"Elysium" Got the Future of Humanity All Wrong

08/13/2013 05:15 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT

If you are reading this article, you are surely one of the One Percent™. After all, technology only accrues to the world's wealthiest, right? If the message of Elysium were true, then yes. But it's not. As anyone who has given this more than a moment's thought realizes, technology isn't something simply the wealthy enjoy. As American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie once put it, "capitalism is about turning luxuries into necessities." If you're scoffing at this quote, remember: you are reading this for free through a magical box that cost a few hundred dollars. If someone had said 50 years ago that the entirety of human knowledge would be available within seconds, they've have been deemed mad. Yet, here we are.

Look around you. Whereas once upon a time only the wealthy could afford horse carriages for travel, now most North American adults can afford a horseless carriage. And that carriage can take you 40 kilometres away with a milk jug's worth of clear fluid, extracted from a far-off part of the continent that cost you less than $10. Where once slaves and horses did this job for the elite, well paid labourers and scientists have replaced them with cars (and are also on the cusp of replacing drivers). For those of us who prefer city life, there are these magic tubes that transport us under the ground at 40 kilometres per hour for about $3. Technology makes us more equal, not less.

The premise of Elysium is that some time between now and 2054, all of the world's wealthiest residents built a gigantic spaceship to escape from earth. They have the technology to cure all wounds and diseases in a matter of seconds, but jealously guard their technology from earthlings. They use robot police to ensure that the unwashed masses can't get into their planet. For some reason the greedy elites would prefer to spend their money oppressing the masses than selling them things (spoiler alert: this curious decision is never explained). While meant to be a dire warning against immigration restrictions, privatization, and corporate power, it came off as a series of bizarre contradictions, the type of which only the most convinced conspiracy theorist could overlook.

The irony of this political statement -- make no mistake, that is what this picture is -- is that it portrays humans in such a negative light that one can't help but wonder why it is the screenwriter even cares about the future of humanity. Actual wealthy elites typically donate large amounts of money to charity annually, while others will large amounts of their estates to philanthropic endeavours. They also finance an immensely disproportionate percentage of government spending, contrary to Internet memes. Instead of attempting to create plausible characters, they simply inserted a race of villains that more closely resembled cartoon billionaires than actual humans. That was necessary because, as bizarrely controversial this may sound, people are actually pretty good.

Science fiction can be a useful tool for envisioning future possibilities, and thinking about how we will adapt as a species. But they need to be plausible to be interesting. Tinkering with biology and chemistry is fine. Maybe even fudging physics a little. But inverting human nature does little to help us envision possible futures, let alone to make the desired political point. Rather than middle class residents of Los Angeles becoming slaves 140 years from now, they will more likely be commanding robot butlers to fetch them cocktails to drink while kicking back and watching movies on their hologram televisions. Perhaps while browsing through a futuristic Netflix some of them will look stumble on Elysium, and chuckle.

End Of World Images