Elysium, Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi thriller, is expected to be the highest grossing film this weekend. It lacks the nuance of Blomkamp's great District 9, but it's still exponentially more radical than your average Hollywood fare. It's all but an open cry for universal health care, redistributive tax policies, and immigration policy reform. And it delivers all of the above with a CGI cyborg fist to the face.
Much has already been made of the theme (io9 called it a "futuristic version of Occupy Wall Street), but it's worth exploring how Hollywood handed such a leftist film $100 million in funding in the first place. For the uninitiated, Elysium depicts our world a hundred or so years down the line. The poor live on Earth, where it's hot, polluted, diseased, sweaty, and slummy. The rich live on a rotating orbital space station (that looks a lot like NASA's 1970s proposal for an off-world colony) and have perfect health care, thanks to access to miraculous cancer-erasing machines. The heroes, in dire need of those machines, must make their way to Elysium.
This is part of what makes science fiction so valuable; a film set in the present about a sick minority and an ex-con suffering from radiation poisoning illegally crossing the border to forcibly obtain better health care wouldn't have a snowball's chance in future-hell-Earth of getting produced in Hollywood. But that's basically the plot of this film; since it's transported into the future, its dystopian technologic sheen and eye-popping robo-visuals obscure the fact that the film is an epic, prolonged quest for social justice.
Though the story itself (frustratingly) barely touches on the issues, they're implicit in the setup, and the plot points. Here's a quick list of why Elysium's the most radical film Hollywood is likely to produce this year. (Oh, and some spoilers follow, so be forewarned.)
The film revolves around the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The poor sweat and toil on Earth, building robots for a corporation that sells them to the security state. The rich enjoy pristine air, that impeccable health care, and, of course, perpetual insulation from the poor. The poor, meanwhile, are diseased, cancerous, dirty, live in slums, and their hospitals are overcrowded and sub-par.
Further, the rich and powerful—both corporate executives and the governmental leadership that signs their contracts—are depicted as nothing short of Satan-in-space. They are cartoonish in their villainy, and their villainy is rooted in oppressing the poor.
Universal health care:
The film is a thinly-veiled call for universal health care. The rich have access to (presumably) very expensive machines that can (also presumably) allow them eternal health. The poor rot in crowded clinics. This is an explicit indictment: the rich have ample enough resources to share their restoration machines, and, after the demise of the tyrannical security state in the end, a return to equality is symbolized by a fleet of medical ships bringing the healing technology to earth.
Unsafe working conditions:
The poor have to work in unsanitary, dangerous conditions. But they're lucky to have any job at all! The work is so bad, our hero is exposed to radiation the first day we see him on the job—and upper management doesn't care a bit. Not hard to make the jump here.
The wealthy, mostly white residents of Elysium keep the huddles masses on earth out by maintaining a ruthless (and totally inefficient) security apparatus. When ships full of minorities fly towards Elysium, a sleeper agent launches missiles at them and destroys them. If anyone manages to survive that onslaught (mostly in their desperate bum-rush to reach the medical machines) they're brutally apprehended by the security apparatus and deported.
Again, imagine a present-day analog, the most obvious of which is the US/Mexican border patrol; Blomkamp is transporting the kind of brutality that happens routinely here in the states to a future environment.
There's only one scene with an inkling of nuance here—the president condemns such tactics, but he's largely powerless; the implication is that most residents of Elysium are perfectly content with such heavy-handed tactics, but they know it's not PC to say so aloud.
Abuse of war powers:
Jodie Foster, the ruthless Secretary of State, can assume control of the "habitat" in war time, rendering the president toothless in the face of any crisis, however minor. This is an indictment of executive overreach—just as recent administrations can override Congress to justify military action and drone strikes by declaring war powers, Elysium's overlords override democracy in much the same way.
There are other tidbits, but those are the major highlights. And again; they're barely examined or even touched upon in the dialogue. It's just the world that the film takes place in, and the solutions implicitly proposed that makes it so radical: Abolish the security state. Offer universal health care. Open the borders. Rein in income inequality. There's a reason that conservatives are already railing against it—it kind of is promoting a brand of techno-socialism. Which is particularly remarkable in a big budget Hollywood film that rushes by in a flurry of action sequences and thinly-reasoned plot points.
Whether or not it's a good movie, Elysium, like Avatar before it, serves as evidence that science fiction can be a more powerful vehicle for getting messages about social justice to a mainstream audience than any weepy liberal-leaning biopic. That is, if that audience is able to make it out in between the exploded body parts and body-modded fist fights.