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Elysium and the American Dream

30/09/2013 12:18 BST | Updated 28/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Washington DC is a divided city. Created when Maryland and Virginia both carved parts out of their own states to form a new one, DC has always been known for its polarities of Democrat and Republican, black and white, rich and poor. It can easily be seen as embodying the crisis the USA faces - a country where capitalism is its creed, a way of life. The unwavering belief in the American Dream, only a reality for a minority of successful social climbers, becomes a mask to injustice and abundant inequality. The vision that once widened so many horizons has become a hindrance, the horizon no longer in sight.

Elysium, the new oeuvre d'art of the visionary Neill Blomkamp, portrays such an exaggerated divide. We are fast-forwarded over a century into the future, to an overpopulated, barren earth. Terrifying visions of slums as far as the eye can see pepper the film, images of children scrounging around for money and such heart-wrenching stereotypes as the terminally-ill daughter of a nurse, the tenacious immigrants killed in their attempt to reach greener grass. This is Los Angeles, 2143.

The rich populace Elysium, a satellite utopia of clean-cut modern architecture, plush gardens and universal immortality. The Secretary of Defence epitomizes the utilitarian ruler, leaving her own garden party to shoot down a few rogue immigrant shuttles.

Both literally and idiomatically outlandish, the film is fantastic. But this isn't a film review, and in fact, the director wouldn't like us to view Elysium as a film at all. Naturally, the movie has sparked some debate about its relevance to our fast-approaching future, but as the director argues, 'This isn't science fiction. This is today. This is now.' His message is clear.

Before going to see Elysium, I had been to a networking event on Capitol Hill for legislative staff and lobbyists. Upon explaining to someone that I was planning to see the film in Friendship Heights, the well-off suburb of DC where I was staying, he responded with a chuckle; 'It's pretty ironic that you're going to see Elysium in Friendship Heights'.

Ironic, perhaps, that I was paying $20 for an opportunity to poignantly reflect on the all-too-real inequality that plagues our planet. Maybe it was ironic that I was watching the film in a shopping district whose Jimmy Choo and Tiffany caters to a small portion of wealthy Washingtonians who can afford to live in the area. Perhaps most ironic of all, was the large blacked-out SUV with Secret Service bodyguard in tow outside the shopping center when I emerged from the cinema. The rich may not be orbiting the earth on a sort of quasi-satellite utopian habitation, but they are most certainly on another world. Easy as it is to see the wealth, the all-too conspicuous consumption of the USA, it is even easier to ignore the poverty.

It's not as if wealth inequality is a topic that simply isn't discussed - in fact, only that week had Obama announced his grand plan to reduce college costs across the country. Us Britons often bemoan the £9,000 price-tag attached to tuition at even the universities least deserving of such a title, yet we are a world away from the staggering $60,000 a year university fees in America that leave most people - Barack and Michelle Obama included - repaying their debt well into their 40s. When the pursuit of wealth is a way of life so ingrained into a nation's consciousness, is there any chance of credible action being taken? Do we really believe that politicians, whose careers are made or broken by big money politics, are ready to trigger large-scale change for the downtrodden and the needy? The very same politicians will bank millions after their political career in after-dinner speeches, non-execs and advisory positions with lobbying firms. Indeed, the exact same politicians who infamously spend most of their time fundraising for the next election, instead of actually getting things done.

The problem may be inaction. If we lament the apathy of the ruling class, yet fail to take action upon it, then we become a part of the problem, the inexorable cycle of sluggish ignorance. It might be the lack of confluence between different opinions, the fact that politicians and financiers don't very often discuss such issues with the average Joes of the world. Granted, nobody is about to invite just anyone to come speak at Davos - but equally, it is up to the majority to set up forums and panels to debate the issues that they want to see solved. It is as much the fault of the powerful as the powerless.

A wider problem may in fact be that those who steer the course of a nation, those who set its agenda, are people who have already achieved the 'American Dream'. They will say that they did it, they succeeded against the odds - and so can everybody else. But being the exception to the rule, being the fluke, doesn't quite sound so aspirational. The ones at the very top of society aren't going to want to admit that they were the lucky few for whom social mobility actually worked.

At one point in the film, Max, the protagonist, promises to return to Earth as soon as he receives health treatment in Elysium. As his friend begins to laugh maniacally, we realize that nobody ever really comes back. Why live on Earth when you can live in heaven?