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in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told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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También la lluvia (2010)

English Title: Even The Rain

Director: Icíar Bollaín

The set of the “film within the film”

Even The Rain is a film about the “Water Wars” of Boliva that took place in late 1999 and early 2000. The plot revolves around a director (played by Gael García Bernal) who is making a film about Christopher Columbus’ early brutal encounters with indigenous populations in the “New World.” This fictional film is depicted throughout Even the Rain as a parallel struggle to the water wars.

Instead of just framing the problems of water privatization and issues of global capital, Even the Rain is as much a film about the actual resistance to those attempts by capital than it is just about the process of (foreign) capital’s attempts to acquire basic resources like water. Throughout the film, one of the main actors hired for the “film within the film” is a leading activist against the water privatization who also plays one of the main ingenious figures who resisted the violence  brought onto indigenous peoples by Christopher Columbus. This perspective of the film provides voice to the resistance to such measures by global capital in ways that go beyond telling the story of globalization as a story of victimizers and victims and instead gives agency to those who are part of the process and attempt to challenge the process itself.

The revolt

The film opens with a nod to Howard Zinn, whose style of telling history from the eyes of the oppressed is quite clear in the film through the use of the “film within the film” to depict the parallels of the struggles of the past as similar to contemporary struggles. The complexities of oppression are also present in the film, for example a scene in the car of the filmmaker includes a conversation about language and privileged (an argument breaks out about not filming in English, which would have made more money, and the lack of presence of indigenous language).

The main event of the film, or climax, revolves around a revolt in the city of Cochabamba. This famous event eventually helped lead to the ascendency of the Evo Morales government to power. The revolt is certainly portrayed in a positive light (which even emotionally affects some characters who had clearly been skeptical to the demands of the local residents).

Overall, the film has an important message of social justice, and is a cinematic achievement in itself. It does an excellent job at capturing a revolutionary period while at the same time avoiding cinematic cliches about such struggles.

Documentary a Day: Chevolution (2008)

Directors: Luis Lopez, Trisha Ziff

Chevolution is a documentary about the most reproduced image in the history of photography: the Guerrillero Heroico image taken by Korda (and is one of three about the image)  The film is an in depth look at the origins of the iconic  photo and of Che himself.  The image is contextualized from the event that it was taken all the way to the broader discourse on its subsequent commercialization (for example there are a republican and a libertarian wearing Che shirts to “demonstrate how the shirts are made possible by capitalism).

The image was not initially even printed in Cuban news papers, but was first widely circulated by Feltrinelli and later made into a more pop-art style by Fitzpatrick.  Its mass appearance coincided with events like May 68′ amongst other uprisings that were going on in the time around the world.

There are some problems with the documentary, for example there is a long segment about how people don’t realize the “violent nature” of Che, or how his ideas lead to a “totalitarian dogmatic state” without an adequate counter-argument by people who appear in the documentary who clearly sympathize with Che.  Those more sympathetic with the potential of Che are more portrayed as idealists instead of Marxists, although perhaps that is implied by their sympathies.

The co-optation of rebellion, a popular topic amongst the more cultural Leftist theory, is dealt with throughout the film (even with a reference to Marcuse).  The interesting thing here is that the “culture industry” theories of the Frankfurt school seem to apply even to the Leftist reproduction of Che’s image.  What I mean by that is that the original mass production of the famous image were almost the reverse of the co-optation  that we subsequently saw with the commercialization of Che’s image.

The film does an excellent job at examining the origins and meaning of the image from various different perspectives, and takes it very seriously.