“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.