NPR Story
2:51 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

'Elysium' Is Latest Film To Tackle Income Inequality

Originally published on Tue August 13, 2013 4:40 pm

Elysium,” the new movie starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, depicts a world where Earth is a destitute planet, covered in slums and plagued by disease, home to only the poorest of souls.

The more fortunate get to live on a space station called Elysium, where the air is pure and medical problems can be zapped with the flip of a switch.

This isn’t the first time that income inequality has been tackled on the big screen.

NPR’s Linda Holmes takes us through some of the classic examples, including “Titanic” and the more comical “Trading Places.”

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW, and I'm Jeremy Hobson.

And over the weekend, I saw the new movie "Elysium" which won the weekend at the box office. It stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and it is a sci-fi movie set in the year 2154. Earth is a very unpleasant place. It's filled with slums and is plagued by disease and pollution. But for the ultra rich, there is a space station of sorts called Elysium where the air is pure, the homes are beautiful and medical problems can be solved with the flip of a switch.

It is just the latest film to tackle the issue of income inequality. And joining us now to talk about it is Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Monkey See blog. Linda, welcome back.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Oh, thank you so much.

HOBSON: Well, just for people that haven't seen this movie, I want to play a little clip. This is Jodie Foster playing Defense Secretary Delacourt up in Elysium. There is a ship of immigrants coming towards Elysium and she orders that they be shot down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ELYSIUM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) 10,000 kilometers and closing.

JODIE FOSTER: (as Jessica Delacourt) Shoot them down.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

FOSTER: (as Jessica Delacourt) Missiles away?

HOBSON: So shooting down the immigrants, this is really taking the haves and the have-nots to the extreme, Linda.

HOLMES: Yes. That is definitely the case. She's pretty determined to keep them away.

HOBSON: Well, what is the message of this movie, do you think?

HOLMES: I think the story he's trying to tell - and Neill Blomkamp who is the writer-director of this movie is a South African director who previously did a movie called "District 9," which was really an apartheid allegory. And I think this movie is a broader story about the way that people who are extremely rich segregate themselves from people who are very poor. He said in interviews he considers this to be not a sci-fi world but really the world that we already have. So I think it's trying to get people to think about things like rich people having much more access to health care, which is a major theme of the movie.

HOBSON: Yeah. On Elysium, we should say, they have these Med Beds where you can just get in them, and it will cure you of any problem that you might have.

HOLMES: Right. Rich people seem to have them in their houses.

HOBSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And yet nobody has them on Earth. So it's a massive difference between crowded public hospitals on Earth and these Med Beds on Elysium. So a lot of it is about those differences between the way people live.

HOBSON: You say it's the world we already have, but I did notice that the scenes that are supposed to represent Los Angeles in the year 2154 were actually shot in parts of Mexico City. So it is taking what exists now to an extreme.

HOLMES: Oh, absolutely. And I think when he says it's the world we have now, he means, in effect, not literally. It obviously is scientifically different than it's sociologically different. I think what he's saying is the systems in the movie are meant to reflect systems that he sees, you know, in society right now.

HOBSON: Well, is it the kind of movie that you walk out of the theater and you just worry for the future, do you think?

HOLMES: I'm not sure it's going to worry anyone for the future who isn't already worried for the future. I think it's one of those movies that a little bit plays into its audiences - its intended audiences' feelings about wealth. And, you know, demonizing rich people in the movies and setting them up as the ones who are making life difficult for everyone else is not a new thing. That is a very, very classic theme in movies, in dramas, in comedies and especially in sci-fi.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about a few of them. "In Time" is another sci-fi movie. It starred Justin Timberlake. Let's listen to a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IN TIME")

CILLIAN MURPHY: (as Raymond Leon) I'm Timekeeper Raymond Leon.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (as Will Salas) I'm Will Salas.

MURPHY: (as Raymond Leon) I know. Where did you get that?

TIMBERLAKE: (as Will Salas) A man named Henry Hamilton gave me over a century. He said he didn't need it anymore. It was a gift. I'm not a thief. But, hey, if you guys are looking for stolen time, maybe you should arrest everyone here.

MURPHY: (as Raymond Leon) Oh, I see. You're talking about justice. I am a timekeeper. I don't concern myself with justice. I only concern myself with what I can measure.

HOBSON: So, Linda, time is the currency of the day in this movie and the haves have it and the have-nots don't.

HOLMES: Right. And, in fact, sort of like "Elysium," which translates wealth into access to health care, "In Time" translates wealth into how long you get to live, so that you have a much more pressing - it's a very dramatic thing to have a much more pressing translation of wealth. It doesn't just mean you have more money. It means you get to live longer. And "In Time," it means that in a very literal way.

