The reason Elysium is so realistic is because it captures so well the economic disparities of the rich and poor; that the separation between the “haves” and “have-nots” might as well be a chasm as distal between the Earth and space, between the “first” and “third” “worlds.”
Similarly, both the modern “first world” and Elysium enact an “immigration Act” in respect to “Homeland Security,” heavily weaponize forms of “deportation,” and use “undocumented” to describe the ship and “illegal” to describe migrating bodies.
Both the modern “first world” and Elysium exist in a paradigm of abject poverty and overt plutocracy; it’s easy to see these disparities in both fiction and reality — whether discussing the “first” and “third” worlds,” Charles Dickens’ “it was the best of times and the worst of times,” or the hood in the city, from segregation to now, modernly, gentrification — this economic cliff has always been the problem… if you’re not of the plutocracy.
If you’re of the plutocracy, it’s always been understood that a permanent working class is necessary to sustain consumption, especially so as to maintain wealth, status, “class.” In fact, the very inception of colonization began with a plutocracy which was well aware that its deeds were imperialistic and colonial.
Elysium is in fact a critique on capitalism1. Both Elysium and the “first world” rely on capitalism. Capitalism is both Elysium’s and the “first world’s” problem.
Specifically, capitalism takes the form of the military-industrial complex. The US, “leader” of the “free” “world,” consumes more on military expenditures than any other sector by a percentile differential which directly reflects on war events worldwide.
That, specifically, within the United States — the “leader of the free world” — actually endemically operates by and with its own permanent subclass that is also not historically or temporally separated from slavery. This permanent subclass, nationally in respect to the United States and internationally in specific regard to current and former colonial empires, usually a population of color, and moreso Black or Brown.
In Elysium, we see the basic division between those on Earth and those on Elysium. In a more national, local level, the effects of segregation can also be seen; and likewise, segregation was a strategic result of political and economical disenfranchisement of an emerging population of color within key territory.
In March 1968, after much large uproar of the Civil Rights Movements, then President Lyndon B. Johnson chartered The Kerner Commission to address violence and racial inequality; the Kerner Commission stated the United States was to “Make permanent the division of our country into two societies: one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs” (from American Apartheid, 4); and so, one can see how political power has been consciously instrumental in created infrastructure which causes segregation, poverty, and their own subsequent problems.
Elysium makes it clear that its own politicians and leaders cater to their own agenda. Elysium President Delacourt and Homeland Security John Carlyle have a “contract secured for the next 600 years;” and the mere existence of Elysium also indicates a world in which power has been abused against the people.
We see the continuation of forced intrusion, an imposed capitalistic economic system, enforced religious beliefs, effective colonization in the neo-colonial conquest for space: Brazil’s favelas during FIFA World Cup, China’s slums during the Olympics, and Russia during the Winter Olympics.
The United States experiences something within its own borders: recently, Oakland residents rejected the building of another stadium due for a Super Bowl. Residents argued that instead of pouring public funds into an unnecessary stadium — while Oakland is struggling with its own rent rises and gentrification — that the city should instead focus on supporting public infrastructure. Again, this is neo-colonial in nature, as it pushes out native residence specifically for a new, ultra-wealthy population.
Their tremendous wealth creates a means for a newer echelon of wealth which makes former capitals of wealth outdated. A counterexample — and perhaps a predictive indicator of future wealth capitals — is Michigan, and its fundamentally doomed trajectory as a capitalistic endeavor, short sighted of the infrastructural adjustments, relying on a later, near post-Industrial Age industry.
On one hand, there are newer levels of wealth being stratified; on the other hand, older, now less efficient and economical, industries are being discarded2; together, this represents a shift, specifically a paradigm shift.
This is where discussions of neo-politics, neo-liberalism, and neo-conservatism emerge; each inlaid with their own respective lexicons, frameworks of operating, and, alas, goals, although they intersect, converge, and diverge at certain points.
Because this political body is emergent, in certain ways, it is also ambiguous at best. Elysium presents the question: Why have Elysium if not to help the people? Why the existence of citizenship? At what cost?
Although, generally, the people of Elysium are beyond skeptical in respect to believing in “their” “leaders;” being a post-apocalyptic dystopia, it gives more than enough measure and room to express doubt in political bodies.
The irony of Elysium is that its own questions of citizenship, access, and the cost of maintaining both the separation and approximation of bodies of color — near enough to serve, far enough to not disturb — could be applied to “modern” “reality.”
The distinction of the “first” and “third” world are maintained; although the “first” world also contains pockets of the “third” world, and likewise the “third” world” contains pockets of the “first” world;” these would be the differences between the colony and the empire.
Elysium is a literal metaphor of the colony and the empire.
What the Olympics, FIFA, World Cup, etc. show is that there is an emergent new class of wealth which is so large it will go beyond the simple poor, middle class, and rich conception of pre-modern wealth — a new face of the empire, if you will.
It also shows these are acts of neo-colonization, beyond the conceptual arguments of space — as there was a real, violent, military, police, political, and economic infrastructure catering to the wealthy while discarding the poor, the voiceless, the very offspring of diaspora — displaced again.
These people, in both Elysium and modern reality, are those without “citizenship,” who are not “citizens.” And while Elysium whitewashes the main character, it’s important to note the character is (supposed to be) a person of color, and, at least in theory3, is ultimately in reclaiming paradigm shift.
In terms of population, the overwhelming majority are non-citizens; likewise, a very marginal few are citizens.
It calls into question revolt by sheer and simple population, but, at least in Elysium, the military answers with sublime repression. This, again, mirrors modern reality.
The United States has its military bases in largely historically colonial countries; expends more on military than any other sector; and mal-uses its scientific and mathematical human resources on creating more sinister forms of violence and surveillance. The United States thus largely operates as a military country, a global colonial force, and the proverbial global police.
Does Elysium’s salvation have any reflection in modern reality? That is probably the question to ask.
Elysium’s salvation comes after rewriting the mainframe of its system, from the core. Specifically when every body is listed as “citizen.” This is a double edged sword.
First — it suggests a registration, which, being a futuristic sci-fi, seems to leave little room for the ancient and indigenous — that there are still pre-technological, “pre-modern,” indigenous societies. If there was a registration, it suggests these indigenous societies had to have been contacted, a bureaucratic system had been incepted and instated, and suggests a global conquest of indigeneity.
Second — insofar as the movie, it does provide some instantaneous, easy, quick-fix solution. Again, double-edged sword.
“Citizenship” in Elysium is a privilege given to wealthy, mostly white bodies; and this is also true for modern reality — but “spreading citizenship,” as in “spreading democracy” also has a colonial operative and bureaucratic imposition that allows neo-colonization, enforcing a flawed political system that only ultimately favors the exploitation of the common people in favor of a small, elite, privileged, wealthy, and politically empowered group who has always maintained the power…