For Neill Blomkamp, it’s all about design and metaphors. He’s not a mechanical director and doesn’t think in strategic business terms, so whatever success “Elysium” might have internationally, he insists it’ll be purely accidental. But he holds that despite being more ambitious and expensive than his acclaimed, Oscar-nominated, break-out hit, “District 9,” “Elysium” contains the same thematic DNA: the disparity between the haves and have nots.
But whereas the undesirable aliens are enclosed in a ghetto by the South African elites in “District 9,” the elites of the world enclose themselves in an opulent, Bel-Air style space station in “Elysium.” It’s the ultimate gated community while Earth languishes in poverty, disease, pollution, and over-crowding.
“‘District 9’ was a singular anti-Apartheid metaphor and ‘Elysium’ is a more general metaphor about immigration and how the First World and Third World meet,” the South African director clarifies. “But the thing that I like the most about the metaphor is that it can be scaled to suit almost any scenario. Like Elysium can be South Africa and the future of LA is Zimbabwe with people crossing the border. It can be a pocket of LA where it’s like Compton and Beverly Hills. It can be California; it can be the U.S. and Mexico.”
However, Blomkamp maintains that his dystopian/utopian action/adventure is more political allegory than speculative science-fiction, and one of the challenges was balancing the two. It’s a riff on the “grass is always greener on the other side,” as if Americans were longingly looking over the wall at Mexico. In fact, his vision of LA in 2154 is Mexico City, and that’s exactly where he shot it. Conversely, he shot the Elysium scenes in pristine Vancouver.
“On Elysium, if you went totally speculative sci-fi in 2154, then you’re making a movie about what they will be like then and they’re no longer rich — it’s more like ‘Star Trek.'” The doing away with disease, though, was an element that allowed him to explore the elitism of First World medical aid.
Blomkamp also admits that “District 9” was more satirical than “Elysium,” even though the premise of the rich cutting themselves off in illusory paradise and hastening the aging process by a few hundred years was ludicrous. It was a matter of aesthetics and tone. But he instinctively knew that he wanted his buddy, Sharlto Copley, to play the volatile mercenary baddie, Kruger, as a “nut job.”
On the other hand, working with movie stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster was a new and thrilling experience for the young director. He learned to appreciate their experience and talent. When he gave them direction, they would play it exactly as he described over and over again, down to the newest nuance.
“There were subtle nods to the genre in their performances,” he explains. “Jodie plays an ice queen as the secretary of defense. She’s a straight ahead person that calls the shots. I wanted the audience to understand that she’s protecting the homeland, whether you agree with her or not. Jodie and I were on the same page. So when I met her, she came up with the idea of her being French because it’s international and it’s rich and I loved that. And Matt was designed to be a movie star with a built-in currency with the audience. He’s always likable but isn’t just a straight up nice guy. Matt could fit in with the barrio of LA.”
But when it came to the technical challenges of “Elysium,” especially the world building of the complex CG geometry of the Torus space station and the beautiful landscapes, Blomkamp concedes that it was “fucking hard.” As with “District 9,” though, he relied on the Vancouver-based Image Engine as his VFX hub, working alongside a host of other studios around the globe, while Weta Workshop assisted with weapon, vehicle, and early drone design, and made the practical HULC armor suit that Damon comfortably wears.
“The Torus was so difficult to get to a photorealistic stage that it nearly wrecked the morale of the animators,” he offers. “You have to build that asset and decide every single pixel: What kind of foliage is it? Is there any wind? Which direction is the light coming from? How much atmosphere particulate is there? Are there any clouds? And if it doesn’t look real, is it because of this choice or because of another choice?”
Fortunately, Blomkamp studied computer animation at Vancouver Film School and knows his way around design and technology, and can communicate his vision and get smooth and efficient results. It also helps being around Peter Jackson and James Cameron and knowing what you can achieve. He figures he saved $50 million on “Elysium,” which cost $100 million.
But he’s also sympathetic to the plight of the VFX industry, which he believes are the have nots in comparison to the older and more established departments in production. “From their perspective, it’s gotten more diabolical and cutthroat. The margins are narrow and it’s so competitive that companies are going under. I speak to the VFX guys a lot because I want to know why, but no one seems to know why exactly. They’re not unionized and get skimped the most. But I firmly believe that VFX can do anything, so now it’s up to the filmmaker to come up with a concept, a story, and a world that people want to go see in a theater. And you need to execute them properly. So if it’s something that requires giant resources, you need to do it in a way that makes fiscal sense.”
And it makes both creative and fiscal sense for Blomkamp to return to “D9″ territory for his next feature,”Chappie,” which he begins shooting next month for $60 million in Johannesburg. Based on his short, “Tetra Vaal,” a ridiculous “RoboCop” riff about androids that patrol the slums of South Africa, “Chappie” explores sentience and prejudice. It stars Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Copley, and the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord. Blomkamp promises that it will be quirky, gritty, and touching.
“But it’s contemporary,” so the buddy sci-fi comedy will be a departure yet still cut from the same cloth as Blomkamp’s first two movies.