The future is too close to home

Jodie Foster in ElysiumElysium (MA)

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors” – Ursula K. Le Guin

Neill Blomkamp’s second film is that rare thing, a thinking person’s blockbuster. Balanced somewhere between a special effects romp with the requisite amount of explosions and wince-inducing injuries (Blomkamp has previous form in this – his debut District 9 features a terrifying torture scene), Elysium also positions itself as a science fiction allegory for the plight of refugees today.

Blomkamp nails his colours to the mast from the story’s opening, with a sequence showing desperate people crowded together in battered spaceships trying to escape the overpopulated and heavily polluted Earth. Their destination is a technologically advanced utopia in orbit around the planet. On Elysium the wealthy and powerful indulge themselves, while down below the rest of humanity slaves away in globally outsourced industries.

In the name of defending the borders of Elysium, Jodie Foster’s obstreperous defence minister Delacourt (pictured) orders the ships be destroyed as they approach. It is a powerful scene and underlines how the Elysians view the remainder of humanity as less than human. Foster also cannily plays the role in a mannered style that suggests a woman politician having spent her career competing to be more aggressive than her male colleagues – comparisons could be made with Thatcher/Hanson etc.

When reformed ex-criminal Max (Matt Damon) suffers a potentially-fatal injury, he agrees to join a plot to break into Elysium, unwittingly interfering with an attempted coup organised by Delacourt. Cue many explosions and a sociopathic mercenary played by the mesmerising Sharlto Copley (District 9).

At its heart though Blomkamp’s film challenges many of the assumptions regarding refugees echoed from Canberra to Texas, London to Paris. By setting his story within a distant future dystopia, his message doubles as a piece of entertainment.

It underlines just how useful metaphor can be in emotive discussions surrounding the rights of asylum seekers. In a recent piece for The Age by Josh Bornstein titled No moral limits to what Rudd will do to win ( the writer made a powerful argument against Kevin Rudd’s endorsement of the PNG Solution.

However, while there is a palpable sense of anger throughout, the following line was misjudged – “Many Jewish refugees who fled Nazism were, of course, middle class. Persecution and violence have a habit of transcending class.” Bornstein makes the comparison between the victims of the Holocaust and asylum seekers due to right-wing rhetoric surrounding so-called ‘fake refugees’.

In doing so the writer overplays his hand. In effect he has accused any reader alarmed at the prospect of refugees ‘illegally’ coming to Australia of being a Nazi – and consequently failed to engender sympathy. It is a cliché of arguments on the internet that has become known as Godwin’s Law. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

By describing a set of circumstances in a far-off future Blomkamp cleverly guides how his audience identifies with these themes through the use of a fictional context. The director has delivered a powerful piece of emotive film-making, with a number of little smart touches mixed in among the de rigueur special effects-driven violent excess. Elysium is a visceral dose of pop politics.

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