Elysium and Atlas Shrugged: Getting Preached at from Both Sides

I saw Elysium a few days ago, and then, on a lark, ended up seeing Atlas Shrugged: Part II last night. These movies, and the plot construct behind them, are remarkably similar in many ways, yet the conclusions they come to are absolutely opposed.

Both fictional worlds involve a rift between the wealthy and the unwealthy. In both fictional worlds, this rift eventually becomes (or became, in the case of Elysium) absolute—with the divorced civilization of the have-nots finding itself in total ruin.

Both movies are also ideologically driven and even heavy-handed—preachy. The audience is not allowed to form its own conclusion. We are told what to think. To be fair, Elysium  was less heavy-handed than Atlas Shrugged, but that says almost nothing. Both movies are built on an implausible construct and peopled by flat characters who experience only superficial development. But that is where the similarity ends. Reader beware: commencing spoliers.

Elysium imagines a world where the earth has become so over-populated and polluted that wealthy people leave it for a shiny space station called Elysium[1] so that they can “preserve their way of life.” Earth is a slum. Elysium becomes the perfect haven for the bourgeoisie.

Elysium  has very little good to say about the inhabitants of Elysium. They are uppity, entitled, mean-spirited, oblivious, and self-indulgent. Matt Damon plays a determined young man who just wants to survive. It is a testimony to his acting skills that Damon, who in real life is one of the filthy rich people the movie demonizes, is able to play a poor slum rat so well. This slum rat has been trying to avoid the criminal lifestyle, but it is so hard. And then an uncaring corporation throws him out to die when an avoidable factory accident microwaves his body with a lethal dose of radiation.

He has five days to live, and he is going to go to Elysium. Why? Because the space island of Elysium has medical bays in every house—beds reserved exclusively for Elysium’s citizens—that can heal pretty much anything pretty much instantly.

And that is why “illegals” from the slum planet of Earth keep sacrificing every bit of their mortal substance to try to get into Elysium. An evil grasping war hawk played by Jodie Foster (who incidentally speaks remarkably good French) uses any means necessary to keep “illegals” from getting to Elysium. She shoots them down or rounds them up. The ones that don’t die are quickly deported so that the hapless citizens of Elysium can do whatever it is that they do without hardly having to see nary an “under-privileged” non-citizen. What exactly they do isn’t all that clear—I saw them in pools and drinking and stuff. Apparently none of them work. And, as far as the movie tells us, none of them has any charitable inclinations at all.

Then with one fell swoop, Elysium addresses the illegal immigration issue and universal healthcare. In one not-so-glorious climax, both issues are miraculously solved by a little string of DOS code that instantly rewrites Elysium’s laws and equalizes all social disparities. Yay! Just one question, though. If the Earth below Elysium is so over-populated that people with money left it for Elysium, how will opening Elysium to citizens it obviously can’t hold benefit the hapless citizens of Earth? In the construct of the movie, there obviously isn’t enough wealth or living space to go around. So, what happens when all the wealth runs out? Everybody is poor and lacking medical attention? I guess that is fair, even if it’s miserable. But it doesn’t actually solve anything.

The real answer of how to solve class conflict is not addressed at all—unless you count, “The lower class just needs to win the war on the upper class” as a solution. I don’t. I guess we could make all illegal immigrants citizens with the stroke of a pen and offer free universal healthcare to all citizens. But who would pay for that? And if injustice to one party is necessary to right previous injustices to another, would this not result (as it has resulted) in an endless and futile cycle of social retributions parading as equality and justice? Elysium vainly cheers its unwitting audience with an optimistic hope in an unachievable utopia. A utopia where wealth just exists, and there is presumably enough to go around. Sorry, guys. Reality begs to differ.

