Neill Blomkamp has emerged as a rare voice in cinema -- a director who is commercially successful and still has something important to say about the human condition.
His favored vehicle for social commentary is the science fiction movie. His film District 9, which was released in 2009, was a work of genius in the way it examined what makes us human and the ways in which we can easily dehumanize those different from ourselves, transforming them into monsters we can subjugate or kill with impunity.
The plot in District 9 involved a large spaceship that suddenly appeared above Johannesburg, filled with diseased and dying space aliens. These aliens were not the usual cinematic creatures gifted with superhuman powers and a lust for domination. No, these aliens were highly vulnerable and grew to be dependent on the earthlings they came in contact with.
It was the earthlings who proved the villains. They confined the aliens, whom they derogatorily dismissed as "prawns," to the slums of Soweto Township. And this was the real Soweto. Blomkamp eschewed film sets, using instead a stretch of slum dwellings scheduled for destruction in an urban renewal project.
The result was a morally probing film that examined the themes of racism, xenophobia, and the raw misuse of power. There was no mistaking that what this movie was really all about were the abuses and oppression of apartheid and what that did to victims and oppressors alike.
Elysium is no District 9. Blomkamp used a cast of unknowns in District 9. He improvised dialogue and action. He used a guerrilla marketing strategy that relied on clever podcasts and word-of-mouth. Blomkamp, in other words, took chances with District 9.
Elysium, in contrast, is a much more conventional film. It has a big budget and employed a celebrated cast. It relies on the well-worn cliches of the action-movie genre. There is too much violence, too much gun play, and none of the cerebral elements and plot twists that gave District 9 its vibrancy. The Jodie Foster character is one-dimensional to the point of being invisibly flat. She all ice and cold, a sanitized killer. Ironically, in employing all the conventions of the action movie, Elysium may not do as well at the box office as District 9.
But even acknowledging these flaws, there is much we can learn from this film. The movie is ostensibly set in the year 2154. The rich, having read their Ayn Rand, have abandoned the world. They live on a gigantic space station suspended in orbit visible to the people of Earth. There the lucky one percent lead lives of splendor and privilege -- manicured gardens, opulent mansions, good schools, and health care that can cure any illness. The scenes are brightly lit and the vegetation green and well-watered.
In contrast, Earth is gritty and gray. You can taste the dust in your mouth. It is there where the 99 percent toil misery, exploited by their affluent overlords. Inhabiting a supposed futuristic Los Angeles, the Matt Damon character is part of a large underclass that drifts between a life of petty crime, prison, and episodes of menial labor. A constant police presence dehumanizes everyone. Everyone is a suspect, everyone a threat -- Mayor Bloomberg's "stop-and-frisk" made into a universal rule for all who are not rich and famous.
But this is not some futuristic world. It is very much the world we live in today. As he did with District 9, Blomkamp used real housing -- the run-down slums of Mexico City -- for his future Los Angeles. And for his space station, he employs the mansions of Vancouver and Mexico City. Great wealth, soul-destroying poverty, moving in parallel orbits, without ever really coming into contact. One truly circles above the other. The 99 percent, though numerically greater, are the marginalized. They serve only as means to ends -- the easily discardable tools by which the one percent increase their net aggregate wealth.
The right wing has denounced Blomkamp for bringing socialism to the screen. I very much disagree. If we step away from the action-movie gun play, if we look instead at the vivid contrasting pictures of wealth and poverty, I believe that Blomkamp is doing nothing less than highlighting a central feature of the Christian message.
Christ, after all, came to destroy the social boundaries separating rich and poor. He recognized the dignity of the poor. That is the meaning, after all, of the widow's mite (Mark 12: 41-44; Luke 21: 1-4). Even though the poor widow gave the smallest gift, Jesus commended her since, unlike the wealthy, who dropped their pocket change in the collection, she gave all she had.
Jesus knew that the poor, not the rich,
stood to inherit the Kingdom of God. Thus he recited the parable of Dives and Lazarus. Poor Lazarus dined on the rich man's table scraps and had only the dogs to lick his sores. But it was Lazarus who after death was transported to Abraham's bosom, while Dives was sent packing to Hell. (Luke 16: 19-31).
Christ was not a leveler. He was not a man of violence, and did not wish to lead a revolution of the poor against the rich. (Even so, we must still account for a verse like Luke 6: 24, which promises "woe" to the rich who have already received to their reward -- this unvarnished verse sounds very much like something the historical Jesus would have said).
But Christ insisted on the oneness of all humanity. And if we truly understand that we are all one, that we are truly brothers and sisters, there would be no yawning chasm in the health care afforded the rich and the poor. We would not see a poor man in North Carolina pretend to rob a bank just to get arrested and receive medical care for the tumor on his chest. We would see an educational system that gave an equal chance to the children of the rich and poor to succeed. And the favela visited by Pope Francis on his trip to Brazil would be confined to the memory hole.
Blomkamp's movie certainly has its defects. But the mirror it holds up for viewers provides a very ugly, discomfiting sight. We should be ashamed.