The best part of Elysium is when Sharlto Copley’s nasty bounty hunter / sleeper agent sends out search drones and they look just like flying Roombas.
Critics have been split about Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to the remarkable District 9. Anthony Lane liked it. Colin Berry hated it. Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+ (incidentally, why does EW give letter grades? What’s wrong with stars and thumbs?)
Thankfully, I don’t have to weigh in on this. I don’t like criticizing big summer action flicks—it feels too much like asking your neighbors to turn their stereo down.
But still, I feel like I have to take a shot at Elysium’s ideological fish-in-a-barrel: the idiotic health-care allegory that begins and ends the film’s crashing and banging. Without giving much away, I can say that the main difference between Elysium and Earth (besides grass and intact buildings) is that the citizens of the orbiting Xanadu have medical pods that “reatomize” them back to health and youth whenever they need a pick-me-up. Whereas non-citizens like Max (Matt Damon) can only dream of getting the medical attention they need when they, for instance, get blasted with a lethal dose of radiation in an industrial accident. And then there’s the daughter of his childhood friend, who has advanced leukemia and desperately needs access to a medical pod. Get it? It’s a bit like the current broken health-care system.
Except that it isn’t. The problem with Elysium’s allegory of medical justice, ideologically speaking, is that it plays into the worst habits of the best-intentioned.
First, a quick detour through Benjamin Y Fong’s excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times about the “BRAIN Initiative,” an effort to map the brain’s neural circuitry, essentially a Human Genome Project of the brain. It sounds like a great premise for science fiction (especially since it’s a recursive acronym: “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies”). If we could figure out how the brain is wired, we could download the memories of a billionaire industrialist to hack into his bank accounts but inadvertently download plans for a cybernetic coup d’etat up on Elysium. For instance. Still, this (arguably) far-fetched project has some very down-to-earth backers, including the Obama administration, which recently awarded the Brain Initiative $100 million in research funds—for 2014 alone. Supporters of the initiative say that it “will open new doors to understanding how brain function is linked to human behavior and learning, and the mechanisms of brain disease.” And I’m sure it will (though I think there’s some ground for concern that $50 million of that government grant comes from DARPA. Yikes.)
Fong’s critique of the initiative has to do with its underlying premise, what he calls its “pristine fantasy”: the idea that the best way to understand the causes of brain disease is to ferret out the faulty circuits and switches.
“The real trouble with the Brain Initiative,” Fong writes,
is not philosophical but practical. In short, the instrumental approach to the treatment of physiological and psychological diseases tends to be at odds with the traditional ways in which human beings have addressed their problems: that is, by talking and working with one another to the end of greater personal self-realization and social harmony.
In “Biology as Ideology,” Richard Lewontin points to the profound difference between the fact that one cannot get tuberculosis without a tubercle bacillus and the claim that the tubercle bacillus is the “cause” of tuberculosis. Registering that tuberculosis was a disease common in sweatshops in the 19th century, Lewontin contends: “We might be justified in claiming that the cause of tuberculosis is unregulated industrial capitalism, and if we did away with that system of social organization, we would not need to worry about the tubercle bacillus.” Having narrowed their view of “cause” to the biological realm, neuroscientists today are effectively chasing tubercle bacilli, drawing our focus away from the social practices and institutions that contribute to problems of mental health.
We see the same “pristine fantasy” at work in Elysium’s health-care allegory. If the first-world one-percenters would just open up their re-atomizers, the poor could cure their radiation sickness and leukemia. The lame could walk again, as we see in one of the film’s particularly ham-fisted biblical allusions. But the majority of the world’s poor don’t need medical miracles—they need clean water, better housing, food stability and preventative medicine.
But then again, there’s hope for a malaria vaccine from irradiated mosquitoes. Weakened by the radiation, the treated malaria sporozoites trigger a T-cell response in the host that kills off the untreated parasites before they can spread. Maybe we can hope for a similar effect from Blomkamp’s feeble, irradiated allegory. By treating issues of wealth disparity, xenophobic intolerance, and medical injustice as so self-evident that they require almost no narrative persuasion at all, Elysium might be doing more good than harm.