Elysium (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Earth in poverty

Earth in poverty

Elysium is a major blockbuster set in a dystopian future where the rich people of Earth have fled for a space station in orbit named Elysium. In this version of the future, Earth has deteriorated to such an extent that the rich no longer find it habitable and thus only make trips to the planet to manage corporations or oversee the oppressive legal system. There are various social issues that the film deals with that are of interest to the Left which has of course alarmed Fox News and right wing blogs. While there is more to the film than the political content, we will mostly focus on the politics of Elysium and what we should take away from it.

Matt Damon plays the films main character (named Max) struggling to make it by as a factory worker troubled by a criminal past. Max’s struggle in the film exposes the various social and political struggles that we can see prevalent today: class struggle, lack of health care, immigration, and to an extent the military industrial complex. The contradictions of the society are highlighted simply in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told he is too injured to work but will be docked half a day’s pay instead, and then starts his job which is itself to produce more androids like the kind that injured him in the first place.

The automatic parole officer of the future

The automatic parole officer of the future

The major turning point for Max is when he is told by his supervisor to enter an unsafe situation which ultimately leads to an accident where he is exposed to radiation and is essentially left for dead by the company of which CEO just wants Max to leave the building (this of course wouldn’t happen if they had a union!) This leads to a set of events where Max works with a criminal organization that he had previously associated with to attempt to steal information from the rich CEO to make it easier for the organization to sneak people into Elysium.

While Max’s drama plays out, a plot to carry out a coup is being attempted on Elysium by Jodi Foster’s character who in some sense could be seen an analogy to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. The coup plans fall into the hands of Max through their data heist of the CEO and they discover that they have the power to make all of Earth’s population citizens of Elysium. Through the typical twists and turns of a major action film, this is eventually carried out, making the struggle for legalization for all and access to health care (both of which were motivated by a reaction to unsafe working conditions) the major conclusions of the film. This of course is not typical for a Hollywood blockbuster, which led Vice to go as far as to claim that Hollywood was tricked into making a radical film.

Elysium

Elysium

The film itself is not without flaws. Evil bad guys like the main paramilitary man trying to capture Max are a bit shallow, and the action scenes were a bit cliche at times. But if we are to look at the less-than-subtle political message that comes through to an audience of millions, the film is praiseworthy. The cliche shortcomings and sometimes strange story developments aside, the film is also entertaining and stands out as a sci fi film on its own, although it would be hard not to be excited about a major film where providing healthcare to all citizens of Earth is the conclusion. Elysium has received mixed reviews, not for the political content which has been the focus by political commentators of course, but rather for the problems of the film itself. While the director apparently denied that the film was political, it would be quite difficult to ignore the fact that almost every major plot point in the film corresponds to a major social issue that the Left focuses on today.

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The Weight of Chains (2010)

Director: Boris Malagurski

Kosovo Rebels Thanking NATO

The Weight of Chains is a documentary about the breakup of Yugoslavia and the direction that the former Yugoslav Republics went in the aftermath.  Much of the focus of the film is on NATO’s intervention in the violent conflicts that ensued, as well as the West’s role in promoting such conflict.  It is quite a relevant documentary for today as NATO continues to engage in “humanitarian interventions” in the developing world.

The documentary primarily covers the period from the late 80s up to the independence of Kosovo.  It offers a refreshing look at the conflict, not through the eyes of the West stepping in to do a humanitarian good, but instead demonstrates the problems of NATO intervention and that their role was that of “colonization” instead of mere intervention.

While the narrative of the documentary is refreshing and takes an “anti-imperialist” stance to a degree, it isn’t without some problems.  For example, the way that ethnic tensions are portrayed in the film is almost suggesting that they were merely the result of Western manipulation and intervention, although the film does not suggest a sort of grand conspiracy involved in the Alex Jones sense.  Yugoslavia’s ethnic tensions predate the socialist period (as the film does point out) and the institutions and divisions of the country that existed to decrease ethnic tensions under Tito did give an opportunity for them to be exploited during the deep crisis.  This discussion opens up an important part of the overall Marxist stance on national self determination.   These contradictions within Yugoslavia’s socialist period were not taken seriously or explored in the documentary: there is even a portion where tensions between Albanians and Serbs during the socialist period is pointed to, which runs a bit counter to the narrative of Western manipulation of ethnic tension.

