Note: This article is included in our year-end storytelling advice round-up.
Filmmaker Neill Blomkamp sits in a Beverly Hills hotel room a few blocks from the mansions that inspired his vision of a space station in the year 2154. “It’s all about ‘Rich people with swimming pools,’ ” he says. Blomkamp deliberately kept the outer-space environment simple. He notes, “I had to constantly monitor myself to make decisions that would reinforce metaphor or allegory or theme.”
And the theme in Blomkamp’s new movie Elysium (opening August 9) parses the divide between a wealthy elite that live on a donut-shaped colony 250 miles from Earth, led by ruthless Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and the huddling masses stuck on a despoiled Earth, including Los Angeles ex-con turned factory worker Max (Matt Damon).
South African native Blomkamp first fused science fiction and social commentary on the big screen in his 2009 Apartheid allegory District 9 (which was based on his 2005 short, Alive in Joburg). With Elysium, he crafts a scenario spiked with killer ‘droids, exokeleton suits, and mega-rifles-from-Hell, set against a worst-case extrapolation of contemporary health care, immigration and economic woes.
Blomkamp addresses the political subtext without speechifying. Instead, collaborating with New Zealand’s WETA Workshop, he devised a visual vocabulary that illustrated Future Earth’s predicament in all its ruinous glory.
“I hate writing the script,” says Blomkamp. “It’s like having root canal surgery. So what I would do is think of visual ideas that reinforced the story or theme or characters. Then I’d sketch them or write a description and send that to WETA to photorealistically sketch it out. They then sent (the designs) back, and when I’d see that, it’s like, Now I’m inspired.”
The concept art became a kind of visual shorthand for the movie itself. At a preview screening last April, Elysium star Damon said he was bowled over by the “graphic novel” that Blomkamp gave him the first time they met. Blomkamp recalls, “At the end of the design process, I had a stack of 60 or 70 images that essentially told the story of the script, from beginning to end, just as a by-product. I bound those pages and gave them to Matt and Jodie because it explained the look and feel of the film.”
Weaponry plays a starring role in Elysium action scenes, including one set piece featuring rifle bullets that find their own trajectory to a pre-programmed target. “There are drone references and myriad other things in Elysium that we put in,” Blomkamp says. “I used to be very interested in military technology, but the older I get, the more I realize they just kill people. Still, I love the engineering and machinery behind it, so we do get very specific about current technology and extrapolate from that.”
Blomkamp and his WETA collaborators generated more than 3,700 images that detailed Future Earth’s tech-meets-favela infrastructure. Distinct robot subgroups (military, police, medical, government, industrial) toil on earth for their overseers on the Elysium space station.
Vehicles also reflect their place in the power structure. For example, Blomkamp commissioned Bugatti to design a luxury interplanetary spacecraft that would seem appropriate to its well-heeled Elysium passenger.
Even the movie’s bad guys get their own branding. Kruger, a killer-for-hire played by Sharlto Copley, rides around in a vehicle sporting a secret logo. Blomkamp explains, “The mercenary company that Sharlto works for is modeled a little bit after Blackwater. In Iraq, Blackwater mercenaries self-identified with bear paw marks. For the weird South African group of mercenaries in Elysium, I wanted an identifier they were proud of, so we spray painted the image of this African animal, the Oryx, on the side of their army vehicles. Those details are the kind of thing I just go mental over.”
Check the slide show for robot concept art and other Future Earth images featured in Elysium: The Art of the Film.
[Images courtesy of Elysium: The Art of the Film Motion Picture Artwork and Photography © 2013 TriStar Pictures, Inc. | All rights reserved.]