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in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told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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Promised Land (2012)

Director: Gus Van Sant

(Spoilers follow)

The Small Town

The Small Town

Promised Land is a film about the energy extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking” for short). This process has become a flash point for environmentalists over the past few years, and this film staring Matt Damon serves as an attack on the way in which companies enter small towns to secure the rights to being using the method. The way the film portrays the struggle between the town and the fracking company is interesting and not boiled down to a simplistic “good vs evil” narrative with unlikable company men and heroic townsfolk. Instead, a more realistic portrayal of how complex story is told, although the message of the film clearly comes through.

Matt Damon’s character and his partner, played by Frances McDormand, visit the small town to convince the people living there to sell their land so the company can begin the process of fracking. As they gain momentum, a small town hall meeting is disrupted by a high school science teacher who points out the major flaws with the practice. This sets off a series of difficulties for the company that become further aggravated by the arrival of a small environmentalist group.

The sequence of the environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, gaining popularity in the town is where the film demonstrates its aim of a populist anti-corporate message. It sometimes feels that each scene is structured in such a way as to show support by the folks in the town for the environmentalist message over the corporate attempts to begin their work. One excellent example of this is a karaoke scene where the woman from the company attempts to sign a song and is largely ignored, while the environmentalist’s performance is met with enthusiastic participation and camaraderie from the locals who frequent the bar.

The citizens opposing the company

The citizens opposing the company

This dichotomy between “the people” and the company is one which tends to be absent from major Hollywood releases, so to see it in this film was a refreshing social commentary that is often too just not present. One problem with the way it plays out in this film, however, is how the events unfold in the latter part of the film where it is revealed that the environmental presence was actually set up by the company to discredit any opposition to their efforts. It is revealed that many of the claims by the environmentalist were fabricated, and the company was able to get evidence of this to discredit him. The night before a major vote is to take place, Damon’s character learns that he was being fooled by the company into believing this as well and has a change of heart. At this major vote the next day, he reveals to the people of the town that the environmentalist was actually working for his company, and we are left to assume that the town in turn rejected the proposal for the company to being operating in the town.

A problem with this turn of events is that the agency of the people of this town was reduced to the will and drive of different people in the company. This leads the conflict to be resolved by the “guilty feeling” and moral turn by one of the main drivers of the company’s profits. While depicting this “switching sides” so to speak is not in and of itself problematic, what is troubling is how the resolution of the conflict relied solely on his moral compass: not on the residents of the town themselves who had been so active throughout the film. They had been empowered every step of the way in rejecting the company, with a strong populist feeling of “us vs them” that had guided their clear move away from the company’s line. Yet once we discover that they were all being tricked (the company was “playing both sides” as the fake environmentalist had said), all of that empowerment was assumed to have just given in to the company’s ability to control the narrative. That’s not to say that when “both sides are being played” that people don’t get tricked, and that the ruling class doesn’t often get what it wants: but the endogenous, or homegrown opposition to the company ceased to be a factory in the conflict resolution of this film. This is the issue that should have been further explored.

The overall structure of the film is not itself challenged by this resolution, but it does take away from the overall progressive tone of the film. But in general the film deals with many important issues beyond fracking, namely the future of small towns where factory jobs and investment continue to leave and more and more they rely on deals with companies like the one depicted in this film.