Awaiting our own Max: Lessons from “Elysium”

By Bamidele Salako

Nigeria, desperately in need of her own Max

If you’re yet to see Elysium, one of the rave-making blockbuster movies of this summer, then I advise you grab a copy now or get to the nearest cinema ASAP (it’s still showing in theatres) where you can be accorded the ultimate movie viewing experience – if you can afford it lol. Don’t get me wrong o! This is not a paid advertisement or promo for the movie or for film houses; Elysium is simply a must-watch, not just for movie aficionados but for all Nigerians who are burdened by the seemingly never changing state of affairs in our dear country – our intractable unpleasant collective existence which has unwittingly produced the popular enduring mantra – “E go better.”

Except on very special occasions, I am not one to go to the movies for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s not in my culture. My best moments are the ones I spend alone reading good books or surfing the internet for an eclectic array of great opinion pieces, news features, articles and columns penned by the world’s countless brilliant writers in whose blessed company, my quest for personal fulfilment becomes less burdensome. They provide me with a most pleasurable escape from my daily hustle for the good life. If you popped into my room from time to time, you could, on occasion, find me watching some great series, sitcoms or movies minus Nollywood movies o! Because I don’t fancy those ones one bit; call me unpatriotic, most of them are too dumb for my liking. I swear, I have tried but I lack the patience. Not saying there are no great ones out there though.

It was during one of my solitary moments that I caught a glimpse of the Elysium trailer on Silverbird Television on my Dstv Walka and you know how they do those trailers na – action packed and enough to get the adrenaline gushing in lagoon-sized quantities out of your very being. I have been spurred by some movie previews before to go an extra length to watch said movies only to find that the previews were in fact more interesting than the movies themselves. Talk about wasted effort, time and money – I know a more than a thing or two. When I saw this Elysium one, I was like, “This movie go bad gan o; I must watch am,” plus it was starring one of my fave actors, Matt Damon who played the role of the movie’s protagonist, Max, so I felt it was a must watch and indeed I was not to be disappointed.

Trust me, I wasn’t planning to go to the cinema at Ikeja City Mall (close to my office) to watch this movie – as I said earlier, e no dey my personal culture. I planned on downloading a pirated version from one of the free movies sites online (shame on me: *hand-on-face* – my sincerest apologies to everyone associated with making this movie for even thinking of downloading it from pirate sites and for every other one I ever downloaded for free). Do I sense judging eyes, you can sleep easy, I eventually didn’t patronize the pirates (but una dey do am too na – hypocrites!).

It was a Friday and work was done and I was faffing at the office, lounging on my seat and thinking of what to make of my weekend. Meanwhile, two of my colleagues Bami and Sunmi had only just seen the Elysium promo too on TV and the movie was going to be showing in about 20minutes from then. By an act of providence, I stepped out into the office balcony and saw that these two, who always remind me of Pinky and the Brain (no aspersions intended broses), were on their way somewhere. Trust me, whenever you see these two guys together, they always are up to something – if you’re looking for a good time, join them immediately because they are experts at having a good time and yes, they are also pretty good at what they do. So my antennas became instantly active and I asked, “Ogas una don dey go again shey. Wey una dey go.” For the uninitiated in pidgin, I asked them where they were off to. They replied, ehmmm, not too reluctantly, that they were going to see Elysium and I was like, “Boy, this must be my lucky day!” and so I tagged along.

Another colleague, fondly called TM, joined the bandwagon and off we went. What I didn’t know was that I wasn’t only being set up by providence for an enjoyable, action-filled getaway, I was also being set up to learn valuable lessons which I will share in this piece and to perhaps gain renewed hope that my frustrations about the sorry state of our nation have been divinely predetermined to have a positive end. And as the movie began to unfold, there it was before me – like a vision, a daydream or a revelation – the perfect archetype of the Nigerian story and situation.

