Neill Blomkamp revisited: Elysium

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After District 9, Neill Blomkamp landed a big budget and a Hollywood star with 2013’s Elysium. We look back at a less assured second feature…

Hollywood sitting up and noticing you must be a wonderful thing for any director, especially for one who doesn’t happen to be American. District 9 served as an immediate calling card for Neill Blomkamp, a striking and successful debut, critically and commercially, which placed him directly in the crosshairs of bigger budgets and broader global success.

Though he planned to make Elysium with a much lower budget and South African actors, Sony Pictures came in with a $70 million offer with one mandate: it would need some Hollywood stars. In 2013, he talked to the Guardian about how initially resistant he was to such overtures:

I actually didn’t go to a lot of the meetings. District 9 was very difficult to make, but I knew it was a film I would love to watch. And I wanted to hang on to that feeling. I started remembering what happened on Halo. Just the fact that they refer to stories as IP – intellectual property – is fucking terrifying. Any discussions that begin: ‘Neill should look at this piece of IP’, I can’t even go to that meeting. So I really didn’t engage with anything.

What becomes apparent in Elysium however, straight away, is just how visually and thematically close to District 9 he keeps it. The suggestion is that he wishes to be known for a specific palette, one in which he creates dystopian, alternate futures stripped of humanity in which the march and advance of technology both threaten and in some ways humanise our way of life and sense of self. Elysium focuses on these ideas to an even greater degree than his feature debut.

Blomkamp here presents a future in space governed by little in the way of hope. Often science fiction depicts the 22nd century as a place of progression, of humanity reaching out to the stars. Not so here. You only reach out in the world of Elysium if you’re rich or born of privilege, in which case you get to exist in the ‘clouds’ of the titular, orbiting city. The ‘fields’ of Greek mythology is here realised as a world of lakes and mansions and technology that can instantly cure illness or disease. Everyone else? You suffer and toil in a barren, smog-filled world, where technology exacerbates society’s class and economic divide.

If in District 9, the alien ‘prawns’ were the dehumanised migrants living in squalor, here most of us fit that bracket. Matt Damon’s protagonist Max da Costa is a decent man in an indecent world; forced into criminality when younger, now faced with the bureaucracy of heavy-handed robot cops (a subject Blomkamp will return to in detail next in Chappie) or mechanised parole officers disinterested in nuance, speaking through graffiti-scrawled talking machines. The future Los Angeles of Blomkamp’s world deliberately combines the arid heat of Mexico with the gritty, sun-kissed hue of his native Johannesburg. His future is a grim place, as he describes:

The issues raised by Elysium have been in existence as long as Homo sapiens. You’d literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy. But it’s happening now on a globalised level. The outsourcing of whatever you need done, at low cost, can happen in a different country; you don’t even need to know about it any more.

There is a hopeful note, though, in all of his films, even if the odds seem stacked against those he depicts. For Max, it’s the love he’s had since childhood for Frey (Alice Braga), a fellow orphan who became a nurse, unable to fix her dying daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) thanks to a healthcare system which barely exists. Elysium keeps this dynamic central to Max’s journey, as an industrial accident leaves him days away from death, giving him a motive to try and reach Elysium in order to be healed. Blomkamp’s film becomes about bridging inequality and challenging established notions of class.

Credit: Sony Pictures.

Inevitably, he brings the fusion of biology and technology into the equation. Here Max is grafted into a machine where he can hold key data that provides the mechanism for removing Elysium’s elitism. As his body decays, technology keeps him alive and strong, able to match his physical nemesis, Kruger (Shartlo Copley, switching sympathetic bureaucrat in District 9 for fuelled-up psychopath here). Kruger’s body is also studded with bio-enhancements, which he uses to carry out the unsavoury bidding of Delacourt, the defence secretary of Elysium (played by Jodie Foster) – the kind of woman who almost gleefully shoots down migrant ships illegally travelling to Elysium, killing innocent civilians.

