposedly sexually attractive Hispanic single mother who can serve as the moral exemplar of the film. His childhood crush and best friend is now a nurse, selflessly catering to the faceless masses in the overcrowded hospitals of the hellish Los Angeles. Max himself trudges to and from his degrading but “respectable” job, to the mockery of the Third Worlders around him. The fist of the state is ever present in the form of droids, whose repression is made all the more unendurable by their use of bureaucratic politeness to conceal the (literal) iron fist.
Of course, Max also has to look upon the eponymous alternative – the heavenly otherworld visible even from the Earth. A vision of the celestial sphere itself, it’s very name suggests a divine way of life. In Alex Kurtagic’s Mister, the protagonist’s wife speculates that if Europeans had never crossed the Atlantic, “Africa and America would have remained sparsely populated by prehistorical tribes. Europe – if they ever got to know of it — would for them have been like Olympus, or Asgard: something they spoke about in their myths and legends, a land inhabited by gods and magic and extra-terrestrials” (224). Here, the products of the failed dysgenic experiment of democracy can actually look up and see the abode of the gods, a place where advanced “Med-Pods” can banish disease, injury, and even ugliness.
According to the expanded marketing material for the film, Elysium is headed by one “President Patel,” a denizen of the Davos type as a former Prime Minister of India and a globe trotting international do gooder. While he tries to put a respectable face on Elysium, it is Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster, hamming it up), who is the real power behind the throne. Delacourt, all power suits and feminine resolve, smoothly transitions from garden parties with Francophone, attractive white citizens of Elysium (and their blonde children) to shooting down “undocumented” aircraft and coolly ordering the deportation of survivors. While Patel worries about image and appropriate use of force, Delacourt is contemptuous of his kvetching about public relations and willing to do whatever is necessary to defend a habitat for Elysium’s citizens and their children. Strangely, we never see Delacourt’s own children, suggesting that Delacourt has a further developed ideology that allows her to be comfortable with her militant tactics.
However, it is more likely that Delacourt is simply intended to be evil and implictly racist by virtue of her willingness to defend her community with whatever means necessary. The weak leadership of Patel could be a subtle nod towards the criticism of President Barack Obama by Matt Damon and others who think America’s Commander in Chief has utterly acquiesced to the national security state and its “racist” tactics. In any event, Delacourt schemes with the CEO of the droid company to gain access to Elysium’s security codes and accomplish a coup d’etat. Just as in classical Marxist thought, the capitalists will use the forthright militancy of fascism to defend their interests.
Delacourt’s Sturmabteilung, is, of course, a team of white South African mercenaries led by “Kruger.” The Boers in space are all needlessly cruel, sexually perverted, greedy, and corrupt, in contrast to the moral exemplars like Frey. While the American flag may go unseen in this film, a small flag of Mandela’s South Africa is painted on Kruger’s ship – though the logo of an Oryx is more prominent.
The catalyst for Max is a workplace accident where he receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. Out of simple fear of death, Max approaches “Spider,” a kind of space “coyote” and human smuggler, about getting a ticket to Elysium. The weakened Max is fitted with an exoskeleton to give him superhuman strength and told to rob the CEO, along with a small team. The mission goes wrong and the CEO (and most of Max’s team) is killed, but Max is able to steal the security codes for Elysium itself so they are stored in his brain. As Spider puts it, “We can save everyone.” Max’s next mission is not just for himself – it is an invasion.
What fuels this, as you may have guessed, is Frey. Wounded in the robbery, Max goes to Frey for help and is introduced to her sick daughter. In the most unnecessary sentimental scene since the little girl talked to Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals, the dying girl tells Max a story about animals and the importance of sharing and helping. Max says he can not help Frey and her daughter – but Kruger and his Afrikaner barbarians raid the home after Max leaves, pointlessly kidnap the “family,” and treat the audience to veiled threats of rape, violence, and weird promises of marriage.
None of this makes tactical or moral sense behind simply creating a caricature of Afrikaners as evil, but it still vaguely fits the Zeitgeist of our world. After all, in modern America, what could be more oppressive to a “strong, single Hispanic womyn” than marriage to a white man? Still, such pointless cruelty fills the necessary plot hole, as Max has a reason to board Kruger’s ship under an uneasy truce, and Frey and her daughter have a reason to accompany the evil mercenaries to Elysium.
