Going to the Movies in Bangalore: “Elysium,” Snowden, Manning and Assange

Elysium

“Elysium,” the film starring Matt Damon and Jody Foster showed up in India this past weekend. My wife, Peggy, and I happened to be in Bangalore to celebrate her birthday. So we went to see the film – our first time at the movies since arriving in India about three weeks ago. (We intend to stay here another three months as Peggy’s Fulbright at Mysore University takes its course.)

“Elysium” has been panned by some as convoluted in plot, over-the-top in its acting, and filled with typically Hollywood violence as indestructible and robotic adversaries clash in hackneyed, interminable and highly unlikely fight scenes.

I however found “Elysium” strangely intriguing when viewed from our setting in India and in the context of our government’s furor over information leaks. From that perspective, “Elysium” was evocative of the Bhagavad Gita in pitting its protagonist against overwhelming odds in a fight to the finish for human liberation.

More specifically, “Elysium” played out in comic book fashion the battle of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and other information “criminals” against the overpowering state apparatus of a militarized, out-of-control and venal federal government.

To begin with, take the film’s setting – Los Angeles in 2054. The streets of Bangalore were a good prep for the film. Like L.A. in the film, they are polluted, over-crowded, and dirty. However, unlike the imagined L.A. of the future, Bangalore finds itself going in two directions at once, not simply downhill.

Bangalore is situated somewhere between decay and an undisciplined version of globalized commercialization. It features “branded stores” like The Gap, Nike, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Dominos alongside stalls and shops overflowing with goods of all description. The treatment of workers on this sub-continent (as exemplified in the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh), is not unlike workers take-it-or-leave-it dilemma in the film.

Then consider the film’s plot. It’s about Max, a factory employee (played by Matt Damon) who is injured on the job as he’s exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. With five days to live, he must find his way to “Elysium,” a human-fabricated planet floating above the earth. There the rich live in idyllic conditions, where life-saving medical care is readily available. “Elysium’s” story is about Max’s quest to reach for that star. Damon does so by stealing government secrets.

Meanwhile the government responds with extreme violence. It pursues Max in ways reminiscent of the U.S. pursuit of Snowden, Manning and Assange. Its security apparatus hunts him down relentlessly. He is pursued by an implacable, incredibly powerful mercenary agency. He is threatened by drones. Finally, he sacrifices his life so that the information he divulged might set others free.

All of this happens in an oppressive culture characterized by:

• Dominance of the military-industrial complex that completely subordinates politicians to business moguls.
• A high unemployment rate that makes it a privilege for workers to be exploited in the workplace as opposed to remaining jobless.
• A medical system that provides healthcare only to those who can pay for it.
• Total surveillance of everyone involved.
• Fail-safe border patrol that entirely eliminates refugees by killing those attempting to cross borders illegally.
• A highly brutal police force that acts with robot brutality, absolute lack of compassion, and over-all impunity.
• The use of drones to hunt down and eliminate dissenters.
• Women (personified in the Jodie Foster secretary of defense) who despite finally holding high office prove to be more heartless than their male counterparts.

So in the end, “Elysium” is about the fate of a low-level corporate employee like Edward Snowden. The secrets Max reveals show the Department of Defense violating Elysium’s own constitution that supposedly governs a highly polarized society and keeps the reins of power in the hands of a rich minority. While protecting and empowering the minority, the rules in place deprive the majority of the rights of citizenship.

The disclosure of the planet’s governing secrets not only exposes abuse of power, but ends up dethroning the elite, while enabling ordinary people to claim the rights that belong to them in virtue of their humanity. “Elysium” is about information as the key to revolution.

Very little of this is perceived by movie critics. A movie review in The Indian Times saw “Elysium” as just another Hollywood action flick. Without explanation, it remarked that “conspiracy theorists” might find it interesting, and that the film said something about immigration and health care.

