With the release of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the story of a dystopian future where the privileged live in a safe space station above Earth while the impoverished struggle in a desolate waste, I went back to the first of Blomkamp’s feature film, 2009’s District 9. There, Blomkamp partnered with Sharlto Copley to pull back the current on immigration and segregation, apartheid and cultural stereotyping. I have no idea what Blomkamp’s motivation was for mixing spectacular special effects, science fiction, and a moving social commentary, but this is the kind of film I wish Christian filmmakers would start turning out regularly.
In District 9, a low-level government official (Copley) gets “promoted” by his father-in-law, and finds himself overseeing the relocation of an alien nation from the slums of Johannesburg into an internment camp. The set-up is run through a faux documentary feel, with present-day flashbacks discussing the events that preceded the documentary. Sharlto’s Wilkus van der Merwe buys into the party line; the aliens are derogatorily “prawns,” or bottom feeders, with everyone explaining away why it’s okay to disrespect the aliens who seem to mean no harm. Interviewees comment about how the prawns “aren’t even from another country,” how they don’t eat the things humans do or care about the things humans do, how it’s just not natural.
But soon van der Merwe finds himself “sharing space” with the aliens. Soon, his disdain, and his understanding of what humanity thinks of them, wears away as his attitude (among other things) changes. Soon, van der Merwe is walking a mile in the aliens’ shoes, recognizing that he’s not any better than they are. In fact, his newfound understanding lends itself to <em>Avatar</em> by comparison, but somehow, Blomkamp’s delivery is much more gritty and organic (realistic?) than James Cameron’s.
What would happen if Christian art starting telling stories about how we were supposed to love our neighbor by telling stories about humans and aliens, rather than simply dressing up a vignette about people of different backgrounds moving in next to each other in the suburbs, and finding themselves in the same chapel hearing a message about how much Jesus loves them both? Sure, there are some clever Christian stories being told in the movies these days (The Presence, anyone?) but too often, we settle for Christian motifs in the midst of really bad art.
I hope Christians will flock to movies like Elysium and consider their views of immigration, distribution of wealth, and the teachings of Jesus. I don’t expect that all the Christians will agree, but the self-examination and the conversations that could follow should only make the church stronger in the process. Consider that: good art, today’s issues, and Christian conversation. Sounds to me like the perfect word for God’s people today.