Now on to Atlas Shrugged. Its propaganda is of an opposite sort, but just as ill-grounded. Like Elysium, it assumes that somehow producers can survive without consumers. It envisions an Elysium-like enclave as well, but it is a place where producers can go to get away from looters and leeches. In this scenario, the privileged citizens of Elysium are the good guys. The main ideological difference between the movies is which side to root for. Both movies take for granted that there are two hopelessly divided sides pitted in a struggle against one another for existence. There are differences of course. Elysium assumes a Marxist model of wealth distribution and Atlas Shrugged adopts Ayn Rand’s version of individualist capitalism. But in both cases, the dichotomy and antagonism between the classes is assumed. This is the fatal flaw in both movies, and in both ideas.

For instance, I had so many practical questions concerning the economic situation in Elysium. How did people perpetuate wealth in Elysium? By selling things to themselves? Did they have to go back to Earth when they lost everything in a stock market crash, or were those things just frozen? I don’t get it. The whole idea in Elysium seems to be that wealth is not earned or produced, but merely owned and used, but never spent. Those in Elysium just happen to hold wealth, but they are no more entitled to it than anyone else. While watching Elysium, I kept wondering how the people there made a living. Carlisle, a wormy military contractor, is fighting to get a contract with the only place that matters—Elysium. But wouldn’t all rich military contractors be trying to get that contract? What happens when the other companies don’t get it? You see then that classes must develop even in Elysium.

Further, why wouldn’t entrepreneurial capitalists in Elysium cash in on the massive market on Earth? If there is a medical bed in every house in Elysium, why not send one solitary bed to a private hospital on Earth and charge the slum citizens a small charge to use it? The initial investment is already made, and you can be sure that such an investment would quickly pay for itself. The citizens there are willing to pay everything to get to Elysium for medical care. Surely they would be willing to pay just as much to get into a medical bay on Earth. It makes no sense that the greedy Elysiumites wouldn’t have cashed in on that, even if it did benefit the people on Earth.

But similar questions arise from a logical expansion of the events in Atlas Shrugged. The genius producers leave society to let it burn. They expect society to completely disintegrate while they build a society of geniuses in utter seclusion. That sounds great except for one thing. You have railroads and steel mills and coal and ore and gold, but why? Railroads to what and for whom? Where are these geniuses going to find the unremarkable peons who will run their trains, pour their steel, and buy their products?

Visionaries obviously relate to a person like Steve Jobs more than they do to the average iPhone user zombie-walking around the mall, but you wouldn’t even know Steve Jobs’s name without millions of those same zombie-walkers. Producers need consumers. Consumers need producers. In most cases where the civil government doesn’t intervene, they get along just fine and live in a symbiotic relationship of relative harmony.

The fact is that great people and average people need not hate each other or be at war with each other over resources. We are connected and inter-dependent. If we were willing to be anyway. We all have a purpose to fulfill. Both Elysium and Atlas Shrugged overlook this possibility. In their paradigm(s), either the individual or the collective has to win.

This is stupid. We must jettison the poisonous idea that the classes must be at war. In that war, everyone loses ultimately. Both parties in the over-simplified Marxist bifurcation can win—both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, labor and management, so-called haves and so-called have-nots. All we must do to achieve this harmony is for each of us to learn his calling and pursue it with all his might. If you are a waiter, be the best waiter you can be. There is no shame in that. If you are a factory owner, be the best factory owner. Make the best product, have the most efficient and most productive employees. There is no shame in that. If you are in the movies, make the best movies. And on that note, perhaps the people who made Atlas Shrugged[2] and Elysium might want to rethink their callings in life—or at least make better movies.

  1. By the way, Elysium is the ancient Greek paradise. The gods allowed heroes and semi-gods to live there near Olympus in harmony and peace. The Elysium space station is like heaven in the heavens—the place all slum children long to go when they grow up. []
  2. I do find it quite ironic that a movie apparently touting the power of profit and the value of individual genius and excellence should be so devoid of genius and excellence and so unprofitable. Yet Part III will be forced on an apathetic public nonetheless. []

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com

About the author

Michael Minkoff

Michael Minkoff writes, edits, and typesets from his office in Powder Springs, Georgia. He honestly does not prefer writing about politics, but he sincerely hopes you enjoy reading about it. He also wonders why he is typing this in the third person.

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