I’m suggesting that “Elysium” says much more than that. It perfectly describes the direction in which our culture is traveling. It represents a story of hope. It’s about the triumph of the working class against overwhelming odds. “Elysium” is about the power of information and the heroism of people like Snowden, Manning, and Assange. As a cautionary tale, the film is a call to support whistle-blowers against our own corrupt “leadership.”

Too bad all that de rigueur Hollywood overlay of violence, chases and predictability obscures “Elysium’s” valuable message.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Going to the Movies in Bangalore: “Elysium,” Snowden, Manning and Assange”

  1. Mike, thanks for your thoughtful comments like always. I haven’t seen the movie but could see the message from the preview. It reminds me of The Hunger Games. The analogy seemed so clear to me that the US is the Capitol living in excess with no concept that others are starving or suffering from completely preventable causes.

    My only question is, what are we going to do about it? I think about this a lot and feel hopeless.
    I believed so much that Obama would be different and make a difference it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that he won’t. But I suppose that was the lazy route anyway. How much did it cost me to simply vote for a popular candidate, right? But I also think if someone with so much promise can’t make a difference who can? I can recycle, reuse, use less, eat organic, etc but does it matter? It doesn’t seem to. In a larger sense I don’t want to look back at this time period and say, why didn’t i do anything?

    This is suppose to be the age of information with news at my finger tips. But I think it’s the age of misinformation. News has become someone’s opinion that are presented as facts. I have good friends and family who are very conservative in their beliefs and I would like to put them in the category of heartless assholes but that’s not really true. I think it’s wrong that I can read about Trayvon Martin, for example in the Huffington Post and get different ‘facts’ then if I had read listened to Fox News. How do we change that? I used to think education was the key. If only people were informed things would change. Now I’m not so sure. How do we make people care? And if people do care and want to make a change what do we do? Voting the ‘right’ person into office doesn’t seem to matter anymore. So what do we do? I don’t expect you to know. But if you had any ideas I’m all ears.

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    1. Mindy! How good to hear from you. I trust all is going well with your young family. Your comment is so thoughtful and appreciated! In fact, it inspired me to write an extensive reply in today’s blog honoring the birthday of Gandhi. I hope you’ll find time to give it a glance. You and your family are specifically in my prayers every single day. I treasure memories of our work together in Costa Rica — and of that very special team. So much fun!

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  2. Hi Mike,

    In regard to your comment ” “Elysium” is about information as the key to revolution.”….

    I agree that the ferocity of the US government against Manning, Snowden and Assange is motivated by its desire to protect the corrupt practices of it and big business. It makes sense from their point of view to respond to challenges to their agenda and methods with increased punishment of whistleblowers, increased surveillance and increased preemptive action against suspects and against the general population (the latter might include dumbing down education, increased frivalous entertainment, harsher working conditions, preoccupation with minor issues, blaming victims and individuals rather than the system, political rhetoric, and just enough real change (actual or promised) to provide hope and avert radicalism on a mass scale).

    To you and me this is a given and the question is Where to from here? Consciousness raising about the corruption is one obvious option. However, a danger with highlighting to the masses – both in the West and especially in the Majority World – how they are enslaved and oppressed is the increased likelihood of unrestrained outrage and violent counter responses. One only needs a very small percentage of radicalised rebells to cause great amounts of terrorism, which so easily pushes power hungry governments to increase their own terrorist efforts to dominate. Violent revolution, which humanity has practised with monotonous regularity throughout history, only continues the cycle of violence and oppression by the powerful – just with another group at the top. I think we need something that actually changes the love of power and which makes a even a poor life acceptable. Hence my hope in the Gospel of Peace of the pacifist Jesus. e.g. http://www.jub.id.au/blogs/

    thanks for the column once again!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful (as always) comment. I’ve attempted to respond to it in today’s post honoring Gandhi’s birthday. I’m so grateful for your faithful reading of my blog entries and for taking them so seriously.

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