Chances are you saw the dramatic trailer for Cosmopolis last summer but you probably didn’t bother to see the film given its mediocre reviews. It’s certainly not a movie for everyone, but as an economics minor and an urbanist, it was worth my time. Cosmopolis offers a destructive, gripping vision of a near-future economy. The film’s backdrop of New York City—because where else would an unsettling financial crisis story occur?— invites reflection on the current state of our own class-divided metropolises.
Cosmopolis is a clear attack on global capitalism and its director, David Cronenberg, frames the protagonist in such a way as to invite disdain from viewers. Eric Packer (played by Robert Pattinson) is the archetypal young tech CEO controlling a world of “cyber capital” with decisions that affect millions of shareholders and consumers, yet having no conception of or concern for his relationship with these people. He is aloof, self-obsessed, and absurdly wealthy, and he spends the entire film watching his empire crumble.
Packer’s interactions with New York offer a parallel to his overall relationship with the world. Besides a few excursions for food and a haircut, he spends the entire film inside a bullet-proof, sound-proof limo. This mode of transport allows him complete control over his interactions with the city. Midway through the movie, Packer rides through a massive, anarchic protest against his own company completely unharmed and unaware of his surroundings. Only when he steps out of the limo later does the camera reveal that the car’s once sparkling-white surface is now covered in graffiti. This is the clearest sign that the boundaries of Packer’s cushy, secluded life are beginning to break. Nonetheless, even as he loses money by the minute due to the crash of his company, the young CEO commands every scene he inhabits—right up to his own assassination.
While viewers might expect Packer’s forays outside the limo to take him to upscale locales, he actually seeks out emblematic New York delis and ethnic restaurants to satisfy his hunger. These pockets of city life remind viewers of their location, even while Packer remains resolutely detached from it, carrying out obsessive theoretical conversations with his dining partner (Sarah Gadon). Furthermore, Packer’s ever-present bodyguard ensures that no matter their location, the man of the hour remains shielded from the volatile masses.
Ultimately, the protagonist decides to off his bodyguard in spite of the incessant warnings that someone in New York wants Packer dead. At this point, Packer saunters into a deserted and dodgy neighborhood (labeled so by the resident barber), but he’s only going there because he has a death wish. Thus, the protagonist’s new surroundings serve merely as a backdrop for his nihilistic demise and never as a space with which he actively engages.
Cosmopolis focuses on economic concepts and technological ideas more than people or places. However the market will never be divorced from the people it impacts, and in this regard, the film makes some serious statements about class and accumulation of wealth. I won’t go into too many economic critiques here, but I see Packer’s relationship with New York as comparable to the relationship that many middle and upper class people have with their cities. They navigate the polished, protected areas of a given city at their leisure and maintain a defensive shield against the rest. Security fences, 24-hour surveillance, and paid guards ensure control over a space—no matter the hour, and even the simple act of buying a car buys us out of interacting with others on the bus or subway.
I’m not condemning car ownership, but Cosmopolis illustrates the extent to which class differentials affect our relationship with our cities. I’ve lived in Minneapolis most of my life, yet there are entire neighborhoods in my city that I’ve never seen. I’m committed to changing that, and I’m committed to gaining a comprehensive perspective on any city that I live in. Cosmopolis reminded me that we should strive for cities that are multifaceted and diverse, but also united and whole.