In this exciting movie, there were the rich, powerful and untouchable who lived in Elysium – a paradise literally constructed in space far from the prying eyes and craving of ordinary people: a place that makes the most glamorous of residential estates anywhere in today’s world pale in comparison. It was a most delightsome visual representation of the dictionary meaning of the word “Elysium” which means a place or state of ideal happiness (Advanced English Dictionary). This definition does not even begin to do justice to what this place looked like – it was the stuff that dreams are made of – it was blissful, secure and disease-free. None of the troubles that currently plague our world could be found there – it was heaven in space!

Then there were the sick, poor, frustrated, disgusted and busted lot who lived on earth in heart-wrenching squalor. These people were perpetually under repression and oppression from their entitled counterparts. You could call it dystopia – which the Advanced English Dictionary defines as a state (or place) in which the conditions of life are extremely bad as a result of deprivation or oppression or terror. Virtually everything was in disarray – the hospitals were crowded and the available healthcare delivery systems weren’t just poor but insufficient as well. Workers laboured in the most unpleasant and inhuman of conditions and could not even begin to think, speak little of getting a fair wage. And there was no way of getting to Elysium. Of course, the gap between the rich in Elysium and the poor on earth was literally wide – those who attempted to were blown off the skies with missiles. And so the people were permanently left in thrall to their unsavoury circumstances. Hopelessness was the order of the day.

Then there was Max, played by Hollywood megastar Matt Damon. Max was a relative nobody – a repentant ex-con who was the real deal in his heyday of crime mongering. He was the archetype of the biblical Moses – the one who would deliver his people from their enslavement in Egypt. In this case, Max was the one to deliver earth from the oppression of the ruling oligarchy in Elysium and to bring about social justice and equality to the people of the earth. Max didn’t actually set out to play superhero or deliverer. He was just a normal working class guy who simply had the misfortune of being exposed to radiation at work – the archetypical slave camp or banana plantation – and as a result had just three days to live. As a natural fighter, he was determined not to die and thus set out on an impossible quest to go where none of earth’s minions had ever gone before – Elysium. In Elysium, there was a machine which could restore even the near-dead to perfect health. Every home in Elysium possessed this machine. All Max wanted was to get well and continue living a “normal” life, although it had always been his childhood dream to one day reach Elysium.

I need not go further than the foregoing three paragraphs before we begin to see the striking similarities between the movie scenarios and the despicable state of affairs in Nigeria. The ruling elite in Nigeria, like their fictional counterparts in Elysium, including the nation’s corrupt politicians live in tightly secured, heavily guarded gilded palaces far from the biting realities of the poor masses. They ride in the best cars with convoys of armed guards, and generally enjoy the best things in life: their affluent existences made possible by their unfettered frittering away of our common wealth. Their concern for the survival of the ordinary Nigerian couldn’t be worse. Then there’s the rest of us – the majority of Nigerians who “elected” them into office (including the 70% who live below the poverty line) who are deprived of the basic needs, rights and privileges of citizenship as well as the opportunities required for us to fulfil our potentials and realise our hopes and aspirations. “Elysium” in a Nigerian context refers to all our dreams and aspirations – all that we hope to accomplish in life; but our leaders, rather than aiding our paths to fulfilment, ensure that we never get to the Promised Land.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Economist Intelligence Unit released a most indicting and scathing report about Nigeria being the worst place on earth for a child to be born in 2013 and rather than reflect and inflect, we got busy, condemning the researchers who released the report as been biased, inaccurate, and uninformed. In Nigeria, the numbers are always the focus of economists, policy makers and political office holders, rather than real development that positively affects the life of the common man which should be evidenced by an improvement in his living conditions and overall wellbeing. The worrying thing is that under the present administration of Uncle Jona, even the numbers are nothing to write home about – more loans, increasing debts, drops in the figures from our domestic and foreign reserves, – not a lot to cheer about. Our problems are well documented.

