In 2009 upstart South African director Neill Blomkamp showed Hollywood a thing or two when his $30m sci-fi thriller District 9 took more than $200m at the box office with a compelling tale of aliens as victims as opposed to predators. Four years on he’s back with a bigger budget – $115m – plus A-list stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster for a another dystopian tale – this time the cosseted rich versus the vulnerable poor – set against a global canvas.
Elysium, a new movie starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, depicts what many futurists have long predicted is mankind’s ultimate destiny – the division of the human race into two new class systems – a transhumanist elite that centralizes technological progress to achieve utopia, and a massive underclass left to rot on a dying planet ruled by robotic drones. It’s 2154 and earth is one big polluted ghetto, a sun-seared hell where big cities – specifically Los Angeles – have broken down into favelas housing the dispossessed and those lucky enough get back-breaking work in factories run by faceless corporations.
The trailer for the movie, set to be released on August 9 in the US, begins by depicting an army of robot drones in control of policing that shake down and beat citizens for trivial “violations”. The year is 2154. When Damon’s character expresses anger at his treatment, he is offered a pill to calm him by a robotic bureaucrat. Any form of dissent is treated as “abusive”.
“Humanity is divided between two worlds,” reads the caption, explaining that most of humanity is left to reside on an overpopulated, collapsing earth while the super elite have developed a gargantuan and luxurious off-planet space habitat called Elysium where war, poverty, hunger and disease are non-existent.
Damon’s character is forced to undergo cybernetic enhancements before he can lead a mission to Elysium in order to find a cure for a cancer virus he has contracted. The movie is also clearly designed to be a political jibe at anti-immigration activists.
However, many of the themes of Elysium are clearly lifted from the work of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines predicted the body scanner depicted in the trailer which eliminates cancer cells.
Kurzweil’s 1999 book, which successfully foresaw the invention of the iPhone, the iPad, Google Glass, iTunes, You Tube and on demand services like Netflix as well as the Kindle, predicts that by 2029 the vast majority of humans will have augmented their bodies with cybernetic implants and those who refuse or are unable to do so will form a “human underclass” that is not productively engaged in the economy.
The wider trend of the elite seeing humans as completely expendable as their roles are taken up by machines unfolds after 2029 when, “There is almost no human employment in production, agriculture, and transportation,” writes Kurzweil.
By 2099, the entire planet is run by artificially intelligent computer systems which are smarter than the entire human race combined – similar to the Skynet system fictionalized in the Terminator franchise.
Humans who resist the pressure to alter their bodies by becoming part-cyborg will be ostracized from society.
“Even among those human intelligences still using carbon-based neurons, there is ubiquitous use of neural implant technology, which provides enormous augmentation of human perceptual and cognitive abilities. Humans who do not utilize such implants are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do,” writes Kurzweil.
One of the most prescient voices of dissent against this future – despite his murderous actions – was Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who is widely quoted by futurists like Kurzweil and Bill Joy as sagely outlining the dangers posed to the general public by the elite’s drive for technological singularity, as depicted in the Elysium movie.
“Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite,” wrote Kaczynski in his manifesto.
Alice Braga portrays the standard love interest as a childhood friend turned honourable nurse but it is Damon who provides the rich focus, a quietely determined good guy who has never been able to accept the literal gap (about 20 minutes in a space shuttle) between rich and poor.
In a disappointing season of bloated blockbusters, Elysium stands tall, a first-rate sci-fi thriller given extra heft by a heartening moral core.