Strange. All I remember from Elysium is sand.
Sand without end. Sand that cakes upon people and things, children and toys, mothers and baby bottles. Sand on the productive and listless alike. Desert sand. Sand that obscures hope and defines poverty. The opening scenes of Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp’s recent sci-fi thriller, center the viewer in a ruined Los Angeles, circa 2154, populated by an undifferentiated brown stuff only George Orwell could appreciate. American Marrakech. Quickly, we learn that the only people who live in this God-awful Depression postscript are those without means; an undeveloped protagonist dreams of Elysium, where poverty, war, sickness, and even death have been vanquished by man. Heaven, not on Earth, but above. The nun who listens with ancient grace cautions the roguish boy. “That place is not for us.”
We’ve heard this refrain before. Know your place.
But instead of the inventive special effects, the pornographic violence, the insipid plot or illogical motivations, all I remember from Elysium is sand. Filmed in Mexican slums and Canadian affluence, this film’s visuals are the real story; to purchase a ticket into this world you have to rediscover a notion buried for many amid our national moment by iPads and T-Mobile, by Instagram and Facebook apps. You have to remember that the very rich live differently than the very poor. You have to recall this fact, this lived experience, as something more substantial in its truth than magnetism, than gravity, than linear time. Elysium requires this stark contrast to function: wealth imparts humanity, poverty breeds animals. From this premise each scene grafts new rules upon the depicted bodies politic with all the subtlety of a Bill Maher monologue – authority does not require the human soul, corporations have no respect for human life, the rich employ the depraved to stay rich. We picture this ham-handed propaganda in a diseased, dusty brown landscape where burnt sienna babies claw and scratch through uncharitable lives armed only with situational morality and sheer will while harried do-gooders renounce hope as the preserve of an absentee ultra-rich, who abandoned civic participation for the ultimate gated community.
I feel Elysium ‘s premise only makes sense if you’ve ever lived in a state like Arizona, where world-renowned country clubs and golf courses lie twenty minutes from flip-flops at noon, mayonnaise sandwich, two-toddlers-and-a-newborn-before-nineteen systemic poverty. In Arizona, upscale voters elect anti-tax zealots so passionate to garrote the social safety net that they reduce funding for libraries and universities without respect for economic cycles; in good times and bad, if you can’t afford weekly Amazon.com receipts and tony private school tuition, you do not deserve public resources. But Elysium’s future-present unsettles because it denies the possibility that civic uplift can rise from the sand. In this film, the only humans who work to improve life on planet Earth are medical personnel; the only one you hear speak uses his screen time to remind a desperate parent that miracles no longer happen terrestrially. Yes Earthlings, things are really bad when your doctor gives up all hope before you.
But what of Elysium? What is this place among the stars where we call living the good life living? Manicured lawns? Beachfront property? Designer clothing? No. The realization jars – Elysium is just Whiter than anything you’ve seen on the planet. It’s just the place White people live now, familiar to anyone who recalls Jim Crow, anyone who remembers redlining. Elysium’s citizens never speak – they have boring wine and cheese parties and wear standard upper income suburban attire, fashion without flavor. As Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, Jodie Foster’s character strides through a get-together in one scene and you swear that she’s walking through a J. Crew ad, where standard-issue White families exude pleasant serenity. They are content, not happy; calm, not human. And no one lives near the sand – every face is washed, every nail manicured. There is no acne on Elysium, no cancer, no want. You recall Chris Rock: almost no time is spent in this film on life in Elysium, because it’s about as interesting as the frozen food section of an upper class grocery.
Blomkamp offers this antiseptic, conformist Whiteness as the celestial haven all the darker nations covet; lush green grass tickles the bare toes of towheaded human gazelles who play and laugh and smile because their lives demand no other purpose. Watch as a statuesque beauty drops her theatrical red robe to lie upon what appears to be a personal tanning bed; you learn it’s actually a miracle machine that can cure cancer in seconds. Horror paralyzes. This manicured playground for Teutonic supermodels and corporate overlords gives life everlasting to a Whiteness so privileged it never need die. Earth’s cautionary tales spend the entire film gripped by a feral desperation to emigrate to this orbital nirvana; the entire movie posits a world where no person of color wants anything less than Elysian citizenship. Ask yourself how this morality play ends.
Many good liberal folk applauded this film, and considered Elysium a warning against American xenophobia and isolationism. We have so much, why can’t we share? But the Elysium immigration metaphor characterizes the darker nations as eternally broken, and always wanting. That’s simply not true, nor is that something we should tolerate. I’m from Black suburbia – as a child, I received medical attention from Black doctors, had my teeth cleaned by Black dentists, watched my father vote for a Black mayor, learned long division from Black teachers (including my mother), read op-eds by Black editors, debated crime with Black lawyers, heard sermons by Black preachers, and campaigned for a Black governor. Post-integration, Black marine biologists and architects attend the same family reunions as Black plumbers and cable maintenance men; white collars and blue surround Black throats. The point? Civic uplift is not a fearful wealthy White preserve. It is human nature to improve one’s environment to live well; Blomkamp’s replacement of this impulse among the people of the sand with open border fanaticism throbs with the same racist vitriol as anything spoken by Tom Tancredo or Steve King.
Elysium is your local Abercrombie & Fitch in digital celluloid. Usually the beach resort décor obscures the activity inside, but the first image your eyes notice is a giant wall poster of some lean and tan teenager, muscles defined and taut, eyes blue as the Pacific, with a jaw prominent enough to crack diamonds. Unblemished skin. Florescent teeth. The splendid blond beast. Enter the store. Surrender to this Caucasian perfection. The cherubic beauties overhead wear spaghetti tanks and boy shorts; their frozen smiles boast the same youthful confidence as the Adonis at the gate. Recognize that this virtuous White precision is the only commodity sold.
Now look who’s buying. Walk the aisles and find many people of color there, shopping. Your neighbors. Don’t pretend they are buying sweatpants. Don’t pretend the people of the sand only want health care. If Elysium revolves around the immigration debate, then you’re not watching a single-payer suicide run. This is assimilation propelled by rocket fuel. Elysium’s cosmopolitan modernity includes some non-White casting – a Pakistani President, an East Asian bio-software technician – and these bit roles serve, in my opinion, to reinforce the fantasy, not reject it. The only people of color we recognize as Elysian citizens work there, and appear in such small numbers they do not invalidate the Whiteness project Elysium projects. Blomkamp’s film depicts a single-minded determination within minority populations to appropriate citizenship by any means to force the privileged to recognize them as equals. As the same.
I do not speak for others, but I do not waste time trying to be White.
It’s bizarre: the characters of Elysium do not attempt cyber espionage to steal blueprints and software to duplicate Elysium’s advanced medicine. They don’t attack Elysium with warships. They only launch themselves upon the verdant green, run and stumble through private property, searching with adrenaline for magic beds. It’s offensive. This example of the liberal desire to save the world assumes a world filled with minorities who need saving, who simply cannot help exploitation by multinational conglomerates or the scarcity imposed by their fecundity. I want no part of a world that only views me as a problem. So delete me from the files, erase my vital statistics from the database. Apologies to Matt Damon, but I never asked for his gift.
I renounce my Elysian citizenship.