Dirt and Humanity in Elysium

In the 2013 science-fiction film Elysium (Neill Blomkamp), which is set in the year 2154, the action takes place in two distinctly different built environments, one on Earth and one in space. On Earth, we are in Los Angeles, which has turned into a vast, poverty-stricken city, with a Spanish-English bilingual population which is kept in order by a robot police force. Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have moved to space, to a space station called Elysium, where life is idyllic and immortality is an option. The main plot of the film hinges around a body-scanner capable of curing all injuries and diseases, and thus extending human life. These are only available in Elysium, and the main plot of the film concerns Max, a LA inhabitant who receives a fatal dose of radiation, after which he attempts to reach Elysium to be cured.
Rather than exploring the overtly political message of the film, I would like to turn my attention to a representational aspect of the urban environment that is perhaps less obvious to the viewer: the depiction of dirt throughout the film.


Nineteenth-century literary representations of modern cities had a tendency to use the underground world as a metaphor for poverty, dirt and the lowlife. [1] In Elysium, the underground/overground juxtaposition has been replaced with Earth/space. At no point in the film does the action take place underground; instead, the planet’s surface has become the space equated with the lowest life-forms. It is no coincidence that this future Los Angeles is also littered with dirt. Every street-shot shows plastic bags, empty bottles and other debris on the ground. Elysium, by contrast, is spotlessly clean. In our Western culture, what we perceive as dirt has long been seen as something that should be avoided.


At the same time, it is an inevitable by-product of human life. Elysium’s clinical cleanliness feels cold. The environment is reflected in the characters of the humans that live there: they, too, are cold and impersonal. When some of Earth’s ill and injured inhabitants attempt to reach Elysium in a guerrilla ship, Secretary Delacourt kills them all, seemingly without any emotion or moral qualms. By contrast, human relationships in Los Angeles are shown to be more meaningful: Max’s neighbour and friend Julio helps him after he has become ill, and there is the possibility of romance with Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey.


Elysium shows a dystopian future: one where technological advancement has taken a bad turn, but where there is still hope for humanity to triumph. Thomas Moylen explains that a ‘typical dystopian conflict’ is ‘between the established order and the potential dissident.’[2] In the case of Elysium, the conflict is also between cleanliness and dirt. When Max and the other ‘Earthlings’ reach Elysium, they bring their dirt with them. When a group of ill and injured people try to land in Elysium in a guerrilla spaceship, shots inside the spaceship show rubbish floating around in the zero-gravity environment. When one of the guerrilla spaceships crashes on Elysium, it creates rubble and disorder. Yet this dirt is necessary for humanity to outstrip the cold order of Elysium. Although dirt is never explicitly referred to in Elysium, it’s representation at the edges of the frame subtly reinforces the ideology of the film.

[1] Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen, 1986, as quoted in Campkin, Ben and Rosie Cox, Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, p. 64.
[2] Moylen, Thomas, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Oxford: Westview Press, 2000, p. 112. 

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