The crisis tore Yugoslavia apart

Also, some of the atrocities that surely took place were not explored or essentially brushed off.  While this was perhaps not the intention of the filmmaker, this could be interpreted as ignoring an important part of the conflicts that ensued.  There likely was anticipation of the criticism, however, by the filmmaker who likely decided instead to reject the obligatory focus on those things that were used to justify NATO intervention: as atrocities happened on all sides.

Another point that wasn’t really explored was the market model of Yugoslav socialism.  During the segment explaining how Yugoslavia was independent,  this model was just assumed to be the “better socialism” yet that model’s features were only briefly dealt with.  Perhaps this was outside of the scope of the film, as it was geared more towards the explaining of the breakup, but more exploration of this issue would have been beneficial to the film.

While there were indeed shortcomings of the film, it is important that documentaries like it exist.  They challenge the accepted argument of “humanitarian intervention” that even some Leftists attempt to appeal to, which is quite unfortunate.

For more information visit the official website of the film: http://www.weightofchains.com/

Documentary a Day: The Take (2004)

Director: Avi Lewis

The Take is a documentary that follows the phenomenon of worker takeovers of factories in Argentina towards the beginning of the 2000s.  The film goes through the historical conditions that lead to crisis in Argentina and how Neo-Liberal market reforms totally devastated the country long before the economic crisis that would eventually come home by the end of the decade.  The response by many workers in Argentina was to “fire the boss” and run factories and resume production as collectives, not organized along capitalist lines.  Not only is the class consciousness of the workers themselves in Argentina demonstrated in a very positive light here, but the communities in which factories like the one featured in the film tend to fully back the workers efforts.

Argentina at the time was in a political uproar, and in the midst of a Presidential election that resulted in a social democratic government that remains today.  The workers movement, as documented in this film, began to respond to the crisis by fighting back and taking matters into their own hands.  They were more than willing to fight back police attempts to retake the factory, and interviews with the factory owner reminded me of a scene in Godard’s Tout Va Bien where the boss tries to justify capitalism and property against a worker uprising (which resulted in the boss being kidnapped in that film).

The documentary does take a “libertarian socialist” stance on the phenomenon, claiming that it is an example of how spontaneous actions by workers are preferable to organizations like Communist parties, which of course Leninist would not agree with.  But all Leftists alike can acknowledge that the film does have a very optimistic tone about workers’ power.

The Trotsky (2010)

Director: Jacob Tierney

When I started this site, I never thought I’d be writing about a teen comedy in the project to document, analyze, and display films with strong Leftist themes.  But after seeing the film The Trotsky, that had to change.  A teen comedy filled with references to the Spanish Civil War, a Ken Loach retrospective.  Its director described it as “Reds in high school that makes you laugh” (YouTube video)

Boredom or Apathy?

The film has a very bizarre premise: the main character Leon believes that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky.  And to top that off with being a teen film, it was certain to make for a strange film (which isn’t to say a bad film).  The main conflict (or contradictions) in the film revolves around the main character trying to live out his life the way that Trotsky did.  Through this process he finds him self on more than one occasion trying to unionize (first his father’s workplace, then his high school).

The structure of the film is similar to many teen comedy films, and at first I felt that the premise was just a “wacky plot device” instead of an actual attempt to discuss the nature of class struggle.  But as the film developed, the message of social justice and organizing resistance became the driving force and motivation for the characters.  After a while into the film, the illusions of being the reincarnation of Trotsky took a backseat to the main characters drive to organize his fellow students.

One of the major themes in the film is about the struggle between “apathy and boredom” of the youth of Canada (which can certainly be applied to the United States as well).  The principal of the school (an authoritarian or repressive figure for the film) is sure that the students are apathetic to the plight of Leon, and after the first attempt to organize a walk-out of class: the principal seems to be right, as most of the students do not take it seriously even though they walked out.

As Leon wrestles with this throughout the film, he plots on how to best mobilize his high school against their conditions to give them a voice.  This is what the unique aspect of the film should be seen as and is what made me consider the progressive themes in it to not just be a plot device, but instead are the goal of the film.

This progressive message, guided by achieving socialism for the main character, is an interesting thing to appear in a film like this, and while it certainly won’t achieve a “wide release” that many Hollywood teen comedy films do, it’s an excellent contribution to the genre that for reasons that ought to be obvious aren’t of interest to the Left.  But the way in which the contemporary youth, and the perceived apathy, are dealt with in the film is an interesting take that offers a bit of optimism for a generation who is often labeled one that just “doesn’t care.”