Please note, this article contains movie spoilers.
Climate change threatens to make the already grotesque inequality of capitalism even more extreme, wasteful and cruel. As scholar and activist Alex Lenferna writes, “South Africa may have ended apartheid only to enter a world increasingly defined by ‘climate apartheid’, where the rich pay to escape the heat and hunger caused by the escalating climate crisis while the rest of the world suffers the brunt of its impacts.”
While climate change will entrench class, racial and gender disparities in the future, South Africa is already the world’s most unequal society. We have become accustomed to scenes of luxury enclaves next door to poverty and deprivation, and environments where spatial apartheid overlaps with the baroque excess of neoliberalism.
It’s not surprising, then, that this physical and psychological landscape directly inspired Neil Blomkamp’s 2013 movie, Elysium. A follow-up to the South African director’s wildly successful District 9, the initial critical and commercial response to the film was muted.
However, its subversive vision of a future wrecked by climate apartheid has grown in relevance since then. As the linked forces of environmental breakdown and inequality wreak havoc throughout the world, it is worth returning to the political meanings within Blomkamp’s film.
Despite its dystopian themes, the film is primarily about action and over-the-top spectacle. But as with all socially conscious science fiction, these generic tropes are used to critique real world, present-day injustices. Its futuristic setting is an exaggerated version of contemporary social reality, with Blomkamp making visual allusions to locations such as Johannesburg suburbs and the militarised United States-Mexico border.
Camps Bay in space
The film is set in 2154, when the world is effectively split into two classes. The super rich have escaped Earth for a vast luxury space habitat called Elysium. Like a floating Camps Bay or Stellenbosch, the rich lead a life of leisure aided by medical pods that extend their lifespan. Elysium’s design was inspired by American physicist Gerard K O’Neill’s 1970s concept of O’Neill colonies, or space settlements, the same kind of space cities tax-defying Amazon oligarch Jeff Bezos wants to build.
Earth, by stark contrast, is a mess. The majority live a bare life of suffering here, kept in line by a robot police force and dysfunctional public services. The Los Angeles shown in the film has become a sprawling favela. After receiving a dose of radiation and refused medical care, factory worker and former carjacker Max (Matt Damon) is given days to live. Desperate, he accepts a mission from a smuggler called Spider (played by left-wing Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) to retrieve confidential information in exchange for passage to Elysium, where Max can receive the cure for his otherwise terminal condition.
Of course, the heist goes wrong. Max finds himself involved in a bigger plot orchestrated by defence secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a fascist leader who combines the elitist pretensions of France’s Emmanuel Macron with the violent bigotry of America’s Donald Trump. Delacourt attempts a hardline coup on the space habitat with the aid of a gang of South African mercenaries lead by the scheming Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
But after lots of gunplay and firefights, the film climaxes with Elysium’s security hacked and its resources distributed to the people of Earth. Despite being made within the ultra-capitalist Hollywood system, Elysium is essentially about class war and ends with the impoverished majority seizing control of the means of production from the super-rich.
As sociologist Peter Frase writes, the political economy of Elysium shows the logical end point of automation and the so-called fourth industrial revolution. The masses have simply become superfluous idle hands in the eyes of the 1% as “the residents of Earth appear less like a proletariat than like inmates of a concentration camp, where populations are warehoused rather than exploited for their labour. Secure behind the walls of their floating cyber-feudal castle, the rich appear to be no longer economically dependent on an environmentally devastated Earth”.
The physical ramparts of Elysium are underpinned by a supremacist ideology that dehumanises the poor. In one scene, we see spaceships full of desperate refugees being shuttled back to Earth contrasted with footage of a garden party. The elite of Elysium are shown to regard the people of Earth as dangerous and disease-ridden subhumans, to be treated with contempt or outright murderous violence.
The film was released before far-right politicians throughout the world used anti-immigrant sentiment to rise to power. But as with Trump or former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, Delacourt is a xenophobe who sees herself as a powerful leader standing up against the foreign horde. The reality is that the Elysium habitat is itself the aggressor, using regularised atrocities to protect its privileges. The film highlights an emerging politics of eco-authoritarianism, in which wealthy states and people defend violence against immigrants as a Hobbesian necessity for protecting their resources and “way of life”.
As a white South African who grew up during apartheid, Blomkamp is well versed in the workings of a society in which a minority violently dispossesses and controls the majority. The suburbia in which he was raised was full of men like Kruger and the mercenaries, who were given free rein to commit war crimes in the townships and in neighbouring states.
Despite the ideological justifications of “anti-communism” or “Christianity”, the reality is that the bulk of white South Africans were prepared to be complicit in this system because it afforded them a privileged lifestyle. A crypto-fascist garrison state was the price paid for a life of braais and swimming pools. The Elysium station is comparable to Sun City in the 1980s, a boutique pleasuredome sticking out among a reality of catastrophe and horror. The film shows this perverse spatial arrangement becoming globally entrenched under the ravages of ecological breakdown.
Mutiny in Heaven
Despite a bleak setting, the film finds hope in the human capacity for resistance and rebellion. This resistance does not come in the form of organised unions or social movements, but rather through Spider’s gang of smugglers. In contrast to the sociopathic mercenaries of the rich, they are shown as social bandits who are forced into lives of crime by necessity. Condemned to live in the ruins of capitalism, theft and robbery become matters of survival.
In the end, they do not seize the station’s power for themselves but rather make the technological abundance of Elysium available to all. The film subtly contrasts the hoarding and decadence of the rich with the communalism and ingenuity of the impoverished masses on Earth. It advances the anti-authoritarian message that if the rich are unwilling to share their resources, then the poor will have to take them.
It underscores how a socially just response to climate change will necessitate a substantial distribution of resources. This requires not only lowering the carbon emissions of the wealthiest people, but for the Global North to provide resources and technology for the South to protect itself against extreme weather changes. As the film suggests, the tech exists. It’s just in the wrong hands.
The world of Elysium will soon be ours if capitalism continues in its current form of climate apartheid, automation, mass unemployment and social warfare. But what ultimately resonates from the film is the suggestion that a better world of abundance may lie beyond the capitalist horizon.
This world can never be achieved while the super-rich run riot. We can have a habitable planet where resources are carefully managed and shared, or we can have space billionaires. Humanity’s survival necessitates ending not only poverty but also extreme private wealth.