Monday, August 12, 2013

Elysium: Fighting For Paradise

According to Brittanica Online,
"Elysium, also called Elysian Fields or Elysian Plain, in Greek mythology, originally the paradise to which heroes on whom the gods conferred immortality were sent... In Homer’s writings the Elysian Plain was a land of perfect happiness at the end of the earth.. In the earlier authors, only those specially favored by the gods entered Elysium and were made immortal."

In Neill Blomkamp's latest incarnation of this story, the "specially favored" are not heroes at all; they are, however, extremely wealthy. When the earth went to environmental and political hell in an overcrowded hand basket, the 1% built a bourgeois paradise in space, leaving the 99% on a decrepit earth to gaze longingly at the home of their betters. The rich got everything money could buy: perfect health, longevity, luxury and ease. Those left behind inherited a hard life that creates harder people, and the camera does not look away (see Focus on the Family's review for more detail on the relentless portrayal of very fallen world). 

As far as social, economic and political commentary go, Elysium is intended to be a sci-fi parable of health care and immigration in much the same way Blomkamp's disturbing District 9 dealt with racism. It's caricatured class warfare and naive revolution are a distraction at best and dishonest at worst, but they will certainly generate discussion about the morality of wealth disparity.

I am more interested in Max.

When Max moved into a Catholic orphanage he met Frey, a young girl who becomes his best friend. As they gaze into the sky and dream of what life could be, he promises to one day take her to Elysium. Unfortunately, life on earth interferes with the best laid plans. As much as the nuns try to give him love, encouragement, and hope, he quickly turns toward a life of crime. "You are special," they tell him. "You have a purpose." As far as he can tell, his purpose is to survive by any means possible.

Fast forward. The legendary street thug Max has been released from prison. He's doing everything he can to stay away from crime and keep his new job, including going to work with a broken arm. He lives in a tough neighborhood without succumbing to the pressures of joining his old friends. He endures cruelty at the hands of the "justice" system so that he can do his penance and get on with life. He has committed himself to be being better than he was before, and he's not giving up. When he meets Frey after years of separation, we see a genuine love for a friend emerge through his callousness.
A lethal dose of radiation at the factory changes everything. His primal will to survive kicks back in - he only has five days to get cured, and the only place that can happen is Elysium. With nothing to lose, he commits to getting to Elysium by any means possible, even at the expense of the life and health of others.

Max is no angel; he is ready to do what it takes to accomplish his goals without thinking too much about others around him who are suffering. When he realizes he accidentally gained the ability to make everyone alive a citizen of Elysium (this would give them access to the health care and other amenities that only the super rich could afford), his path begins to change. Frey's dying daughter's only hope is also on Elysium; he is her only hope. Suddenly, he is fighting for more than just his own life.

As much as he wants to live, there are some things worth dying for. Only by his death can he save the daughter of a childhood friend. Max, who was willing to do just about anything to stay alive, chooses to sacrifice everything to save the lives of others.

Though Blomkamp uses clear Christian imagery (Max's enemies pierce his side and his hands; blood flows over his fingertips as he stumbles down his own Via Dolorosa, his own way of suffering on the way to his death), Max is less a savior and more a tragic hero akin to Tolkien's Boromir : noble in the end in spite of his flaws; selfless when it really matters; ultimately committed to doing what he was made to do even if it kills him.

As much as Max's cause resonates, I couldn't help but think that the movie had a chance to offer a far better understanding of the good life than it did. Those stuck on earth wanted to participate in the life of the gods as defined by materialism and wealth, thinking health, food, beauty and ease would make them happy. All those things can bring legitimate pleasure, but they are fleeting. They can never bring true happiness.

In classical Greek, makar was associated with the immortal gods. Kari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix ma the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones. The makarios, or blessed, were the denizens of Elysium.

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God. It involved the concept not of physical comfort and success, but rather ultimate joy, a life with purpose and hope running through it, free of despair in spite of dire circumstances.  It's what the nuns hinted at when Max was young.

Jesus' Beatitudes are famous for the list of people who are the people of makarios: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted, the merciful, the slandered. Jesus said they were blessed by God not because their circumstances were perfect, but because they had found the One who could bring a blessed peace that prefigured heaven. It didn't mean the makarois stopped fighting for justice because all would be made right eventually; it simply meant that subjugation and oppression were not strong enough to rob them of participation in the life of the blessed. 

I liked Max a lot. He's a great example of how our history is not our destiny. If you are looking for cinematic heroes who fight for just causes, he's not a bad choice. I just wish the movie could have shown that when Max decided to give his life for a cause greater than himself - to do the thing he was born to do -  he had already found his Elysium. Heroism, bravery, sacrifice, and purpose: that is what characterizes the heroic whom the gods favor.

His moving sacrifice for the good of the world is a shadow of a much greater story with a much better Savior, but even echoes of a beautiful song are worthy of applause.


 J.W. Wartick's "Elysium: Out Hopes, Greed, Class and Suffering."

Focus on the Family's "Elysium."

No comments:

Post a Comment