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Matt Damon’s Elysium, Plato’s Republic, and Utopias!

I’ve been too far away from pop culture recently, but I am coming back to it. Having seen a trailer for Matt Damon’s new movie Elysium, I couldn’t help but write a post. Of course, the movie’s title comes straight from one classical concept of the afterlife known as the Elysian Fields. This is very much referenced in the movie Gladiator. There is a lot to discuss when talking about Elysium because it is quite controversial. I want to focus more on this movie’s concept and relation to ancient sources than the arguments surrounding the Elysian Fields. I will say one thing about the Elysian Fields, however, and that is that they are not the equivalent to the modern beliefs many religions hold about Heaven. They were originally reserved for heroes (god-related mortals) and, arguably, later considered open to those who were chosen or initiated into the mysteries. It was also not separate from the underworld, but rather a part of it and therefore the Heaven and Hell dichotomy was not in existence.

That’s enough on the Elysian Fields since they really have nothing to do with this movie other than its title. Clearly the title was chosen because the rich are allowed to live in a paradise (Elysium) while the poor are left stranded on Earth which has been left to ruins. That’s about as much of a synopsis as you will get from me because I have not seen the movie and I am writing purely on the concept with a great excitement to see this film. I also want to see how much I can predict from knowledge of classical works and works of “utopian” literature.

It could be argued that Elysium does not present a utopia because there is still an Earth society which is not at all utopian, but I think it is fair to say that the space station where the rich are living is meant to be a utopia that Matt Damon will somehow alter, destroy, wreak havoc upon, etc. The wiki calls it a utopian space station so I am going with that. It also claims that there are instant cures to all diseases in this space habitat (WOAH COOL!).

So take a step back with me to Ancient Greece and let’s take a look at the first utopian works that we currently have knowledge of.  These works would be Plato’s Republica and Plato’s Laws. The Republic actually attempts to set out standards for a utopian society while Laws sets out a society that is as close to that as possible, but could potentially be governed by real (aka flawed) men. Plato’s ideal society is nothing like what I assume Elysium will be, but that’s assumption based on the fact that Elysium must be driven by wealth. In the Republic there is no such thing as private property, everything is communal including children and food. The children are raised by the community without knowledge of who their parents are. Food is simple, not extravagant. Basically it is that everyone lives a moderate life so that no one is below or above another, everyone is equal.

The most important main goal of the Republic was to be devoid of human weakness. This is the part I find most fascinating both about the Republic itself and its connection to the film Elysium. In the film the focus on removing human weakness comes in the form of physically curing everyone in the habitat of all diseases.  While, I think, Plato would argue that human weakness comes from desires for excess, luxury, satisfaction, etc. it is noteworthy that Elysium considers it purely physical. The nature of Elysium is actually the opposite of the Republic because the idea on the space station is that everyone can afford and has everything they could possibly want.

Of course as with all utopian works we will find out that Elysium is actually dystopian for many reasons, I’m going to bank on it being some sort of human nature flaw. It may come in a form we are not used to like compassion or it may be that the people want more and more and we find there are even limits to luxury. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

That is a wandering, smattering of the origins of utopian works and Plato’s beliefs about utopia. I hope it gave you a nice little base of knowledge. I suggest reading more on these things by reading Plato’s Laws and his Republic. I also suggest Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bacon’s The New Atlantis (unfinished, but encourages luxury so may be a good comparison to Elysium).

Leave a comment below arguing with me, telling me your favorite work of utopian literature, or how you think this movie is going to play out. I will hopefully be seeing it shortly and writing a follow up to this.

EDIT: I love District 9 so hopefully this is as good.

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