In part, that’s why Foster seems wildly miscast for me. I wonder if the role was written for a European actor (Delacourt inexplicably speaks French briefly to William Fichtner’s weasily corporate exec) but the studio enforced a famous Hollywood actor opposite Damon (who was actually third choice for Max after Ninja from Die Antwoord, who will play a major role in Chappie, and the rapper Eminem, who only wanted to film in Detroit) out of fears it could hurt the box office. That’s just a theory. Foster just seems to struggle in a role where she deliberately… says her… words in a… very… strangely clipped… way… at points it even feels as though most of her dialogue was dubbed after the fact. She has the icy callousness down pat, looks the part, but she’s ultimately a pure representation of unfettered, future corporate fascism without a great deal of nuance. As with all of Blomkamp’s villains, she just wants absolute power.

Fichtner’s character typifies the ultra capitalism that Blomkamp imagines our technological future to be. Human beings who don’t have the wealth or influence to exist in Elysium are simply units to be disposed of. His slick manager hates that he needs to work on Earth at all. When a human foreman speaks to him, he tells the man not to breathe on him, seemingly afraid he might contract a disease. Blomkamp’s world exists in binaries, perhaps too simplistically; if you’ve made it into the stars, you have sacrificed your humanity to do so. Not that everyone earth-bound is perfect – Kruger is an example of how they aren’t, and he ultimately seeks (rather implausibly) to seize power at the end by capitalising on opportunity – but Elysium is designed to explore Blomkamp’s visible frustration at the idea of a ruling elite.

Credit: Sony Pictures.

He talks about his vision for how the future might go:

The only way things will change is if we’re smart enough to develop technology that can think us out of this, meaning augmenting ourselves genetically to be smart enough to change shit. Or to have artificial intelligence and programs to help solve the problems … Then we’ll go beyond that timeline, and it’ll either be a singularity discussion or this Mad Max fuckin’ group of savages roaming on the horizon, a Malthusian catastrophe.

It’s really interesting to look back a decade on from the time these comments, given where we are with the AI discussion now. Blomkamp obviously explores that with Chappie next, but casts evolved intelligence with a sense of childlike wonder and enthusiasm. Humanity, as in all of his films, is really the villain there. But his rather bleak and cynical belief that we are doomed to destruction without the use of bio-enhancement or some kind of greater artificial intelligence runs contrary to growing human fears of allowing such technology to control our lives.

In some respects, Elysium anticipates the rise of the populist movement in modern politics. In more centrist days, allegory reflected a human race largely working together to create a positive future. Elysium reflects how that outlook has changed. There is no hope for Earth here. Everyone without wealth is considered second-class. Blomkamp believes in a technological revolution, with Elysium ultimately handed at the end to the masses, but there’s no guarantee of an equal future. Max has to die to see it through, and the democratisation of society once more relies on code.

Credit: Sony Pictures.

Blomkamp here ends up marrying his grungy, punk South African instincts (that he will dive much deeper into in Chappie) with the slicker demands of Hollywood filmmaking and the join can, at times, be seen. Elysium has the director’s requisite touches – gregarious characters, shaky camera, beefed up robotic creatures able to rip apart bodies, a stark visual palette. That carries over from District 9, as much of it will carry into Chappie. Yet here it feels less distinct. It feels more fed through a machine with certain outputs that consider box office, wider cultural reach and audience expectations.

Interestingly, in hindsight, Blomkamp also believes the mixture wasn’t quite right, as he told Uproxx:

I still think the satirical idea of a ring, filled with rich people, hovering above the impoverished Earth, is an awesome idea. I love it so much, I almost want to go back and do it correctly. But I just think the script wasn’t… I just didn’t make a good enough film is ultimately what it is. I feel like I executed all of the stuff that could be executed, like costume and set design and special effects very well. But, ultimately, it was all resting on a somewhat not totally formed skeletal system, so the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.

Though perfectly in step for Blomkamp and what, in retrospect, becomes an initial trilogy of films with significant thematic and visual overlap, Elysium is the director’s least distinct and most toothless film. It has lessons to teach us, but I’m not convinced  many people are listening.

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