Labor Day Thoughts

As a huge fan of Neill Blomkamp’s “District Nine,” I had high hopes for his recent film “Elysium.” Blomkamp understands that science fiction and fantasy, at their best, can be a powerful means to question and comment upon our society. Unfortunately, “Elysium” was disappointing to me in several ways, but there were a couple of scenes that succeeded in showing us, crystal clear, something important about the world we live in or the world we are making for ourselves.

One such scene is relevant to the holiday we enjoyed in the United States yesterday:  Labor Day.

It occurs early in the movie, when the main character, Max, arrives at his job at a factory. He is late due to a broken arm, but he goes to work anyway because there are more workers than there are jobs and he doesn’t want to lose his place to someone else. His manager, seeing the cast, at first refuses to let him on the factory floor, but Max convinces him to let him go. The manager agrees, because Max is a good worker, but docks him more than the actual time he is late.

Once in place, Max struggles to do the work one handed. It is hard, physical labor; it’s hot and badly ventilated; and there are radiation signs and hazard labels everywhere. At one point, he slides a pallet of metal parts into the room where they will be irradiated and tries to shut the door, but the door jams because the pallet slipped. This now holds up the line. The manager comes over to find out what’s happening and orders Max to go into the room and fix it. Max is inwardly terrified:  he knows the danger of that radiation and wants to refuse. But he also knows if he refuses, he’ll be fired. So he slides through the crack of the door and shifts the pallet, but before he can get out, the door slams shut and the radiation cycle begins.

Here the director cuts to the control room, where screens register “biological matter detected” so we, the audience, understand that the system KNOWS that Max is in there… and that the process continues anyway.

Max receives a lethal dose of radiation which will kill him in a matter of days. The plant medic hands him some pain pills and sends him home. This, then, kicks off the main action of the film.

I can’t have been the only person who was horrified at this situation. Whether or not you’ve ever worked in a factory (I have, one summer during college), you know that this kind of thing just shouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen. When the door got stuck on the pallet, I waited for it to spring back open automatically — because that’s what happens in a factory. When that didn’t happen, I thought, Okay, now he’ll hit an emergency button and it’ll open — because that’s what happens in a factory. Then the boss threatened him with the loss of his job or peril to his life, and my horror with the situation grew. When the system sensed Max’s presence in the room and DID NOT SHUT DOWN,  and Max lay on the floor convulsing in pain as his shift-mates pounded helplessly on the door, I was cringing in my chair. This just SHOULD NOT HAPPEN because there are fail-safes and emergency shutdowns and safeguards built into the line.

Max lives in a world without organized labor.

He lives in a world of unregulated free enterprise.

Sometimes, we need to be reminded of how it could be. Labor Day is a day set aside for us to remember.

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