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Dystopian Dysfunction


South African director Neill Blomkamp has released yet another allegorical science fiction tale. An obviously skilled and talented filmmaker, Blomkamp's first movie, District 9, told the tale of weakened aliens arriving on Earth and being interned in camps by their human captors. This was a nod toward apartheid and, for the most part, was successfully crafted as entertainment. Now we have Elysium, a futuristic screed against hard-line views on immigration. Unfortunately, it does not work as well as District 9.

The year is 2154 and, as most sci-fi movie futures must be, it is a dystopian setting. Humans have ravaged the Earth, and live not much better than animals. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan (of course), raised by Hispanic nuns and told that he is destined for greatness. Just in case you're unable to grasp this, the point is telegraphed in every other scene. Alice Braga is capable as Frey, a childhood friend of Max whom he also adores. Jodie Foster is pretty good as cold-hearted Defense Secretary Delacourt, charged with protecting the Elysium space station orbiting Earth.

I'm not here to provide a review of Elysium the movie, however, but a treatise of Elysium the idea. For Blomkamp has set his sights squarely on the immigration debate, and it is non-too-subtle. The space station is where the 1% have fled in order to enjoy the good life, while the wretched toil endlessly on the earth below. While medical science doesn't seem to have advanced much in 141 years on the planet surface, the Elysium station in orbit features devices that can cure pretty much any ailment instantly. So now we have healthcare reform thrown into the mix.

As most anyone who reads this blog will guess, I am a proponent of healthcare availability to all. I'm also for shoring-up the disparities in wealth that we're faced with in this country (and others). Therefore, one would think I'm on board with Blomkamp's allegory for said subjects, and how he deals with them? Not necessarily.

When it comes to income inequality, I'm for having (and enforcing) laws that do not allow for unfair situations or special clauses that let certain folks game the system. That's not the same, however, as believing that everyone should make the same amount of money, or should have access to all things equally. It's true now that there are those who can afford -- by virtue of job, inheritance, or investments -- very nice lifestyles, while others cannot. As long as the playing field is a level one, is this an inherently bad thing?

If, in the future we're witness to in Elysium, there are those who can afford to build and live within a stupendous, opulent space station, should it be their right to do so? Note that this is not the same question as, 'Is it morally good for them to do so?'  Unfortunately, money and morality do not always go together. But I have to wonder: if the concept of a rich people's space station is supposed to be bad, then what are we to make of present-day rich neighborhoods? No more Bel-Airs or Brentwoods? Why?

Of course, within the context of the film, the space station is meant to represent a country (say, the United States), and not a neighborhood. Earth is akin to Mexico. Border security is an issue in the film, just as it is in real life. If you think about it, the notion of borders is a ridiculous one. When you look at our world from space, there are no borders, aside from the natural ones of land vs. water. Yet we have felt the need to divide ourselves up from one another. This leads us to the reality, which is: borders do exist. So, how best to deal with them?

And then there's healthcare. Here is where I am more sympathetic with the filmmakers. I believe that people have a right to life, and a healthy one. If the technology exists (as it does in this movie) to cure cancers and diseases and injuries, then it should be made available to everyone, not just to those who can afford it. To do any less would be cruel and inhuman. At the very least, this levels the playing field, does it not?

But any talk of curing what now seems incurable begs the question of what would the ramifications be for population and longevity? I mean, being able to cure most of the diseases that plague us today opens up a huge can of worms when it comes to lifespans. How long would people live? Would they still be allowed to procreate? If so, what is the impact on surface space and natural resources if you have a bunch of Methuselahs and their offspring populating the world?

It may not be the most well-done movie, but Elysium did at least make me think about these things, and more. The world, unfortunately, is not level for all. We are part of a class system. It may not be fair, but there you go. Throughout our history we have erected barriers, some good, some bad. The practical side of me thinks that it's always been this way, and will continue on until humanity has had its run. The dreamer in me, however, wants to believe that we are better than that.

The first step would be to stop all this border nonsense, and work with others so that they may have a chance at enjoying some of the good life. And healthcare for all! Why are these, of all things, such divisive concepts?

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