The sci-fi film, in theaters this weekend, depicts two distinct classes of people living literally in different worlds. And oh yeah, there's also exoskeleton hardware that's bolted into the body — Damon's body! — and cancer-wiping scans that completely destroy the disease.
When Yahoo! Movies talked to Damon about the film's narrative flights of fancy, he pointed out that the advanced technology and huge social class divisions are actually happening now:
Damon: "There's so much that I can't fathom about what the world's going to look like in 30 years. If you think of how it looked 30 years ago, and how much it's changed… Thirty years ago, the most powerful computer in the world was not as powerful as my phone. And now, it's in my pocket. I have the most powerful computer in the world from 30 years ago in my pocket. So, in another 30 years… the exponential curve that we're on with technology makes it really hard to even understand the world that [my children] will inherit from me."
We can all recognize that technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. Computers are getting smaller and faster, while tech gear like Google Glass brings virtual reality into the real world in real time. With that in mind, see how our current tech stacks up against that in "Elysium" ...
In the film, machines on the space station Elysium are able to cure all diseases and ailments. One featured machine in the film's previews is even able to wipe out all traces of cancerous cells.
These days, we're not able to target cancer cells like that – yet. But modern medical research is making huge leaps and bounds. Just this past year, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh implanted microelectrodes in the brain of a woman paralyzed from the neck down, and now, with the help of a mind-controlled prosthetic hand, she can perform previously physically impossible functions like high-fiving and holding objects.
In a closer parallel to the film, IBM's supercomputer Watson (which notably trounced human opponents in a special round of "Jeopardy") was reportedly going to be used to make personalized diagnoses and suggested treatment courses for cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. There's still miles to go before machines can wipe away disease, but we're definitely taking steps in that direction.
In the film, Damon's character Max is on the brink of death when he's rigged out with an exoskeleton suit that pulls double duty in enhancing his strength and also providing the necessary computing power to reboot Elysium. How close are we to pulling off that kind of tech in the modern day?
Apparently, not that far off. There are multiple companies working on exoskeleton development, whether for medical use to help people with lower body paralysis walk upright or for military use to help enhance soldiers' physical abilities. Experts estimate that within the next five years, we'll begin to actually see exoskeleton applications in daily life.
Damon: "I think we're kind of in [an Elysium scenario], actually. I think that great science fiction really talks about the world you are living in, even though you do it by showing another world. But there is a pretty huge gap. If you look at how somebody's surviving on a dollar a day, how like the bottom billion human beings live, versus how the top ten million human beings live, in financial terms, on the planet, it's probably as stark as living in a space station or being stranded on Earth."
While the film's vision of socioeconomic class division is extreme in its scope – with the elite rich literally living above the poor masses – according to Damon, we're already living in that kind of situation, just without the capability to sustain large-scale, luxury human habitats in space. That seems extreme, but when you compare the problems of the poor population in "Elysium" against modern day stats on urban populations, the results are unsettling.
Health care inaccessibility within urban populations:
One of the reasons Damon's Max needs to get up to Elysium is because only the rich have access to high tech medical care. The issue of health care access, especially in highly populated urban areas, is something that's a global problem today.
The world's population and average life expectancy keep increasing, and over 10 "hypercities" (cities with populations of more than 19 million) are going to be established in Asia alone by 2025. Much of that growth is going to be happening in developing nations, but as these countries often don't have the infrastructure in place to maintain that kind of population influx, much of that growth is going to come in sub-standard urban conditions, e.g. shanty towns/slums.
What does that mean for health care, treatment, and longevity in these low- and middle-income countries? Bad news: based on data collected by the World Health Organization, the under-five mortality rate for the poorest 20 percent of these urban populations is about double that of the richest 20 percent of these populations. That same doubling trend appears in several other key stats like malnourishment rates among children, skilled attended births, and access to piped water.
Earth in "Elysium" is a crowded and dirty existence – and it doesn't look all that far off from some of the world's most populated, least environmentally regulated cities today.
According to the World Health Organization, some 23 percent of all global disease derives from environmental conditions, while air/soil/water pollution contributes to 40 percent of deaths worldwide. Cities like Beijing are already reporting air quality conditions at such hazardous levels that residents are warned to stay inside, and cities are only projected to expand and accommodate even more people. If green technology doesn't evolve to the point where it can offset pollution output, the number of people who fall sick due to dangerously polluted environmental conditions will only continue to grow, and disproportionately so within those populations already without much access to health care.
Elysium and Earth: the division between socioeconomic classes is stark in the film, but even without thousands of vertical miles between the very rich and the very poor, a dramatic income gap today is very much real.
Ask the average person if they believe that there's conflict between economic classes, and the answer is generally "Yes," no matter what class the person asked is in. In the U.S., this discontent has manifested itself in movements like Occupy Wall Street, whereas internationally, discontent can take on much more violent forms.
What's worse, the income gap doesn't seem to be shrinking. Between 1979 and 2007 in the U.S., income grew by 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households and just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. More than 80 percent of all the wealth in the country is owned by the richest 20 percent of the population; given the way things currently are, that percentage isn't going to be going down any time soon, and will probably even rise.
CONCLUSION: The conditions in "Elysium" are an extreme representation of both the wondrous possibilities and grim realities of the future of Earth. Here's to hoping the actual future turns out in favor of the former and correct the problems of the latter.
<em><a href="http://twitter.com/meriahonfiah" target="_blank">Meriah Doty</a> contributed to this report.</em>