Im hiding from Elon Musk-like character...
"I'm hiding from an Elon Musk-like character..." Netflix

Remember the Bond film Skyfall? Remember how "its villain was a not-so-thinly veiled portrait of Julian Assange?" Well, the new South Korean film on Netflix, Space Sweepers, also has a villain who is "not-so-thinly veiled."

The character, a white man named James Sullivan (Richard Armitage), is the CEO of a corporation, UTS, that controls suburbs that orbit the earth. The company has big plans to relocate all of humanity to Mars, which it privately owns. UTS corporation dwarfs Tesla, the future-oriented company owned by the South African-born Elon Musk, the richest man on our earth until mid-February—he goes back and forth with Jeff Bezos for this title.

Directed by Jo Sung-hee, Space Sweepers is set in 2092, maintains a fast pace, includes plot twists and turns that are not always easy to track, features lots of explosions, lots of robots, and that raw examination of capitalist class structures we have come to expect from the best of South Korea's directors (The Housemaid, Pietà, Train to Busan, Parasite, and so on).

Indeed, the space sweepers in Space Sweepers are basically space janitors. (Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, the show should really be called Space Victory, as that's the literal translation of the film's Korean title, Seungriho.) The janitors are in the risky business of cleaning the space junk that swirls around earth. They are clearly essential workers, but they are paid peanuts.

And so, on one side we have these broke janitors (mostly POCs—Asians, Africans, South Asians), and on the other we have a white CEO, who looks to be in his late 40s but who is, in fact, 152-years-old. The rich die hard.


The connection between the CEO of UTS Corporation and Tesla Corporation has not at all been missed by a good number of film critics. This aspect of Space Sweepers is just too obvious.

Aditya Mani Jha of Mint Lounge has this to say about it:

Musk has, of course, expressed some decidedly colorful view on what a future Mars colony would look like. In January last year, the Tesla CEO was criticized across the political spectrum after he said that workers could pay for their Mars flights by “working off the loans”. “Needs to be so that anybody who wants to can go, with loans available for those who don’t have the money”, Musk tweeted, in the most transparent advocacy for indentured labour seen in recent times. Putting the colonial back in colony, that’s the richest man in the world for you! The plot of Space Sweepers feels like a critique of neo-colonialist wet dreams like Musk’s.

But there is one big difference between Musk and Sullivan. Musk wants humans to move to earth because of a solar catastrophe that will happen millions (if not billions) of years from now. The distance between us and that catastrophe is unlikely to get anyone excited about living on another world with another sky, another sun, another year. Sullivan knows this is the key problem in his commercial plans for the Red Planet. Most humans would just prefer stay on earth. The solution to the obstacle? It cannot be said without a SPOILER ALERT.

To get into the mood of what Sullivan has in mind for earthlings who do not want to become totally privatized Martians, let's read one of the best passages in W. G. Sebald's 1998 book The Rings of Saturn:

A deathly silence prevailed. There was not a breath, not a birdsong to be heard, not a rustle, nothing. And although it now grew lighter once more, the sun, which was at its zenith, remained hidden behind the banners of pollen-fine dust that hung for a long time in the air. This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.

Can you feel that? If so, then you will easily see what Sullivan has in store for the only living planet in our solar system. By destroying earth's livability, he can force humans to colonize Mars on the terms of a contract. The problem with earth is that everyone (humans, other animals, and also plants) has a right to it, can still lay claim to it, is still attached to the billions of years that formed its biosphere. The contract can only go so far, earthlings. But the mad dream of capitalism has been the creation of a zone that is much like what Dubai is for foreign workers. A zone where citizenship is replaced by the contract.

Support The Stranger

This is how Daniel Brook describes the guest-worker system in Dubai in his book, A History of Future Cities:

Dubai workers not only lack the right to a minimum wage or to collectively bargain, they lack the freedom to take a better job offer should one come along. Workers can only legally change jobs by obtaining a “No Objection Certificate” from their employer... Even the Dubai-born children of guest workers remain just that—guests—because it is virtually impossible to become a naturalized citizen of the UAE.

But there is still worker unrest in Dubai, because Dubai is still on earth, the planet that is shared by every living thing. Mars, on the other hand, can be owned by the CEO who makes it livable. And those who are forced to call it home owe everything to the corporation that bankrolled its livability.

Elon Musk will eventually stop this talk about the sun burning the earth to a crisp in an unimaginably distant future and start siding with Sullivan's view of the Mars colonization problem: The essence of earth is irredeemably anti-capitalist.