A Tale of Two Worlds in Elysium

Jose Pablo Cantillo and Matt Damon star in a scene from the movie "Elysium." (CNS photo/Sony)
Jose Pablo Cantillo and Matt Damon star in a scene from the movie “Elysium.” (CNS photo/Sony)
This summer’s latest blockbuster, Elysium, shows its audience two separate worlds — the space station Elysium, paradise of the rich, where the sun perpetually shines on Beverly Hills-style mansions and any injury or disease can be cured with the touch of a button, and the ravaged and polluted Earth, home to the poor, where millions live in squalor hoping for even a chance to get to Elysium, legally or otherwise. Among them is Max (Matt Damon), an orphan raised by nuns who dreamed from the time he was a child of working hard enough to buy his place in Elysium. When a workplace accident threatens his life, however, getting to Elysium shifts from dream to necessity for Max.

At the heart of Elysium is an important message for all of us about the disparity between the poor and wealthy in our society. Early in the film, when Max is telling one of the nuns about his dream of one day reaching Elysium, she tells him in response: “That place is not for you, and not for me.” She explains to him that, stratified as the world is, someone from the lower social sphere has next to no chance of ever interacting with someone rich, let alone moving upward to such a place himself. Yet Max does not let this deter him. He makes it his goal not only to reach Elysium, but to work for equality for the people of Earth — to make everyone a citizen of Elysium, and thereby entitled to its benefits.

What this means for us is simple: just because people are not from the same economic background as you, do not treat them disrespectfully. We shouldn’t set one group apart because of class or earnings — it goes directly against Jesus’ teachings. In the Gospel of Mark, when asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus says: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Instead of looking down upon others like the people of Elysium in the movie, we should strive to treat each other as we want to be treated ourselves, regardless of any factors that the media, our friends, or any other influences may tell us would make such people lesser than us. Essentially, it boils down to the age-old Golden Rule — a teaching so intrinsic to humanity’s moral code that almost every society one can think up has a version of it.

Rather than turning what would appear to be the natural ethical choice on its head in favor of our own personal gain, we should, like Max, strive to help those in need. It’s certainly something that Pope Francis has modeled for us in the few short months since his election. He’s done so much to bring together the two different worlds that exist among us today, eschewing some of the traditional papal perks like the papal apartments and vacationing at Castel Gandolfo and instead showing us how to live among the poor and be in solidarity with them. He has done hands-on work with people in prison, slums, drug treatment facilities, and more, reaching out to those in our world who are so often marginalized. Serving among the outcasts of our society as Jesus did, Pope Francis has offered the example of how we can live as men and women not only for others, but with them as well — making a change in the “other world” of the impoverished and ignored while placing ourselves among them to truly understand the hardships they face.

It’s up to each of us to do our part in breaking down barriers between the two worlds of poverty and privilege. We all have the power to make a difference, even if it’s only a small one. As the nun tells Max in Elysium, “Each of us has something we are born to do, something important.” Perhaps in doing your best to help those around you, you’ll be able to find your goal or vocation in life, and make the change in the world that you were meant for.