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Science in Focus: Crystal Downing


Pastoral Hope in "Elysium"

Reading the layers of Neill Blomkamp's cinematic sermon.

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Some may be surprised to discover that science fiction echoes a Greek literary genre called the "pastoral," developed in the 3rd century BCE, which emphasizes the dichotomy between civilized culture and the simplicity of rural life. In ancient pastoral texts, city leaders escaped their rigorous responsibilities by retreating to the countryside, returning to the polis refreshed by the down-to-earth wisdom and naïve innocence of milkmaids and shepherds (pastors). The pastoral thus celebrated "recreation" in the etymological sense of the term: a re-creation of one's sense of self through relaxation in bucolic nature. It is no coincidence that Virgil's Latin rendition of the pastoral genre is called The Bucolics (43-37 BCE).

A similar dichotomy between intellectual sophistication and the beauty of unadorned nature marked science fiction from its very start. In 1818, Mary Shelley portrayed Dr. Frankenstein escaping the horror of his scientific experiments by reveling in pristine Alpine vistas. Like the pastoral, in other words, science fiction establishes a tension between the natural and the cultural in order to explore what it means to be human. The difference, of course, is that the pastoral idealizes the past—a time when most people lived off the land—while science fiction (sometimes) idealizes the future: a time of potential re-creation through scientific discovery. Despite this difference, advances in civilization are usually rendered oppressive in both genres, each reflecting issues relevant to the time when it was written more than insight about either past or future.

The dichotomized worlds presented in these literary genres are duplicated in cinema. In 1927, audiences viewed the first feature-length science-fiction movie, Metropolis, which, at the time, was the most expensive production in film history. Directed by Fritz Lang, the German expressionist film visualizes a city in which privileged citizens relax in a pleasure garden located on upper levels of Art Deco buildings while the working class toil in an oppressively mechanized world far below. This pattern is repeated in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), which ends with the protagonists escaping from a grimy, high-tech metropolis into civilization-free green pastures.

Elysium presents a similar dichotomy: green lawns and blue waters enjoyed by the wealthy elite contrast radically with the dusty browns of a decaying Los Angeles metropolis where the masses live far beneath those of privilege (in both senses of "beneath"). And in Elysium, it is far beneath. While Metropolis and Blade Runner place those with power in upper parts of buildings—a type of visual metaphor for the upper classes—Elysium places the elite in a resplendent space station (called Elysium) far above the earth itself. Seeming closer to heaven, Elysium is a paradise where people "never get sick or old," as one earthbound nun explains. Significantly, robotic androids are key to all three films, each of which explores the interface between technology and humanity—as in Frankenstein.

Elysium, then, functions like a palimpsest, in which ghostly images from earlier texts appear underneath more recent work written on top of them. Generated when scribes insufficiently rubbed away old writings from vellum or parchment in order to reuse expensive materials, the palimpsest phenomenon (from Greek words meaning "scraped again") has developed into a metaphor for residual imagery in astronomy, geology, engineering, architecture, and music. The metaphor is especially relevant to film, insofar as any adaptation of a novel might be read as a palimpsest. Indeed, the opening credits for The Name of the Rose (1986) announce the film as "A palimpsest of the [1980] novel by Umberto Eco." The allusion, of course, is especially apropos since The Name of the Rose focuses on medieval scribes who not only re-inscribe old books but also inscribe words on the architecture that surrounds them. One cannot help wondering, therefore, if writer/director Neill Blomkamp alludes to the palimpsestic nature of Elysium by covering almost every surface of his 2154 Los Angeles shantytown with graffiti. Like the famous Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a palimpsest of 12th century Syriac sermons written over a 5th century Greek New Testament, Elysium shows 22nd-century comments scribbled on top of old buildings falling into ruin. The film, then, may be Blomkamp's sermonic commentary not only on science fiction dystopias that preceded him (including his own District 9 [2009]), but also, as will become clear, on the gospels.

Without a doubt, Elysium is sermonic. While impoverished earthlings demonstrate care and affection for each other, those living on the idyllic space station show no tenderness, caring primarily about their own self-interests. And when the lords of Elysium express concern about the mostly hispanic earthlings invading the space station, they refer to "Homeland Security" and its need to prevent "undocumented" workers and "aliens" from crossing its borders and ruining their paradise. As if the point were not obvious enough, Blomkamp establishes that the aliens simply want access to good health care. Hence, like the woman who sneaks children into the luxurious abode of the lords in Metropolis, we see women attempting to sneak their sickly children to Elysium, where "Med-Pod" machines can instantly heal all diseases and injuries: re-creation concretized. This medical technology makes Elysium seem most like its namesake: the ancient Greek heaven (also called Elysian Fields), where the blessed live in health and happiness, while the damned live in Hades (or Los Angeles). Blomkamp's title, then, alludes to ancient Greek culture, even as his content reflects the Greek pastoral and its "moral capacity for addressing the social and political problems" of the time in which it is written. (See Andrew V. Ettin, Literature and the Pastoral [Yale Univ. Press, 1984], p. 97. For an extended discussion about the pastoral in film, see Crystal Downing, "Witnessing the Amish: Plain People on Fancy Film," in The Amish and the Media, ed. David Weaver-Zercher and Diane Z. Umble [Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2008], pp. 25-41.)

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