The billionaires of LEO

Neill Blomkamp's 2013 film Elysium is an underrated film that continues to grow in relevance

The billionaires of LEO
Image: Sony Pictures

Earlier this week, Virgin founder Richard Branson hitched a ride into space to become the first billionaire to take advantage of his own, home-grown hardware, and in a couple of weeks, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is set to do the same. For years, we've watched a handful of companies set up the infrastructure to shuttle people and equipment up and down in a more cost-effective manner.

Human spaceflight has long been a complicated endeavor. The scientific missions launched into space in the 1950s and 1960s were a thin coat of paint tossed over the efforts on the parts of both the United States, Soviet Union (and their respective allies) to find better ways to deliver nuclear payloads to enemy targets, in the event that a nuclear war broke out. While the space program brought thousands of jobs that advanced scientific understanding and brought about practical technologies, there was a persistent feeling amongst political circles that sending astronauts into space was draining funds from other social programs.

Writing in his history American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, Douglas Brinkley noted that those views existed within Kennedy's own administration: "Shocking many attendees, [Edward R.] Murrow continued to represent the argument that NASA was a distraction from the real societal problems America faced in 1961, though he also reluctantly admitted that Apollo offered the brightest hope for enhancing national pride."

People like Bezos, Branson, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk have pointed to their efforts as a first step in safeguarding the future of humanity by opening up access to space. It's an argument that's been lobbied by plenty of science communicators and science fiction authors over the years, but as those same billionaires have begun making their way into orbit on their own toys (or in some cases, launching their sports car into space), it's not hard to imagine that the future that they imagine looks something a bit more like Neill Blomkamp's 2013 film Elysium.

Image: Sony Pictures

Elysium opens with a Blade Runner-esque text introduction that explains the state of the world: the 21st century left the world overcrowded, polluted, and riddled with disease, and to get away from the unwashed masses, "Earth's wealthiest inhabitants fled the planet to preserve their way of life," setting up Elysium, a massive Stanford torus, a theoretical, ring-shaped station that would rotate to provide a population with an atmosphere and gravity.

As the film progresses, we meet Max (played by Matt Damon), a former car thief who's been trying to forge a clean and honest living working in an Armadyne robot factor owned by an Elysium resident named John Carlyle (William Fichtner). When Max is irradiated and given just days to live, he convinces a local smuggler to get him a ride up to the ring, in the hopes that getting into one of the habitat's advanced medical bays will cure his radiation sickness.

Along the way, Max is outfitted with an exoskeleton and some hardware, and is sent after Carlyle to kidnap and steal some proprietary data. Their actions sets Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) a violent, off-the-books operative hired by Elysium's Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster) on their tail to recover the information that Max and his crew has stolen out of Carlyle's head.

The movie didn't get the best of reviews when it landed, but it's one that's captivated me since I first saw it, and I feel like it's a story that enjoys continued relevance, even nearly a decade after it was released.

A couple of years ago, I spoke with Blomkamp about his start-up film studio, Oats Studios, and he spoke briefly about that focus on social commentary: "it's in my genetic makeup that I'm just drawn to that," he told me. "I think that's the reason I'm still really drawn into Elysium...District 9 existed because it was an allegory directly connected to apartheid."

Speaking with ScreenRant around the same time, he noted that he felt that Elysium was one of his films where he wanted to go back and fix things, but that "I still love the set up to Elysium. The idea of the separation of class warfare presented with this space ring is incredibly appealing to me and I would love to go back and make another movie in the world of Elysium because it's compelling."

At its most basic, Elysium is a story that digs deeply into our culture's uneasy relationship and acceptance of poverty, and how society is structured in such a way that those with power and wealth are able to keep themselves separated away from those beneath them. In Blomkamp's future world, people are barely able to get by in their overcrowded and violent surroundings: those who have avoided a criminal sentence are barely able to squeak by, while those with records are routinely harassed by autonomous police forces. Meanwhile, the residents of the Elysium station enjoy a life of privilege: they're protected by a robotic security force and hardliners, and have equipment onboard that allows them to cure any ill or injury. (At one point, Kruger is brutally blown apart and reassembled in one of these machines)

What really makes this world stand out is the little things that Blomkamp puts in here: the police and parole robots aren't interested in rehabilitation so much as they are cracking down on minor infractions in a zero-tolerance fashion, the way Carlyle holds a scented handkerchief over his nose and mouth when interacting with his underlings, the way the advanced technology hasn't trickled down from Elysium to the general public, and so forth. Max is told that he's replaceable at work, driving him to take desperate chances to hold down employment, and when he's irradiated, is simply given some drugs to hold off the pain and symptoms before being thrown into the streets.

All of these elements feel exceedingly plausible in 2021: there's been plenty of ink spilled about how our justice system is unfair, while the global pandemic highlighted the real cracks in our healthcare system, especially when it comes to low-paid "essential" workers. In the last year, the world's richest individuals have only grown their wealth, prompting plenty of calls — but little action — on the part of our leaders to do anything about it, even as it feels increasingly clearer that it would go a long way towards solving our problems. The leaders onboard the Elysium habitat feels like they're shepherding a perverse cross between the Trump administration's border policies and Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.

Image: Google Maps (inspired by Unequal Scenes)

These observations about the growing gap between the rich and the poor aren't lost on science fiction authors and creators. Certainly, it's something that has made Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower stand out and remain keenly relevant, while a central component of James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series has been about the slow-broiling grievances of the solar system's impoverished. Micaiah Johnson's excellent novel The Space Between Worlds is entirely about this sort of systematic wealth imbalance and the problems that it causes.  

There was an observation that I came across a long time ago: "The billionaires investing in space travel don't want Star Trek. They want Dune." There's a tendency for those in power to hold onto it, to consolidate their wealth and live out their lives in the safety and security that that money buys them. That's the world that Blomkamp has brought to life in Elysium, and as the years go on, it feels more and more like the world that we'll eventually end up with. Parts of it are already here: many of the world's richest people have set up getaways to escape from natural disasters and the coronavirus. Escaping into a fantastical space habitat is just the next logical extension of that.

On Twitter, writer Sim Kern (the spouse of a NASA flight controller) went viral when they pointed out that space is a harsh environment and that the idea that billionaires are "escaping" into space is a bit of a misguided image — it's one that's backed up in Linda Nagata's The Red trilogy, in which she paints a bleaker picture for Earth's wealthy refugees: stuck in small, cold habitats where they live out the rest of their lives. Going to space is just another way for them to line up lucrative governmental contracts, with the added bonus that they'd get to live out some sort of childhood fantasy of playing astronaut while they're at it.

"The issues raised by Elysium have been in existence as long as homo sapiens," Blomkamp told The Guardian back when the film released. "You'd literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy."

Elysium, for all of its minor flaws — and it does have its share of them — is one that hasn't diminished with time. The themes, design, and imagery that Blomkamp incorporated into the film hold up today as well (if not better) than they did back in 2013, and at the rate that we're going, I have little doubt that it'll remain as such. To avoid that future world? We have to solve those existential problems and recognize that the cost of spaceflight shouldn't come at the expense of those left behind.