Last night I saw the movie Elysium, starring Matt Damon. In the line of an emerging genre of consciousness-raising science fiction, this gritty film follows District Nine, director Neill Blomkamp’s previous movie. In reality, the best science fiction has always reflected critically on contemporary social ills, through the device of presenting a future that directly solves the problem or presents it in a new way.
Out of the 1960s, Star Trek’s cast was deliberately multiracial (even multiplanetary). Out of the 1970s, Alien’s hero was a strong, intelligent woman. We can also include the more venerable works of the “gaslight era”, such as H.G. Well’s 1898 War of the Worlds, a warning about colonialist-era superiority and brutality, a kind of shoe-on-the-other-foot critique (How do you like being invaded, Western civilization, by powerful alien forces?). Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast version of the same work on the eve of World War II, and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film version after the 9-11 attacks are further evidence of the science-fiction tale’s utility for expressing the fears and socio-political calamities of the period in which the work emerged.
Even in 16th-century England, Thomas More’s Utopia emerged as the opposite image of a society so fractured by political and spiritual upheaval that it claimed the very life of its author.
And so on into history, where examples abound. Even the apocalyptic literature of 2,000 years ago, insofar as it represents what we can call the science fiction of its age, which includes biblical works like the Book of Daniel, and the Apocalypse (or Revelations), likewise projected into a future bright with promise a critical voice raised against the violence and oppression of its own age.
Elysium used the language and images of our own times, and, faithful to this genre’s tradition, places current passions over immigration and economic disparity in society within a future setting that provides an interesting and helpful perspective for understanding the likely consequences, and absurdities, of today’s very real policies and practices by governments and corporations.
There is also an understated, but clearly expressed reverence for the capacity of spiritual traditions, like my own Roman Catholicism, to maintain hope and guide actions in favor of a just resolution of widespread social injustice. The hero’s dedication to the cause is mightily directed and focused by charitable persons, and even the ruthless idealism of grass-roots organizations regarded as subversive, and yet necessary, to right wrongs with intelligence and a limited use of violence.
We don’t have to espouse all armed uprisings as the key to a better future, but this movie’s story proposes an interesting line that, perhaps, a more just society can only come about with the active participation of those dedicated to responding to systemic violence with a resolute defiance, a defiance that is not above protecting the innocent with limited, yet effective means of repulsion and counterattack.
Infiltration of a computerized system of oppression, a system that preserves a separation of people into rich and poor, may also be a new ideal to strive for, bringing about equality with the click of a switch, as it were. I liked the proposition of this movie, too, like that of the Lord of the Rings, that evil unwittingly provides the means for the victory of good, a kind of updating of the notion that good works by themselves do not win us salvation, but rather the grace of God.