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Science in Focus: Joseph Fitsanakis


Too Close to Home?

Seeing ourselves in "Elysium."

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What does the future hold for humankind? Will it be rosy or bleak? In Neill Blomkamp's film Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, the future can be either, depending on one's economic status. By the mid-21st century, human societies have been dismantled by war, disease, overpopulation, and climate change. The Earth's desperate inhabitants subsist in overpopulated barrios, erected amidst the ruins of the once great cities of the West. The urban backdrop of 21st-century Los Angeles, where much of the story takes place, is reminiscent of today's war-ravaged Syrian cities, like Homs and Aleppo. In a paradoxical play on history, these miserable futuristic inhabitants leap out of the pages of Jack London's The Iron Heel and Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England. In the absence of organized labor, manufacturing production has turned into a vast industrial hacienda, sustained by millions of dehumanized workers who toil to the death in constant fear of the mega-corporations that govern their lives. Social control is enforced by a robotic Praetorian Guard and by mercenary soldiers of fortune, reminiscent of the Blackwater and Academi security contractors of our time.

Desperate to save his low-paying job, the film's protagonist, ex-convict Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), suffers a serious industrial accident that exposes him to lethal levels of radiation. Knowing that he has only days to live, he embarks on a mission to sneak into the Elysium, a space station circling the earth. Elysium is the ultimate gated community: an exclusive space paradise complete with luxurious McMansions, chauffeur-driven cars, and beautifully manicured lawns, where Earth's super-rich have emigrated in order to escape the planet's social breakdown. Crucially for Da Costa, every household in Elysium is equipped with a Med-Pod, an advanced medical appliance capable of curing fatal diseases in the blink of an eye. However, health care is —like Elysium itself— available only to those who can afford it; undocumented immigrants to the super-rich space colony are not welcome.

In a manner typical of Hollywood productions of our time, the film treats its audience to an essentially juvenile storyline, replete with the clichés that we have come to expect from popular American cinema: characters are one-dimensional; differences of opinion are solved through violence; and there are plenty of powerless women relying on brave men with guns for their protection. Yet there is a strong sense in which Elysium prompts its viewers to consider whether the bleak future depicted on their screens is nothing other than the logical conclusion of Western civilization's current trajectory. American society is today increasingly breaking down into a disconnected tribal mosaic of people who attend segregated private schools and racially uniform churches, and who live in communities that neatly reflect their economic status. Health care and education have become lucrative commodities. And climate change is essentially ignored in the interest of our consumer-oriented lifestyle.

As a security and intelligence expert, I find it ironic that laypeople often view groups like al-Qaeda or countries like North Korea as existential threats to our security. These are indeed formidable threats. But they pale into insignificance when contrasted with some of the truly critical security threats we face as a civilization: the widening gap between rich and poor; the social and political effects of rapid climate change caused by human activity; and the massive threat to our very survival posed by the thousands of nuclear weapons that are in existence. These menaces require our immediate attention, lest we find ourselves in a dystopian future not far removed from that depicted in Elysium.

Joseph Fitsanakis is assistant professor and director, King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies, at King University.

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