Need I mention the sorry state of our educational system (an issue dear to my heart) which perpetually remains in a deplorable state? God help you if you cannot afford to send your kids to private schools or like our politicians, to upscale schools overseas. I have always said that the current underdevelopment of our educational system is a deliberate ploy by the ruling elite to keep the poor and their offspring in eternal slavery to themselves and their offspring. The children of the rich get the best educational experience and professional trainings available on the globe and the children of the poor make do with the comparative scraps that Nigerian schools serve up, who then would you expect to keep occupying the available executive positions and well-paying jobs – the children of the rich of course! Because eventually, they won’t simply be riding on the influence and wealth of their parents, they would also be appointed to take up positions based on merit and they would invariably enjoy the privilege of first refusal on good jobs and public appointments as a result of their parents’ influence. A man of little means with equal qualification would stand no chance.

Who do you think would occupy the ministerial positions, the upper and lower legislative chambers, key government positions in the ministries, departments and agencies, the foreign commissions?: the highly qualified children of the ruling elite of course. The children of the rich are not always the spoilt and dumb no-goods that we make them out to be. By virtue of my work as a celebrity reporter, I have had the oft rare privilege of meeting with some of these guys, interviewed them and seen that they have pretty intimidating resumes with qualifications from some of the best schools around the globe – they are confident and capable. Our ruling class is smart – they know what they’re doing. They are arming their kids with the requisite skills and qualifications to take over from them when they eventually get tired of sucking the nation dry. Many of them may not have had the privilege of accessing the quality of formal education that their children currently have, but they know what it would require to preserve their dynasties. They are already positioning their children to preserve and expand the frontiers of their empires. And if tomorrow you complain that a rich man’s kid got a government position or a job because of his blue blood, then they will present you with ample reasons why he is in fact more than qualified for the job.

For kids passing through our broken national public school system today, they would have to be truly exceptional to stand any chance at all against their rich counterparts. In a public school system where students learn by hand-outs, where libraries are out-dated and research and development virtually non-existent, where strikes are the order of the day, and youths have lost the passion for reading, studying, learning and working hard on self-development, the future is indeed grim.

There are millions of youths out there today who like Max are in a desperate search for their own Elysiums, but our rapacious crop of larcenous leaders continues to fortify the gates of paradise ensuring that those dreams, hopes and aspirations never see the light of day or that those which actually manage to take off are frustrated and keep getting blown off the skies. This situation cannot be allowed to persist. There is a Max in each and every one of us which we must awaken. We all have things we want to accomplish in life and if we must fulfil our dreams, then we must wear the helmet of hope, the armour of tenacity and carry the spear of determination until we reach our goals. In Nigeria, we must develop the habit of demanding for what is ours because our leaders are certainly not going to give it to us, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. In this regard, Charles Caleb Colton aptly observed, “Liberty does not descend to a people – a people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.” But the priceless question here is: are we willing to pay the price or make the required sacrifice(s) for self and national emancipation? Who will bell the cat?

In the movie, Max had no chances whatsoever of reaching Elysium, but he made certain personal sacrifices in the knowledge that he had nothing to lose – he was a dead man walking after all. He stared death and uncertainty in the face and persisted against all odds until he reached Elysium. Eventually, he discovered that the quest he was on held a bigger purpose than health recovery. As such, he paid the ultimate price in order for millions of other earthlings to be able to access the good life that Elysium offered.

And this is one of the challenges we face in Nigeria today. We are overly selfish and grossly self-centred which is why we are where we are today. Everything does not have to be about me, I and myself. Our self-absorbed leaders are all about self-enrichment and self-preservation which come at the expense of their followers and the followers too have taken a cue right out of their leaders’ evil playbook and so we devour ourselves. The words of Howard Zinn then ring true: “In the short run, victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

