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'Elysium' Misses the Mark

The most irritating political speeches are those painted with broad strokes, without detail, explanation or confrontation with the hard facts. The narrative always includes a few staple components: a ruthless villain, masses of innocent victims and a simple solution that will resolve all problems with zero negative side-effects. If you could translate such a speech into a narrative for a two-hour Hollywood production, it would be “Elysium.” The film’s premise envisions a class of rich people who live on luxurious Elysium (a moon-sized space station) while the poor live on diseased and overpopulated Earth. Though the predominantly Spanish-speaking people of Earth try desperately to smuggle themselves into legal citizenship on Elysium—the one thing that would fix all of their problems—they are prevented from doing so. The parallels to U.S. immigration policy and healthcare debates are unmistakable. Thanks to a couple of A-list actors and great effects, the film is entertaining enough, but it lacks intellect and originality. Every turn reveals another contrived plot device or cheap stereotype. The audience is expected to accept a rather thin story at face value, questioning neither its sloppy mechanics nor its heavy-handed moral assumptions. Of the many questions left unexplained, the most egregious stands at the very center of the film: why are some rich and others poor? To the extent that “Elysium” offers insight to this important question, its answer is incredibly misleading. The opening sequence tells us that Earth has become diseased, overpopulated and ruined. Since every Elysian owns a machine that magically heals all ailments within seconds—and at no additional cost per use—it seems this would have solved the disease problem. The idea that overpopulation is leading us toward an uninhabitable planet has been a common theme in Hollywood since at least “Wall•E,” or even 1992’s “Fern Gully.” It has been tied to pollution, rainforest depletion, war, disease, poverty, crime and class struggle. On its face, the argument seems reasonable: humans consume resources, therefore more humans results in fewer resources, which leads to a greater struggle over them. Thomas Malthus was the first economist to popularize the myth two centuries ago, but despite being proven wrong time after time, the idea continues to inspire hoards of environmentalists, protestors and screenwriters. Why is this a myth? Because it looks only at one side of the equation: humans do consume, but they also create, and usually far more. Additionally, people in free societies are able to innovate in such a way as to produce more with less over time, as I discuss in a previous post on 3D printing. Nevertheless, let’s assume that overpopulation was what led the wealthy to flee and leave the rest behind. According to one of the film’s fictional websites, there are just 7,946 citizens of Elysium. Even by today’s population numbers, that would be 0.000001 percent. The creators imagine that without a relative handful of the world’s richest people, the rest of us would devolve into helpless animals. We lack the intelligence, talent and basic civility to create wealth or to solve problems without resorting to crime. To put that further into perspective: the creators of “Elysium” think 99.9% of humans are incapable of building a prosperous society. It may be a movie, but this is indeed how many welfare advocates view the poor. They may give lip-service to the idea that the most vulnerable are also valuable, but in practice they treat the “have-nots” as helpless victims who are utterly dependent upon the charity of the “haves.” It is an easy view to hold if one believes that wealth is finite and distributed by mere chance, which is precisely the view promoted by “Elysium.” How does one become an Elysian? How does one acquire wealth and opportunity? The film provides no answer, but we get an idea. We get to know three Elysians: two are crooked government officials and the third is a crooked CEO, whose company is entirely supported by government contracts. There are no truly private companies in the film. There is no market or competition. There are no entrepreneurs; only exploitive bosses who have no empathy for workers. The only thing close to a private firm is a human trafficking operation—the supporting heroes of the story. On Earth, every man, woman and child is a criminal, a victim or—as in most cases—a criminal because they are a victim. There are also no two-parent families in the film. Everyone is an orphan, a bachelor or single parent. Stories have messages. They provide a safe space to explore our human aspirations, our challenges and how to overcome them. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t love them as we do. By applying broad generalizations and offering overly simplistic solutions, “Elysium” denies viewers the opportunity for a meaningful dialogue on issues of immigration, healthcare and poverty. It offers the common reactionary solutions without first exploring the underlying political and economic root of the problem, such as the lack of property rights, rule of law and strong families. On a broken foundation, these “solutions” only serve to prolong poverty and stir up hostile resentment.