Neill Blomkamp: An Odyssey Through District 9, and Why Elysium Will Be Brilliant

After far too long away from the game, Neill Blomkamp returns this year with his highly anticipated follow-up to District 9: the Matt Damon-starring Elysium. Blomkamp exploded from out of nowhere in 2009 with his analogous, modern Sci-fi masterpiece, and it instantly marked him as one to watch for the future. With 4 (count ‘em!) Academy nods and heaps of praise from all quarters, excitement is understandably building for his second feature. Here are a few things we can expect from Elysium

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Oh damn you! God damn you all to hell!” – Planet of the Apes (1968)

District 9

Turns out it was Earth all along. Blomkamp pulled an interesting little trick by using District 9‘s human/alien segregation to explore apartheid and themes of segregation. Some of the best Sci-fi works as a kind of defamiliarisation, in that it takes a facet of life as we know it and twists it into something simultaneously alien and eerily familiar. Look at something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – it encapsulates the paranoia of the era (Watergate, anyone?) perfectly, and in a way that is removed enough from its source to make for a non-preachy piece of entertainment. It’s a fine line of course, what with Avatar‘s gorgeous looks and pure entertainment value not quite distracting from its bludgeoning message of “Umm…the war in Iraq is bad mmkay?” It’s made fairly clear that apartheid is the major issue that is being examined in District 9, but it focuses upon the very issue itself, rather than having some gung-ho soldiers with a collective social conscience kicking against the injustices of a brutal ruling regime. Sure, protagonist Wikus (Sharlto Copley) does come around to the injustices, but only because he has been implicated in the alien struggle purely by accident. His transformation into one of the creatures is terrifying and visceral; an exaggerated comment on just how difficult it is for South Africa to face up to its past. It works because it distracts us with its winning combination of body-horror and emphasis on character over theme.

The first half-hour is unsettling to say the least. Forced evictions, slums, murdered non-conformists and the burning of alien spawn paint an uncomfortable picture. It is the novelty side of things that make the film so impressive: found-footage style, alien invaders who don’t really want to invade, and the Johannesburg setting seemingly make things too far removed from reality. Acknowledging the camera serves to heighten the fiction when we see it on a big screen, non-aggressive invaders seem somewhat silly and Johannesburg is so far away that it might as well be Oz. However, the things that initially alienate the film from the real world seem sinister when examined. The found-footage approach mostly gives way shortly after the initial eviction scene, shifting focus from the overarching theme to the human involvement therein, which feels a little more real. Those easily penned-in aliens seem a little too human in their weakness and compliance. Throw a vicious Nigerian gang into the slums of District 9 and you’ve got an analogy for every broken-down neighbourhood and slum ever to exist. Crime moves in and takes advantage, the government leaves things be until the issue gets too close to the “nicer” parts of town, and only then is action taken. You only have to look up District Six in South Africa’s recent history to see the kinds of things Blomkamp is getting at in District 9.

Such an assured approach to his debut suggests that Elysium‘s thematic ideas will be handled in a similarly impressive manner. The plot of Elysium seems loaded with allusion to the whole Occupy Movement, 99%-ers business etc. In the film, the wealthiest of the wealthy live on a space station, far away from the poor who have been left on a decaying planet Earth. That one line of plot screams “WE ARE THE 99%!”, doesn’t it? The issue may be a fairly cheap one to address right now. The Dark Knight Rises, for example, has already had a go at it. The problem with TDKR‘s attempt is simple: it all looks too familiar. Every man and his boy-wonder side-kick knows that Gotham City is just the gritty parts of New York on a bad day. That being said, it’s no stretch to imagine that there is also a “money” element to Gotham; a place where the rich can look down upon the poor with a grimace. You don’t have to squint too hard to make the Gotham Stock Exchange look a lot like Wall Street. The idea is generally undercooked, what with the comic book constraints that must ultimately limit even the greatest adaptations of the medium’s best work, yet it does make for intriguing viewing. With a more concerted effort and a script not restricted by the laws of adaptation, Neill Blomkamp should find himself with significantly more fertile ground to work from than his peers. We could potentially be looking at the first great Sci-fi film to address the financial state of our time.

“We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks.” – Aliens (1986)

Whatever else happens, we’re virtually guaranteed some truly bad ass instruments of destruction in Elysium. The alien weaponry in District 9 was insane. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a creative and entertaining array of armaments. The only thing that comes close is Spider Jerusalem’s Bowel Disruptor in Warren Ellis’s ace comic series Transmetropolitan – and even then only if it’s set to “prolapse”. Let’s examine some of the tricksy tools of extra-terrestrial terror:

Arc Gun/ “Mulcher”

ARC gun

This little beauty is used by Wikus when he and the alien “prawn” Christopher laid siege to Multi-national United headquarters in their search for a device that will prove vital in the Prawns’ quest to return home. As with all non-human weaponry, this gun only works in the hands of a Prawn or the metamorphosing Wikus. It superheats the target, causing it to explode quite messily. It is used to great and gross effect, particularly in the aforementioned raid.

AMR-B43/ “Sonic Blaster”

AMR B43 sonic blaster

Wikus utilises this frightening hulk of a weapon to defend himself against a group of, shall we say, “unruly” Nigerian gang members. The trick of this particular piece of hardware is sound manipulation. It conducts noise into ammunition and fires a concentrated blast of sound at the target. Again, it makes things explode pretty messily (are you sensing a pattern here?).

