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Sunday August 18, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 18, 2013 MYT 8:02:50 AM
by ann marie chandy
Apocalypse now: Matt Damon (left) and Sharlto Copley pick a fight with each other in Elysium, set in 2154, when disease and poverty rampage the Earth.
Elysium gives South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp a chance to flex his action movie muscle and serve his growing legion of fans a follow-up to the Oscar-nominated District 9.
IT IS well into August but summer is raring on in Los Angeles as movies continue to do their press rounds at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel on swanky Doheny Drive, Beverley Hills. It is the perfect setting for the Elysium junket, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s last ditch effort to get it right this summer after two recent failed big-budget outings – the Channing Tatum starrer White House Down and Will Smith-helmed After Earth. Billboards and buses are everywhere in LA featuring gargantuan images of a muscle bound Matt Damon, head shaven, tattoed and with a machine embedded into spine, making the film’s presence very much felt.
With Elysium, the film studio is banking on director Neill Blomkamp (of 2009 low budget sleeper hit District 9 fame) to weave his creative and visual genius into tried and tested formulaic popcorn fare – a multinational cast led by A-List actors Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, state of the art visual effects, cyborg suits, robots and spaceships, more than US$200mil (RM654mil) in global marketing costs and action scenes that will make one’s jaw drop. With all of this going for the movie, it is more than a little disappointing that the feedback after the initial press screenings have been as dystopic as Earth’s future in Blomkamp’s film.
Nonetheless, the young director and two of his famous stars – handsome, laidback Academy Award-winner Damon, and enigmatic South African actor Sharlto Copley – are on hand at the junket to play their part in oiling the publicity machine.
Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is the ‘bad guy’ of the movie.
“I hope this movie does really well,” said Damon encouragingly, although visibly tired after having only just relocated his family from New York City to LA the night before this interview. “I really don’t want the blockbusters to become totally unoriginal. There are only a few people making these movies on a big scale, movies that are not part of a franchise. And so anytime one of these movies does well, and when the studio’s courage gets rewarded, that’s really good for the movie business in general.”
Blomkamp’s sophomore effort is set in 2154. Earth is overpopulated, crime has ravaged the globe, and disease rules the ruined planet. Only a very elite wealthy few are able to enjoy the benefits of luxury and health as they live on Elysium, a man-made space station just a 20-minute ride away. Damon plays a poor, ill-fated factory worked called Max DeCosta from LA who desperately needs a ticket to Elysium after an accident at work. The only way for him to survive is to get the super high-tech medical attention available on the space station. And it just so happens that there is an illegal immigration operation through which Earth’s inhabitants are able to find a way up there.
Blomkamp now feels he is more a part of the Hollywood machinery.
The show may be laden with clichés – the poor on Earth are coloured Spanish-speaking people while the rich on Elysium are white and speak in French, the bad guys are worse than Sith Lords and the good guys are all martyrs, plus there’s a token love interest and poignant flashbacks. But beyond that, Elysium alleges to tackle some serious political and social issues.
The future is now
Blomkamp, who also wrote the film, claims that the Malthusian catastrophe-laced subject matter he dives into (see sidebar, folks) is not of the distant future but has already arrived on our doorsteps. There are not enough resources for everyone, the earth is not developing at a sustainable rate, and society is fractured because of it.
In fact, the 33-year-old director says that the heart of the conflict is more real than one might realise.
“When people see the wealth of Elysium back-to-back with the poverty of Earth, I think some will think that it’s more extreme than reality – and it is not. The two things exist, on Earth, right now,” he said. “In Mexico City, in Johannesburg, in Rio, you have pockets of great wealth, gated communities, amidst a sea of poverty.”
The film was primarily shot in two locations: Mexico City, which doubles for Los Angeles in 2154, and Vancouver, which doubles for Elysium. Everything you see in terms of stench and slum, as well as lush and luxe are for real, both cast and crew affirm.
“What the film talks about is so universal that it it is extremely applicable to any country,” he offers. “I find it fascinating that it’s really fractal. You can zoom in or out as much as you want and apply it to any country in the world, and it works. Elysium and the Earth are metaphors for the first and third worlds when it comes to immigration – people are trying to get into the first world for a better life for them and for their kids. A really big part of that better life is to have access to technology and medication.”
