Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 27, 2013

Elysium and Scarcity

I have not seen Elysium, and after reading some reviews, I doubt that I will.

The writer and director of Elysium is Neill Blomkamp, the South African-Canadian filmmaker most famous for District 9 (which I did enjoy). In Mother Jones, Asawin Suebsaeng has a review* (“Matt Damon Shoots His Way to Universal Health Care”) in which he quotes Blomkamp denying that the film has a political message. Suebsaeng comments: “it’s odd that Blomkamp [the director] would claim his film does not have a ‘message.’ His sci-fi action flick is explicitly and pervasively political. It gets its two cents in on global poverty, immigration, access to health care, and social mobility, all the while affording Matt Damon plenty of room to maim and explode bad guys.”

Suebsaeng goes on to note some of the flaws of Elysium, which appear to include poorly written dialogue and poorly written characters, especially villains: “Elysium is far from perfect. Some of the strained dialogue sounds like it was written in a freshman seminar. The frequently superb Foster is miscast and laughably unconvincing as a ruthless oppressor. And the action and commentary don’t approach the kinetic body slam or cleverness of Blomkamp’s previous effort.”

At this blog, Ashley believes that Elysium has a good story to tell but tells it poorly. In agreement with the Mother Jones review, she notes that the villains are flawed: “The villains would be so much better if they were real characters with real motiviations… but they’re not.”

Finally, Jacob Bacharach has perhaps the most incisive review: “I walked into Elysium a few minutes late, and Matt Damon was getting the beat-down from a robot, to whom he’d had the temerity to back talk. This robot was the only character in the film whose motivations were clear and whose actions were a function of its character. Nothing else made any sense.” (Lots of spoilers in Bacharach’s review.) An excerpt from Bacharach’s review (emphasis added):

In the future, an orbital post-scarcity society with the capacity to manipulate complex organic systems at the sub-molecular level maintains Fordist manufactories on Earth. Is it just to give the proles something to do? A single line of dialogue to the effect of, “We gotta keep them busy or they will revolt,” might have covered this flaw, although how an earthbound population could revolt against a well-armed space station, manifest numerical superiority or no, is quite a question, and in any case, most of the people on Earth don’t appear to have work, so there goes that theory.

As a rule, sci-fi movies run into trouble trying coherently to depict scarcity.** The great exception to the rule is Dune, in which the spice is a scarce resource. Importantly, Dune explores some of the reasons behind this scarcity: the spice is only produced on one planet; the extraction of spice is a labor-intensive and risky business; the spice is important for a number of purposes — chiefly, interstellar space travel would be difficult or impossible without spice. The fact that the spice is a scarce resource lies behind much of the action in the books and shapes the economic and social institutions of the Dune universe.†

Anyway, aside from Dune and Battlestar Galactica, I cannot think of any sci-fi franchises that really did a good job of depicting or explaining scarcity. Certainly not Star Trek.

* H/T: Duck of Minerva.
** The problem is hardly unique to sci-fi. Authors in other genres of fiction are quite capable of screwing up economics. See, e.g., the Harry Potter series.
† There are also actors within the Dune universe who have incentives to restrict the supply of spice artificially, but we need not go into that level of detail here.



  1. Maybe the post-scarcity Culture novels of Iain M. Banks will get a decent film treatment. And no, I haven’t seen anything good about Elysium, more’s the pity.

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