HOBSON: Well, let's go back way into the vault now to the movie, "Titanic." We can't really talk about income and equality in the movies without mentioning that one. Here's a clip from "Titanic."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TITANIC")

JASON BARRY: (as Tommy Ryan) You can't keep us locked in here like animals. The ship's bloody sinking.

NICK MEANEY: (as steward #2) Bring forward the women.

BARRY: (as Tommy Ryan) Unlock the gates.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Come on, come on.

MEANEY: (as steward #2) Women only.

HOBSON: I just should mention that we have now been through films with Matt Damon, Justin Timberlake and Leonardo DiCaprio.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: But tell us about "Titanic," Linda.

HOLMES: You know, it might seem like we're skipping around. But in all honesty, if you think about the lifeboats in "Titanic," there's a real similarity between the lifeboats in "Titanic" and the space station in "Elysium." It's a way for wealthy people to escape the fate of poor people. And in - it's sci-fi in "Elysium." And in "Titanic," it's very literal and historic, you know, historically based. So despite the fact that these movies are massively different in tone and in genre, they're really both telling a similar story in that part of the movie about how rich people sort of stick it to poor people and go off by themselves and say, you guys are on your own.

HOBSON: And I just also want to mention a comedy that we should talk about, "Trading Places," which stars both Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Let's listen to a golden oldie from that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRADING PLACES")

RALPH BELLAMY: (as Randolph Duke) Well, William, what do you think?

EDDIE MURPHY: (as William Raymond Valentine) I like it, Randy. It's very nice. I like the way you got the mirror and stuff hooked up over there. It's very pretty. I like that. I like that mirror.

DON AMECHE: (as Mortimer Duke) I don't think he understands, Randolph.

MURPHY: (as William Raymond Valentine) Oh, Morty, I do understand. I do.

BELLAMY: (as Randolph Duke) William.

MURPHY: (as William Raymond Valentine) Yes?

BELLAMY: (as Randolph Duke) This is your home.

MURPHY: (as William Raymond Valentine) Uh-huh. Right.

BELLAMY: (as Randolph Duke) It belongs to you.

MURPHY: (as William Raymond Valentine) Yeah, all this is mine. I like my home. It's very nice. I have very nice taste in houses. I like...

BELLAMY: (as Randolph Duke) Everything you see in this room is yours now.

MURPHY: (as William Raymond Valentine) Uh-huh. This is my stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: I think that people were probably more concerned with laughing their way through that movie than thinking about income inequality.

HOLMES: Oh, absolutely. But that movie came out when we were looking at wealth and being rich in a really different way. It was 1983. People were in a different headspace about wealthy people. And the thing that makes that movie so interesting to me is that on the one hand, the rich old guys in that movie are the bad guys. But unlike these other movies where, ultimately, the wealthy people have to be vanquished, in "Trading Places," again, a comedy but the ultimate point and the ultimate triumph is to wind up just like them, really wealthy and living on a beach, not doing anything. So it's a different sort of relationship between how people in the movies are looking at wealth.

HOBSON: So, Linda, we've heard about a movie there from 1983, from 1997, from 2011 and from 2013, and yet I'm not sure you could say that our policy on income inequality in this country has changed dramatically because of any of these films.

HOLMES: No. I think when you make a film, it's very difficult for particularly any one film or any piece of culture to, on its own, really move the ball, as far as how people think about an issue that's so hard to get your arms around. I think if you're a Neill Blomkamp or any of these filmmakers, if you have a hope for your film, it's that people will at least be motivated to start having these conversations and to start thinking about, well, you know, what is the equivalent of having a Med Bed in one place and a crowded city hospital in another place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MY HEART WILL GO ON")

HOLMES: But, no, on their own, no one thing moves the ball.

HOBSON: Linda Holmes is the host of NPR's Monkey See blog. She joins us regularly on HERE AND NOW. Linda, thanks.

HOLMES: Thank you.

HOBSON: And, Meghna, can you tell what this is?

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

I'm afraid to guess actually.

HOBSON: It is my "My Heart Will Go On." It's an instrumental version by the City of Prague Philharmonic. We had talked about maybe playing the theme at the end from "Elysium," but I figured since it came out over the weekend, nobody would know what it sounded like.

CHAKRABARTI: Maybe we should have taken that chance.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: Well, by the way, "Elysium" made $30.5 million at the box office when it opened. It was the top-grossing movie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.