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Science in Focus: Christina Bieber Lake


A Utopian Dystopia

Information just wants to be free.

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Science fiction tends to take one of two approaches to our socio-political future. We are either all going to inhabit a utopia in which our problems will be solved by technological ingenuity (a la Star Trek), or we are all going to be stuck in a dystopia in which solving some problems only causes bigger ones (a la Brave New World or the Terminator films). But a third approach, a variant of the second, has become more common recently: to depict a future world where technological advances increasingly benefit the elite "haves" while the masses of "have-nots" pick up their trash (think of the Eloi and the Morlocks in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, reimagined to reflect distinctively 21st-century themes). That is the world of Elysium. It's 2054, and the wealthiest citizens live on a controlled-climate space station where every mansion contains a med-vac unit that can heal any illness or injury within seconds. Everyone else lives on earth—which is pretty much south-side L.A. writ large, with most people desperate to hitch a ride to paradise in refugee space ships.

As a concept, the film has a lot going for it. When the story works, the audience recognizes that the Elysium/Earth separation is simply an exaggeration of our division between first-world and third-world societies. The film reminds us that systemic poverty, malnourishment, and lack of basic medical care are fundamentally political problems, not issues of scarcity. Since power corrupts, there will always be disagreements about what to do with those "others" who are in need. But we don't get subtlety here. Defense secretary Delacourt (Jodi Foster) is about as caricatured as a white-suited, BVLGARI-wearing villain can be, representing the crassest political option. When "they" try to spoil your paradise with their needs, just blow them up.

Unfortunately, and in contrast to District 9 (also co-written and directed by Neill Blomkamp), the film does not live up to its potential to expose toxic first-world attitudes. The moral issues get overly simplified and then pushed into the background altogether. The film degenerates into a mediocre action flick in which Delacourt tries to recover data that Max (Matt Damon) had been turned into a cyborg in order to steal from a contractor's brain. We don't even care enough about any of the characters to enjoy it when Delcourt gets stabbed in the neck and Max sacrifices himself to save a girl with leukemia.

The final strike against the film is its facile solution to the problem of inequality. It suggests that if we just free advanced technology for everyone's use, all will be well in the world. I doubt it. Elysium serves to prove once again that you cannot expect a simplistic presentation of a deep problem to offer anything beyond a simplistic attempt at a solution, either.

Christina Bieber Lake is Clyde S. Kilby professor of English at Wheaton College and author of Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood, just published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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