Why then is the movie set in the future, when it purports to being an allegory for today’s social and political problems? Blomkamp defends his decision by saying that he didn’t want it too far in the future that the viewer would lose the meaning behind the metaphor.
He said: “The film was meant to be today through a different lens. And so because it is a metaphor for ‘today’, you want to do two things: to pick a date far enough away so you could have actually built the space station, and you could have people live on it for one or two generations. And then, you want to pick a date close enough so that the society on the space station wouldn’t feel like they are from Star Trek.”
When faced with impending doom in Elysium, Damon’s character Max makes the faustian decision to assist mafia-type tech gangster Spider (played to a T by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) and hijack his boss, John Carlyle’s (William Fichtner) brain. Emm, yes, you read right, in 2154 one can download information from a person’s brain, and Carlyle has really important information in his brain which could save Max’s life, nay, it might save all of mankind.
Max gets a little help from his very handsome sidekick Julio (Diego Luna, who, sadly – spoiler ahead – spends way too little time on screen). However, the boys’ actions eventually pit Max against Elysium’s secretary of defence, Delacourt (played by the inimitable Jodie Foster, who Variety Magazine’s Scott Foundas describes hilariously accurately as having “perfect French and sporting a ramrod-straight posture that suggests her stiff white jacket was sent to the dry cleaners with her still inside”).
Asked if working on a big studio movie had changed his working style, Blomkamp said no: “The deadlines were the same actually and I was surprised in production how similar the process was to working on District 9.”
However, he did admit that one of the big differences was that on District 9 he had only ever spoken to producer Peter Jackson (which, he revealed, as “awesome”). “On this film, I didn’t have that discussion with one person, I had to have it with the studio and financier, so there were many more people. No one is attacking your artwork or anything like that. But you do have the increased amount of people that you have interact with, as opposed to one singular guy.
“Also, now I feel like I am much more a part of the machinery of Hollywood and I kind of understand how it works more than I did during District 9. I now understand what is expected of a filmmaker who does films at this budget.”
Blomkamp also feels that there is a huge amount of psychological pressure that one puts on oneself when they get to the stage he is at now. “And it is just going to become increasingly more difficult than any other film I’ve made, it’s just business and I am almost purely an artist so it is difficult to kind of wrap my head around that.”
But how he’s decided to rationalise things is that if the movie works for him, then it works.
“I am a fan of the genre and if I could sit in a movie theatre and enjoy watching this film, then it works. I am basically making the film for me. And I feel that I represent people in the demographic that want to watch the film. So in other words, if I have satisfied my own urge, it means that it should make its money back because hopefully others like it as well. My instincts are somewhat commercial anyway. I like Robocop. I like Terminator 2.”
He does, however, agree that the “popcorn” part of Elysium may be way more powerful than the more serious and scifi aspects of the film. There’s no denying the more critical moviegoer may not feel like she’s getting her money’s worth. However, if you’re willing to go along for the ride, you’ll find there’s lots to savour in the form of the interesting social and scientific ideas explored, as well as Blomkamp’s mastery in bringing his artistic vision to full glory on screen.
“I do think I am a visual artist before everything else,” he said. “I hate writing and I don’t like written words really. So my goals are actually often images. There are certain images that can encapsulate concepts and portray what you are trying to say more than a scene playing out and actors trying to say what you want them to say. So what I did was I had a document of things I absolutely thought were visually essential in the film, and I think for the most part I got them in there.”
Prior to starting work on the film, Blomkamp teamed with visual effects company Weta Workshop to come up with a two-dimensional artwork collection (a sort of graphic novel) to “get inspired and force the writing process”. It was this book that he eventually showed Damon to get him to come onboard.
“I just looked at the book about a month ago and it was insane because all through production I hadn’t looked at it. And it was amazing how similar so many images in that book were to the film. They just kind of stuck and were executed that way.”
Indeed his vision is grandly accomplished in terms of how the movie looks, and (if you can manage your expectations), then maybe that alone will be worth the ticket price. If it ain’t, well, then at least you’d have learnt some cool new things about the Stanford Torus, the Malthusian Catostrophe and the origins of the word “Elysium”.
Elysium opens in cinemas nationwide on Aug 22.
Getting to know the world of Elysium
Tags / Keywords:
Entertainment, Elysium, Neill Blomkamp, Matt Damon, Summer Movies 2013
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