Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is one of my favorite science fiction movies of the last five years, and his follow-up, Elysium, is probably the movie I’m most looking forward to this year, and I’m glad to see that the first trailer for it doesn’t contain any signs I should contain my enthusiasm:
One of the things that I think the best dystopian fiction gets at is the idea that technological advancements will not be distributed equitably or universally, and in fact, that technology may be used to provide an escape hatch for the most privileged people in society. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, the anti-aging treatment that’s developed by Mars’ first settlers goes to the wealthiest people, who are often associated with multi-national corporations, first, while the much larger and poorer segments of the population are denied it. In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s excellent young adult novel The Summer Prince, the main characters live in a society that’s physically stratified, the most powerful living on the highest levels of an enclosed dwelling, and the least on the lowest levels, which are most affected by both sewage and the results of agricultural production. This was something that actually struck me particularly strongly on my trip, which was my first experience with resort travel, a system that, from your pickup at the airport by a preassigned shuttle, to the huge gates you pass through on the way to your actual hotel, is designed to make sure you have as little contact with the actual country you’re visiting as possible.
Given that Blomkamp was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and that his family migrated to Vancouver to get away from South Africa’s extremely high crime rates, it makes sense that he’s particularly attuned both to physical separate by class and race, and the possibility of exit from a system that seems to have failed. It was that awareness that make District 9, in which a stalled alien spaceship united black and white South Africans, who joined together to ghettoize the lost extraterrestrials in a township system like the one that was once used to restrict the movement of black South Africans, such a smart and moving piece of science fiction. In that movie, someone went from the privileged side of the divide to the underprivileged one and discovered that he couldn’t go back again, that there are strict rules for who you have to be to live in a comparative paradise. It looks like Elysium is flipping that divide in having Matt Damon crash the gates of a heaven near to earth, surprising the residents of that gated community with his capacity to get inside. I can’t wait to see what happens when he gets there.