Today I have decided to sidestep my narrow focus on British science fiction to discuss something that caught my attention relating to the genre of science fiction in general. My wife and I saw Neill Blomkamp‘s sophomore film, the visceral and gritty Elysium today. We both came away enjoying the film quite a bit; not in the Avengers sort of way where you want to high-five everyone after the movie and punch the air in happiness, but the more sombre “holy crap that was good, but also depressing” sort of way. This was what happened when we watched District 9 a few years ago, a film that lead to us discussing apartheid south Africa, something that really would not have happened had the film not taken our emotions hostage for two hours. When I got home, I decided to check the box office gross Elysium had, as well at critic reviews to gauge whether it is doing well or not. It did top the box office, and gained generally positive reviews, but the negative reviews the movie was getting are quite puzzling. People that don’t enjoy the film aren’t hating it because of the gore, the foul language, or the shaky-cam action scenes, but because it challenges their political beliefs in some way.
Take, for example a few of these little gems taken from a popular critic aggregation site, Rotten Tomatoes:
And here we have some choice quotes from some online reviews:
“Particularly towards the end, the political messages are just so overt, I don’t know how you can watch it without thinking of current events and connecting the dots that the director obviously intended to connect,” – Big Hollywood’s Christian Toto.
“It’s not just hypocritical to say this movie isn’t political, it’s hilarious,” – Dan Gainor, VP of Business and Culture at the Media Research Center.
“Elysium advances one of the more openly socialist political agendas of any Hollywood movie in memory.” – Variety Magazine review.
Those that have yet to see this film, might be wondering what all the hubub is about. Elysium tells the story of a future Earth that is so overpopulated and crime-ridden that the well-to-do upper class citizens have fled the planet Entirely. They all have decided to live in a space colony well away from the stench of the poor surface dwellers; the ultimate gated community, if you will. The citizens of Elysium have jumped so far technologically (in a sharp contrast to Earth’s urban decay) that they can afford to have no illnesses whatsoever due to the creation of a machine that can heal everything. This has caused black market operations to spring up promising illegal trips to Elysium, usually taken up by ill people trying to cure terminal illnesses. Since the majority of the plot has a vague notion of how everyone should have access to medical care, and that policies on illegal immigration are too tough, TV pundits and conservative bloggers alike have pulled out their pitchforks in protest.
The thing that really bothers me about this mindset is that science fiction has ALWAYS been about taking social issues to their breaking point to illustrate the ills of our society as a cautionary tale. It’s not like Neill Blomkamp woke up a few years ago, and realized that nobody has ever talked about politics in film. These media-types have an ulterior motive here, as nobody can be so stupid than to think that science fiction has never been like this. One of the earliest modern science fiction epics, The Time Machine was essentially H.G. Wells‘ commentary on British social classes and social Darwinism. That was only the beginning, authors like Robert Heinlein promoted either fascism or communism depending on the story, George Orwell warned of the road to totalitarianism, and Ayn Rand promoted Objectivism. All very different political strains, all either championed or demonized depending on what the authors intent was.
To me, something like Elysium is only ruffling these conservative feathers because of the ridiculous political climate we live in and the 24 hour news cycle. When you have media stunts such as a left and right leaning media conglomerates claiming outrage at every turn, these people would love if we just watched paint dry all day, as to not put “bad ideas” in our heads or offend someone. I always find it ironic when commentators claim a subversive piece of literature or film is damaging society as is usually their viewpoint that the film is directly satirizing.
In Closing I leave you with a quote from Philip K. Dick on the media:
“Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”