Science in Focus: Crystal Downing

Pastoral Hope in "Elysium"

Reading the layers of Neill Blomkamp's cinematic sermon.

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Significantly, Delacourt justifies her defense of the space station with family values, explaining that she wants her children to enjoy the advantages of health and education that Elysium offers, benefits that would be compromised were illegal workers to cross the borders. Blomkamp thus exposes a more subtle aspect of tensions between the haves and the have-nots: how "family" has become a Shibboleth, used to rationalize questionable behavior for both religious and non-religious people. Christians, especially, should take note, for they follow a savior who stated, "Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10: 37-38, NRSV). Many, of course, get around these uncomfortable verses by reducing love to a feeling; but Christian Scripture makes quite clear that love is about sacrificial action.

To its credit, Elysium defines love the same way. Showing Max reconnecting with his childhood sweetheart, the film, unlike most Hollywood fare, refuses to give us a sex scene or even an erotic kiss. Instead, love is about ignoring one's own desires in order to serve the needs of others. Indeed, Max sacrifices his life to save the world, following the example of his best friend, who previously died to save him (the latter also happening in Metropolis). Thus, as in many medieval palimpsests, traces of Scripture can be sensed underneath the Elysium text: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13, NRSV).

Medieval Christians who made palimpsests out of gospel codices believed that Virgil's Bucolics anticipated, decades in advance, the birth of Christ. In their minds, pastoral re-creation was made available to all—both haves and have-nots—through a Shepherd (Pastor) who laid down his life for his sheep. As in the pastoral genre, then, Elysium illustrates that advanced technology does not save the world. More than a computerized brain, it takes a loving heart to open Elysium to those who are weary and heavy laden.

Crystal Downing is Distinguished Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.

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