Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Elysium and Human Rights

Goethe's Ankunft im Elysium by Franz Nadorp 

A couple of weekends ago my brother and I saw Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s second feature film after the highly praised District 9. Being immensely forgetful, I’m only getting round to writing about it now.

I agree with the general consensus of the reviews I’ve read: while there was potential, it was a deeply flawed film. The film is set in a future Earth where overpopulation has destroyed the planet. The rich have therefore decamped to a space station, Elysium, to avoid the overcrowding. It’s an interesting world and it’s established really well in the opening of the film. However I can’t help but feel that the story told in the film was not the most interesting story that could have been told in that world.

The story is full of flaws and the deus ex machina ending is frustratingly unfulfilling. Matt Damon, who I am normally a big fan of, seems a bit wasted as the immensely dull hero, Max. And Jodie Foster’s villain seems to completely lack any concrete motivation for her villainy. Ostensibly she wants to be the President of Elysium but it’s made clear throughout the film that Elysium is essentially run by computers, so what’s the big deal about being President? If everyone on Elysium is super wealthy, with big houses and perfect health, what perks are there for the President to make Jodie Foster’s scheming worth it?

But what annoyed me most, because I am vexed by unusual things, was the film’s nonsensical references to human rights. Jodie Foster’s character claims that her unpopularity in Elysium political circles is because her efforts to stop illegal immigration to Elysium are counter to human rights. This is a completely meaningless statement! Human Rights have meaning only so far as they are understood in the current international context. Human Rights have salience because we live in an international order where nations have come together to sign conventions, not only the Declaration of Human Rights but also the 1948 Genocide Convention and the Geneva Conventions, that all sought to establish certain rights applicable to all individuals and the state’s responsibility to act when those rights were being contravened.

But in the future Earth of this film, the context that gives human rights salience is no longer applicable. We have no idea whether international organisations like the UN or even nation states still exist. Human Rights rely on the fundamental belief that all humans have certain inalienable rights and the assumption that all humans are equally deserving of respect and recognition. Given that all the richest members of humanity have decided to sod off to a big shiny space station, leaving everyone else to suffer in deprivation, it’s probably safe to assume that the human rights agenda as we understand it is no longer relevant.

So why the frequent human rights references? It’s lazy story telling. The audience knows that human rights are good. So by pitting Jodie Foster against human rights, we instantly know that she’s the bad guy. But I find this immensely unsatisfying. If Blomkamp wanted to invoke human rights, he needed to put it in a context relevant to the future Earth that he so expertly crafted in the opening of the film. 

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