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Science in Focus: Crystal Downing

Pastoral Hope in "Elysium"

Reading the layers of Neill Blomkamp's cinematic sermon.

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.)

Other than the Med-Pods, however, the heaven of Blomkamp's Elysium seems geared mostly toward adolescent boys, its primary pleasures represented by lithesome women in bikinis. But perhaps this is part of Blomkamp's heavy-handed point: the privileged, refusing to spread their wealth around, live artificial bikinied lives, framed by garish McMansions adjacent to astroturf-green lawns. And when in need of plastic surgery or a better tan, they retreat to their Med-Pods for instant gratification, seeking physical rather than spiritual re-creation.

A bit more subtle is Blomkamp's android palimpsest. While Metropolis shows humans re-created into robots called Maschinenmenschen (Machine-Humans), Blade Runner has computerized "replicants" turn into humans—or at least nearly so. Elysium contains Machine-Humans as well, identifying them in several different ways. Early in the film we see androids, like those in Star Wars, policing the Los Angeles barrio (the word "police," of course, comes from the Greek polis), where they arrest the film's protagonist, a factory-worker named Max DeCosta (Matt Damon). When Max visits his parole officer—a robot looking like a 1950s wooden manikin—the conversation starts by way of shot/reverse-shot, the camera focusing on one speaker's face and then the other's, as they sit on opposite sides of a desk. Soon, however, Blomkamp starts filming the face of the robot over the shoulder of Max, such that we see the back of Max's head in the foreground while focusing on the speaking robot. Attentive viewers thus recognize the similarity in smoothness and shape between Max's shaved head and the robot's painted head, preparing them for Max's later transformation into a machine-human. In fact, at the end of his conversation with the parole officer, Max starts imitating the robot's mechanized intonations. Though he does so in mockery, the scene adumbrates the robotic mock-up that Max becomes.

The transformation begins after an industrial accident—reminiscent of the deadly factory explosion in Metropolis—in which Max gets exposed to radiation used to refurbish (re-create) androids. Given only five days to live, he seeks the help of underground technology wizards (also reminiscent of Metropolis) who fit him up with robotic prostheses. Drilled into his head and other body parts, the computerized metal appendages effectively turn Max into a machine-human, with the hope that the robotic technology will enable him to sneak onto Elysium in order to access a Med-Pod. In exchange, the underground technician asks Max to use his robotic powers to download, into his brain, computer information from Elysium that might help others escape their destitution on earth.

Max meets his match in a thug, also fitted up with robotic prostheses, who works as an undercover agent for Elysium's Secretary of Defense. Despite their high-tech appendages, however, Max and the thug duke it out like cowboys in 1940s Westerns, marring the film with overly long displays of conventional violence. The movie is more interesting when it alludes to the robotic nature of Elysium citizens, especially Jessica Delacourt, the Secretary of Defense, whose stilted walking and monotone voice make her seem only slightly more human than Max's parole officer. In fact, if Delacourt had not been played by the award-winning Jodie Foster, many viewers might dismiss the character as inadequately "fleshed out" by a sub-par actor. But that seems to be Blomkamp's point: privileged individuals who disregard the suffering of people in other parts of the world are sub-par humans, as fixated on protecting their comfortable lifestyle as the robots they program to defend it.

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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