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Elysium: One Hyde Park in the skies

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Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is the ultimate gated community, says Rory Olcayto

There is a scene in Neill Blomkamp’s Hollywood movie Elysium where we see a young boy and girl flip through a picture book that details life on an orbiting space colony. On a clear day they can see the huge satellite - which shares its name with the film - from the giant planet-bound slum they feel trapped in. They dream of living there, breathing its clean air, wandering its woodland paths and dipping their toes into crystal clear streams that have long since vanished from Earth.

Elysium, home to thousands of wealthy citizens who have fled the polluted, crime-ridden planet below, is the ultimate gated community, a kind of One Hyde Park in the skies. Every day hundreds of Earth-dwellers board ramshackle spacecraft hoping to break into the vast, torus-shaped satellite, if only to gain access to the medical technology that its residents have installed in their homes. These full-body scanners can eradicate disease and reverse decay. Most of these ‘Elysium seekers’ however, are blasted from the skies by the colony’s defences before they get the chance.

The metaphor is clear. ‘This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now,’ Blomkamp has said during promotional tours for his film. Those slum-dwellers attempting to break into Elysium are no different from the Afghans or central Americans packed into lorries and shipping crates in the hope it will bring them to London or New York. The healthcare storyline has obvious parallels, too. Just last October the BBC reported: ‘Overseas “health tourists” cost NHS at least £40m’.

Showing ‘now’ in a future setting is true of most good science fiction, a genre whose greatest hits have always dealt with contemporary themes. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, for example, set within a city made entirely from glass to enable total surveillance, draws upon the Russian author’s own experience in the Soviet Union following the 1917 revolution. (Zamyatin’s novel is also widely considered to be the inspiration behind George Orwell’s 1984).

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Elysium’s spectacular extrapolation of contemporary themes then, is entirely to be expected. Yet it is another, unexpected, quality that sets Blomkamp’s film apart from other science fiction: nostalgia. In fact Elysium isn’t really sci-fi at all - it’s a costume drama set in an era that never quite came to pass. The scene where we see the kids flipping through the Elysium picture book is the giveaway.

It is identical to picture books that Blomkamp would have seen when he was just a boy, of space colonies proposed by Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, and backed by NASA in a 1975 document entitled: Space Settlements: A Design Study. In his foreword, then-NASA administrator James Fletcher wrote: ‘To assess the human and economic implications as well as technical feasibility, the participants in this effort have provided us with a vision that will engage our imagination and stretch our minds.’

Elysium’s design is a straight lift from the scenographics (pictured) created by artists Don Davis and Rick Guidice under O’Neill’s direction. They showed pastoral landscapes wrapped inside a toroidal structure curving upwards as far as the eye can see, and peppered with low-density, campus-style architecture, discreet hi-tech and healthy looking citizens. And if there had been the political will at the time, O’Neill’s idea may have become a reality.

Colonies in Space, a 1978 book by aerospace engineer TA Heppenheimer, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury, took the ideas to a wider, adult audience. The first page reads: ‘1982. The target date for the beginning of major construction of the first Earth colony in space. What will it be like?’ Elysium, soured by the gulf between rich and poor that has grown ever wider since the ’70s, is Blomkamp’s angry answer. www.welcometoelysium.com

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