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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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This Is The End: Old Comedy makes its return!

This is the End is closer to an ancient comedy than a modern one.  When I think about Greek and Roman comedy I think of things playing out just like This is the End.  First, let me say this is a hilarious movie and is incredibly well done. There are so many good jokes as well as situational comedy so it doesn’t rely entirely on the jokes. Go see it, especially if you grew up in the 90s with all of the love for 90s things. If you haven’t seen it there are some slight spoilers in this post, so beware moving on.  Anyway, back to the ancients. I hope in this post to spread a little knowledge about ancient comedy while showing how This is the End is very similar to these plays.

There are two categories in which ancient comedies are usually classified. Those are Old Comedy and New Comedy; there is also Middle Comedy, but it is a confusing subject and is really just used to talk about some works which bridge Old and New and therefore are hard to define. Old comedy is mostly talked about with Aristophanes.  Old Comedy is mainly seen as political satire. Aristophanes wrote comedies which were social commentaries on Socrates (The Clouds), war (Lysistrata), overuse of the justice system (The Wasps), etc.  This is the End fits into this style as it discusses some political issues like legalizing marijuana as well as being centered on an apocalyptic event which has been in people’s minds recently with the passing of the year 2012, but I would not consider it a political satire. It does, however, have many of the farcical aspects of Old Comedy.

Another characteristic of Aristophanes’ comedy was the use of the phallus. To put it bluntly there were penises everywhere. Actors wore giant penises, some scholars say it was to be sure that the audience did not mistake the gender of the character, however I think it was more of a comedic device than anything. Watch the scene in HBO’s Rome where there is a play going on in a the background to see this; that’s New Comedy, but that’s okay because this is an aspect they share. This is actually what gave me the idea for this post because as soon as the demon is shown we see that he has been given a giant penis. The idea was probably to be equally scary and hilarious; it succeeded. This immediately struck me as ancient comedy, though.  This movie had more penis jokes than, I think, any other movie I have watched. Craig Robinson trying to pick up the giant penis art is probably my favorite. In this way I say that This is the End was very similar to Aristophanes and Old Comedy.

New Comedy is situational comedy at its earliest beginnings. This comedy is considered shallower and doesn’t take many risks as far as political commentary goes. The best known Ancient Greek writer of New Comedy is Menander. This was also the genre of comedy which was adapted in Rome by playwrights Plautus and Terence.   New Comedy is based more on stock characters and depictions of daily life. In this way it is very much like our modern sitcoms such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother, or Modern Family.  The way This is the End fits into New Comedy is that in the beginning we are getting a glimpse of the daily life of these people we see as actors so often.

I see This is the End as very close to Old Comedy. In fact if Aristophanes were alive today it wouldn’t surprise me to see his name scrolling through the credits as a writer. The penis jokes really stand out to me as a reference to antiquity; they probably did this without even realizing it. There are, of course, many things I didn’t touch on in this post like the religious aspects, the fact that these characters are over-exaggerated versions of themselves, and the use of small role female characters (something that is huge in ancient comedy). Please leave a comment and I will be happy to chat about these things in the comments section.

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