”But this situation must not be allowed to persist. Indeed this state of affairs cannot and will not go on forever. The ruling elite will of their own accord dig a hole in the fortified walls of their well-guarded hegemonic empires – one that the “Max” who will destroy their stranglehold on this nation will explore to devastating effect. They will shoot themselves in the foot – indeed they are beginning to shoot themselves in the foot. It is often said that those who live in glass houses should avoid throwing stones. Another popular saying is that there is no honour among thieves. Stone-throwing, mud-slinging, a lack of honour and distrust are the principal characters of the unfolding political drama in the glass house of the PDP whose foundations, as a direct consequence of members’ inactions, have become shaky. The PDP leaders deal dishonourably among themselves and this culture of dishonour has already created stress lines that are threatening to bring, if they have not already brought, the party to its knees with the departure of certain governors and party leaders. One can only imagine that it will get worse, if not now, eventually.

In the movie, the mutinous tendencies of Elysium’s Defence Secretary, Delacourt (Judie Foster) and her armed forces (one of whom eventually turned on her and executed her), left a gaping hole in their hitherto impregnable defence system, which Max and his counterparts did more than explore to bring the ruling class of Elysium crumbling down. And in the twinkle of an eye, what seemed impossible in several lifetimes became possible in a matter of minutes! Don’t be mistaken. Elysium is not just a movie! It is a prophecy – a prophecy that our ruling elite and their children (many of whom I would imagine must have seen this movie) would do well to understand and heed.

It was the theme of crass social inequality that spurred Elysium’s South African director, Neill Blomkamp, to write the story. In a recent interview, he said, “The entire film is an allegory. I tend to think a lot about the topic of wealth discrepancy and how that affects immigration, and I think the further we go down (this) path that we are on, the more the world will represent the one in Elysium. There are themes in the movie that you wouldn’t expect from a summer action movie, but hopefully, a moviegoer can see the movie and enjoy the action experience, but have something seep in about the real world as well.”

Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was the Max of the Arab World whose ultimate sacrifice brought about the unrelenting Arab Spring, from which much of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (including Assad’s Syria) is yet to recover. He was a street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation and harassment he suffered at the hands of the municipal official and her aides. His action became a catalyst for the Tunisian revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Those movements may have had their failings which we can also learn from but the important lesson here is that with that singular sacrifice, long standing dictatorships and hegemonies in the Arab World have crumbled and more will crumble.

Today, in our dear Nigeria, the corrupt have never had it so good and it appears that the trend will persist. It looks as if change will never come, that we will never get out of the woods, that the rich will continue to get richer at the expense of the increasingly deprived poor, that social injustice and inequality will persist, that things can and will only get worse, that we will never know what it feels like on the other side, that the greater number of us will never have a feel of the good life. But I tell you, some place, somewhere, in someone, is a Max who is crying for expression, who simply wants to fulfil his dreams and unleash his potentials. One day, and it won’t be long now, as we are already seeing the handwriting on the wall, change will burst forth, like the unleashing of a pent up flood that can no longer be held back. Change will sweep through this nation and clean this land of its filth.

Matt Damon said in a pre-screening interview, “I like to think (Elysium) is a hopeful message (that) even in a (world) where it is every man for himself, it will be possible for a human being to hold on to his humanity.” This too is a message of hope – that today, while we collectively, as a nation experiencing birth pangs, await our own Max, let each one of us, in our relatively obscure individual realities, determine to unleash our personal Maxes on the limitations that hold us down and prevent us from fulfilling our individual potentials. Who knows? Perhaps, a combination of our individual Maxes will give rise to one major movement that would alter the destiny of our nation for good and forever.

Meanwhile, you should always bear in mind that there is a Max in you and that impossible is nothing. It may not be easy, what, it may even cost you everything, but it is not impossible. Even Nigeria can change, but we have to keep hope alive and believe and also realise that it begins with you and I in those little, seemingly insignificant spheres of influence that we occupy in the home front, the neighbourhood, the workplace, on the roads, in schools, in churches and mosques – wherever we may find ourselves. Let each Nigerian be the change he longs to see in his country and let’s watch and see if a transformation will not result. God bless this country Nigeria! Do I hear an Amen?

(This article first appeared on in 2013)

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