After the predictable betrayal, Max and Kruger are free to do exo-skeleton powered battle within Elysium. Kruger stabs Delacourt and seeks to take over Elysium for himself — true to the last, Delacourt dies rather than accepting help from Frey. Meanwhile, Spider uses the confusion to raid Elysium himself in order to use Max’s codes. After predictably dispatching Kruger, Max overcomes his own fear of death and allows Spider to use the codes embedded within him to instantly make everyone on Earth a “citizen” of Elysium. No one’s undocumented now! Medical robots fly down to Earth to heal everyone instantly, the military power of the old regime is destroyed, and presumably we live happily ever after.
Steve Sailer has argued the egalitarian fairy tale is so simplistic that Blomkamp is actually playing liberal film critics for fools by showing the consequences of open borders ideology. Such a reading is too clever by half. The portrayal of Dellacroce, Kruger, and the Afrikaners is entirely unsympathetic, even sadistic. The virtuous single mother Frey, the Holy Harlot of modernity, is the moral center of the film.
More importantly, although in interviews Blomkamp openly discusses the decline of the United States into a “Third World deathbed,” there is no alternative offered or even hinted at. Though Blomkamp concedes that opening scarce resources and First World living standards up to everyone eventually drains the host nations, there is no choice. To save humanity you have to “somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.” Blomkamp just is pessimistic about the feasibility of this, which in Hollywood, makes him a steely reactionary. However, his principles are the same as everyone else’s.
Critics like Sailer also underestimate how culture creators and culture consumers have internalized anti-white, anti-Traditional, and anti-hierarchy messages. The people of Elysium are attractive, wealthy, and stereotypically blonde. This automatically makes them evil, despicable, and uncool. It is the hellish Third World Los Angels that is more vibrant and morally superior precisely because of its ugliness. After all, as any activist will tell you at an Ivy League campus, beauty standards are fascist. Just because Los Angeles is portrayed as terrible doesn’t mean that those who made, finance, and see the film don’t long to see it spread over the world. After all, liberals today glory over the “new” South Africa or the “new” American South, even though Johannesburg or Birmingham are ruins compared to the peaceful, orderly, attractive cities that existed before.
Max’s sacrifice for the Third World masses is not meant to be ironic. It is meant to be aspirational. In the secular theocracy of post-Christianity, that which is high must be destroyed for the benefit of that which is low. It is not about raising people up, but bringing the great down. Thus, the blue eyed white man, steeled to his duty since youth to do something “great” by Spanish speaking Catholic nuns, kills himself for the direct benefit of a mestizo woman and another man’s child. In a broader sense, he dies for all those who are not like him. More importantly, this is portrayed in quasi-religious, Christian terms, as the representatives of Holy Mother Church from his childhood are portrayed as inspiring or at least identified with Max’s suicidal mission. The more things change…
However, this should not be seen purely in just racial terms. After all, the nominal leader of Elysium is President Patel, and his background is that of something out of the Open Society Institute, not the Revolutionary Communist Party or the Black Panthers. Elysium’s social critique is fatalistic, almost exhausted. Hierarchy of any kind, even that which is nominally colorblind or done in the name of some kind of greater good, is inherently unjust. It’s not that destroying it leads to a better world for anyone, except in the short term, it’s simply something we must do.
The movie somewhat dodges the moral implications of radical egalitarianism through the apparently limitless resources of the Med-Pod. Rather than the deus ex machina, we get the machina ex deo, as the robots running on autopilot can apparently cure everyone in the world without any regard to cost. Of course, unless the people in Elysium were just sadistic, why wouldn’t they do that in the first place? Kruger notwithstanding, why wouldn’t the UN types like Patel simply mandate health care for everyone if it is essentially free? Obviously, there are some kind of costs involved, which the movie just wants us to ignore. The overpopulated, dystopian nightmare of Earth probably just got a whole lot worse.
But we aren’t supposed to think about it. For all it’s skillful cinematography, beautiful imagery, and even the occasional insights, Elysium represents a failure of imagination. Even though Blomkamp and other artists of our day know at some level the cost of turning the First World into the Third, they don’t see any alternative. They don’t acknowledge the moral right to survive. Furthermore, moral perfection is achieved by dying in the attempt to speed this transition. Better to die than to become a Kruger. Let egalitarian justice be done, though the heavens (in this case literally) fall. If a mestizo is sick, the country has to be destroyed.
Of course, the moral and metapolitical revolution must precede the artistic one. Today, educated opinion acknowledges no ethical alternative to dystopia than what is addressed in Elysium. The cultural heights (or the literal heavens in the minds of liberal theologians) demand our destruction.
In the real world, we are not the citizens of Elysium — we are stuck in the Third World with Max. And ironically, our mission is much the same as his, though for a different cause. We must wage war on the heavens where our rulers have taken refuge. After all, if we can be free of them, we can build Elysium on Earth.