Truth Underlies Science Fiction in ‘Elysium’

By ABC News

Aug 8, 2013 6:00am

ABC News’ Carrie Halperin reports:

The new sci-fi adventure from “District 9″ director Neill Blomkamp and starring Matt Damon may be set in a futuristic world, but the film’s themes are a relevant allegory for the wealth disparities and immigration issues already plaguing the planet.

“Elysium,” a sci-fi fantasy taking place 150 years in the future, takes place in a universe where the elite have abandoned Earth for the better life aboard a luxury space station, 75 miles off of earth. The station, known as Elysium, is a place for the elite — free of war and disease. The rest of the population lives on an overcrowded, destroyed planet.

This premise may sound far-fetched, but a habitable space station may soon be within humanities reach. Blomkamp says he based his ideas for a habitable space station on real designs from NASA.

“Back in the 1970s, people were actually discussing the idea of leaving earth and building space stations for us to potentially live on one day,” Blomkamp said of his inspiration. “I like the idea of taking this idea and caking it with wealth and diamonds.”

NASA even produced studies estimating the cost of a station. In 1975, a report titled “Space Settlements: A Design Study” was created in an attempt to detail the costs and needs of life in space. The estimated price tag of a space station was about $190.8 billion, in 1975 dollars. Adjusting for inflation, the cost jumps to about $828.11 billion — which would escalate if you add all of the glitter seen in Blomkamp’s film.

“The future takes imagination, you have to extrapolate for the technology we have today. Within the next 1000 years, the type of technology used to support a space station like Elysium could be developed,” Mark Uhran, former director of the International Space Station Division at NASA headquarters, told ABC News.  “We’re already demonstrating some of this technology on the international space station today.”

It may be a summer blockbuster, but “Elysium” is full of political subtext addressing deeper issues. At the core of the film is a struggle with immigration, as the unwanted poor are kept out of Elysium.

“It’s like a big fun blockbuster film, but like ‘District 9,’ it’s got deeper themes working so you can enjoy the film on really any level you want,” Damon told ABC News. “My character Max is a guy that grew up as an orphan and always wanted to get to Elysium, but he basically is now resigned to work on earth, and is basically just making his way through life until he gets irradiated, and basically is in desperate need to get to Elysium before he dies.”

Blomkamp grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, in an upscale neighborhood a few miles from some of the most extreme poverty on the planet. When choosing a location for the film’s futuristic wasteland, described as Los Angeles a century and a half from now, he had to look no further than America’s backyard: Mexico. The most poverty-stricken parts of Mexico City are among the most depressed social and economic areas on the planet.

“The film for me is more a metaphor than a futuristic science fiction piece,” Shalto Copley, another of the film’s stars, told ABC News. “It’s taking an intensified, dramatized version of pretty much the way the world works at the moment.”

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