POSTED August 7 2013

Future Tense: Elysium’s prophetic futurism

Matt Damon in Elysium

Matt Damon in Elysium

Detroit is in receivership. The city’s police force is privatized by a conglomerate and its chief exec is the brains behind a street gang that’s robbing half of Motor City while hooking the other half on drugs. This week’s news? No, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film RoboCopone of many eerily prescient, if not 100 % accurate, works of film science fiction.

I thought of RoboCop while watching Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium — which I fervently hope will not be prophetic. Its Los Angeles circa 2154 is an  exaggerated version of the social inequalities of the present. The City of Angels, now mostly Latino and Asian,  resembles a Third World necropolis rife with smog, crumbling buildings, crime and graffiti. Unemployment is rampant and the few that do have jobs, like Matt Damon’s Max (perhaps a nod to the Mad Max films?), are dealt with brutally by corporate CEO William Fichtner. When on the job Max is exposed to a fatal dose of a carcinogen he seeks treatment at a teeming hospital that resembles an emergency room imagined by Hieronymous Bosch. The staff tells Max he has five days to live and he’s sent back to his favela with some pills to manage the nausea.

The advanced health care Max needs is available on Elysium — a gated satellite colony orbiting a few hundred miles above Earth where everyone has a McMansion, clean air and instant health care. Though its chief executive is of South Asian descent, Elysium seems to be inhabited mostly by privileged whites. Its airspace is vigilantly protected by its Homeland Security chief Jodie Foster in the manner that borders of first-world nations are sealed. Aliens who attempt to get in are not deported, but murdered. In the film’s first 10 minutes Blomkamp indelibly illustrates social disparities, unequal access to health care and what it looks like to outsiders when the privileged create a fortress to protect their prerogatives. Sequences set in Los Angeles were filmed in Mexico City; sequences set on Elysium were filmed in Vancouver.

This is not the shiny futurism of Inception or Minority Report. It’s closer in spirit to the dystopias of Blade Runner and the Mad Max films.

How accurately have sci-fi movies anticipated the future?

Mad Max 2 and 3 are pretty accurate about the “resource wars” — how the scarcity of oil resulted in global warfare. The Bartertown factory in Mad Max 3 manufactured methane from pig feces. The Truman Show anticipated the rise of reality television. Minority Report showed us the touchscreen technology and the iris scans already in development and the self-driving cars in development now. Blade Runner presaged the look of the contemporary megalopolis. Can you think of other examples of such prophetic futurism?



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