Monday, July 8, 2013

Elysium Wears Ideology on Its Sleeve

Note: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.

I absolutely loved Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a gritty piece of South African SF where whiz-bang action met fairly deep ethical philosophizing. So imagine my excitement when I stumbled across an extended trailer for Blomkamp's new film, Elysium. You can watch it yourself, but here's a synopsis: In 2154, the privileged few live in Elysium, a space station that looks like a genetic recombination of Martha's Vineyard and Palm Beach. They dwell in posh digs while eradicating every bit of sickness through high-tech, personalized medical devices. On Earth below, the unwashed masses struggle to survive amongst dust-choked streets and crumbling ruins, watched over by an abusive police force and robotic caretakers who medicate malefactors rather than try to heal them. And healing is just what Max, the thief-turned-blue-collar-worker protagonist, needs. Injuries from an accident will kill him in five days, and an old-flame's daughter lies deathly ill, too. So he undergoes a brutal procedure that can barely be called surgery to turn himself into a cyborg with the ability to break into Elysium, so that the rest of us can gain access to the benefits horded by those within and ...

Wait a second: Does this sound like Occupy Wall Street articulating an argument for single-payer health care to anyone else?

Of course, I don't know what the thematic heart of Elysium will be because I haven't seen it, but the trailer sure seems to be wearing ideology on its sleeve. That's a danger of which storytellers must beware. Aside from one telling line, District 9 only subtly addressed its main theme of apartheid, meaning that it attracted audiences of every stripe. But any story that stakes its ground on a controversial issue too boldly risks ending up preaching only to the proverbial choir. For my part, I rather liked how Gary Phillips and Tony Chavira handled their ideological themes in the noirish comic-book compendium Beat L.A. You didn't need a prognosticator to figure out their perspective, but they populated the work with flawed yet interesting characters who held all sorts of viewpoints -- people, in other words, instead of mere mouthpieces.

(Picture: CC 2009 by khrawlings)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Maybe this is just because English majors like me these days are overdosed with cultural criticism, but I generally don't find blatant allegories--even ones with which I firmly disagree--a deal-breaker. But I do think you nailed something when you talk about how stories need to be filled with "people...instead of mere mouthpieces."

China Mieville may be one great example of the ability of real people to succeed. On the one hand, his hyper-intellectualized postmodern-Marxist political views are not exactly hidden in his works; the first short story of his that I read had an off-brand Ikea willingly sacrificing guests' children to an evil monster in order to achieve greater profits. But I think a lot of his popularity is due to the fact that (1) he isn't so much preaching, as exploring his own worldview and testing it against reality, and (2) he doesn't present know-it-all, always-right characters. His characters are bumbling around, like the rest of us, and often (especially in his later works) aren't particularly interested in vast economic inequalities or revolutionary fervor.

Both those things are, I think, inherently captivating. Few intelligent readers would say no to a glimpse inside the head of a highly-intelligent thinker, even if in the end they reject his presuppositions. Similarly, characters who are defined in a rich and complex way invite the reader into the story, instead of challenging the reader to either accept the author's vision or go home empty handed.

I haven't been published yet, but one of the best comments I've gotten was "your main character is a thug, but I'm interested in her anyway." I don't see her as a thug--just a poor sap trying to ge by in a hard situation with a minimal compromise--but when I heard that comment I knew I'd done my job well with her.

Loren Eaton said...

Honestly, my reactions vary. Not too many stories match up with my ideological views, so I obviously don't mind reading things with which I disagree. But I get really tired of some of the groupthink that reigns in the entertainment community. Religious characters who are always crazy, corporations that are always monolithic and more powerful than governments, wealthy capitalists who always end up being antagonists -- I get really tired of those tropes. They're lazy and show a skewed view of reality. But now I'm ranting.

For Mieville's part, he's an incredible writer. (He made the Middle Shelf, after all.) But Marxism is hard for me swallow. I grew up with a Slovak refugee family that had fled the Iron Curtain. The mother was beaten by police while pregnant. Karl and I don't really get along.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

To be fair to neo-Marxists, most of the intellectuals wandering aroud under its banner agree with Slavoj Žižek that "Communist Russia was an economic, military, ethical, and human disaster." Mieville clearly reads Žižek; I'm sure he would agree that Communism was worse than the sort of Capitalism practiced in the 20th Century.

To be harsh but fair to neo-Marxists, though, I still find a hard time figuring out exactly what utopia they imagine could come after Capitalism.

It's one thing to critique capitalism-as-it-works-now and call for tweaks in the system. Everyone does that, even libertarians (though libs tend to believe in a one-size-fits-all reform of deregulation and privatization, no matter what the issue is). But the sort of "throw rocks at Capitalism and let's see what happens next" attitude seems akin to some of the messier revolutions happening in the Middle East; people may unite for "change," but they have mutually contradictory visions for what change means and may not end up with a net improvement.

On the other hand, recently quoted a scientific survey of which careers are most attractive to psychopaths. You'd be gratified to know that mass media (radio/television/&c.) was pretty high on the list of psychopath-employing professions. You'll be less pleased to know that the #1 psychopath-employing profession is that of CEO's.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Clarification: By 'the sort of "throw rocks at Capitalism and let's see what happens next" attitude,' I mean a lot of Marxist rhetoric. The Iron Council is a perfect example; its conclusion is beautiful precisely because it avoids dealing with the aftermath of a successful revolution, which would be far more ugly.

Loren Eaton said...

Now don't get the idea that I'm for big business! I agree with P.J. O'Rourke: Capitalism is "the worst economic system anyone ever invented, except for all the others."