Exosuit

exosuit

Oh boy, is this fun! The prawn exosuit is made up of some pretty sturdy armour and an array of weaponry that is basically the entire Prawn arsenal but bigger. MUCH bigger. The suit opens around the abdominal section, allowing a Prawn to climb in and operate it. My personal favourite feature of this walking war crime is its telekinetic abilities, which leads to the film’s most hilarious scene: the launching of a pig at an MNU gunner. My girlfriend and I were the only people who found it remotely funny in the theatre, which I thought was just disgusting.

Of course, none of the above would have been possible without the stellar efforts of effects house Weta. These guys are true masters of their craft, with work on the films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit universes; as well as Avatar, King Kong and The Adventures of Tintin. So here’s the good news: Weta are doing similar work for Elysium. Problem is, we only have one itty-bitty little glimpse of what Weta will bring to Elysium, but it is enough to whet the appetite considerably. Check out Matt Damon rocking a rather large piece (and is that a bionic arm?):

Matt Damon Elysium 2013

“If you build it, they will come.” – Field of Dreams (1989)

The foundations that Blomkamp has laid down with District 9 seem to have attracted a veritable dream-team of talent and perks. First off, the reported $100,000,000 budget is a massive step up from the $30,000,000 that Blomkamp managed to do so much with in his debut feature. District 9 succeeded in its attempt at a tricky illusion: making a relatively low-budget Sci-fi look like a genuine Hollywood blockbuster. Just imagine what the people behind the undeniably visually-impressive District 9 can do with a massively inflated budget.

Of course, inflated budget does not necessarily mean a better movie. They gave Richard Kelly almost $20,000,000 to follow up the comparatively cheap Donnie Darko, and what happened? I’ll tell you what happened: the critical and commercial flop that is Southland Tales, which managed only around half a million dollars worldwide during its cinematic run. Personally, I don’t have too many qualms with it as a film, but it certainly is a disappointment when you consider just how good Donnie Darko was. The recent Transformers franchise proves that an ever-expanding budget doesn’t buy you a good movie. The first installment was grounded in humanity, the story of a boy buying his first car is timeless. Then came the robots, you know, that staple of adolescence. An extra $50,000,000 on each of the sequels did more harm than good, with the franchise leaning more upon the jaw-dropping special effects than any kind of humanity. I swear, Revenge of the Fallen had some of the worst character development I have ever seen. Megan Fox stand close to Shia LaBeouf, some moody music plays, then the camera runs around them in a circle. It’s not exactly expertly crafted dramatic framing, is it? Revenge of the Fallen acts as a cautionary tale for Sci-fi/action movies, in that it showed the results of what happens when special effects become the focus of a film. Sure, it’s great to look at, but you just don’t feel invested in the characters. The fact that I cared far more for the machines than any human character is pretty damning.

Sharlto-Copley-District-9-x-Wide-560x283

In contrast, take a look at District 9. Blomkamp has crafted a protagonist with an easily-identifiable persona and enough backstory-heft to make it easy to care for him. Wikus is flawed and very human, but he is also tragic. His Kafkaesque transformation is engaging, and even though the writing is deserving of praise, Sharlto Copley’s grounded and believable performance is the key to success. His dorky office worker is relatable (anyone who has ever worked in an office will know someone like him), and the familial touches – his birthday party, for example – are handled brilliantly by Copley. His desperation is palpable, and even his less-noble acts later on are made understandable by Copley’s natural translation of the character.

“Matt…Damon.” – Team America: World Police (2004)

Speaking of acting talent, it seems as though Neill Blomkamp has attracted some pretty impressive players to Elysium, which is largely thanks to the flair he has already displayed. Matt Damon takes the lead as a man whose actions may bridge the rich/poor divide that sits at the heart of the story, and with Jodie Foster, William Fichtner and the returning Copley all on board, it seems that we may have a cast that can carry the weight of the human side of the script.

Let’s take a closer look at why Damon could be perfect for this part, as well as this director:

1. The Bourne Saga

Matt Damon

An obvious asset to Damon, the Bourne trilogy allowed him to break out of a role that was becoming a little too comfortable for him. Because of Jason Bourne, Matt Damon is now one of the premiere action stars of the past decade. Granted, the competition hasn’t exactly been fierce, but that doesn’t detract from his intensity. Having someone with genuine action hero chops in his lead role will no doubt add gravitas to a character who has been driven to desperate actions to save his own life.

2. We Bought A Zoo

Confused? You shouldn’t be! We Bought A Zoo was a relatively light affair, with not much to write home about aside from the sweet, based-on-a-true-story premise. However, it did give Damon a chance to show his lighter side. No rough edges a la Will Hunting, and none of Jason Bourne’s insane improvised killings; just your average Joe who decides to buy a zoo. What Damon’s zoo-purchasing shenanigans revealed was a certain amount of earnest sweetness that he is very capable of pulling off. Those kind of characteristics made Sharlto Copley’s performance so impressive in District 9, and if Damon can present a similar front, he may find a similar level of success.

3. The Adjustment Bureau

…and he can even find time to dip his toe in the Sci-fi pool. Mr. Damon carried himself with a level of comfort that you like to see from a protagonist in a Sci-fi film, and his struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds puts him in a good position to do the same again in Elysium, but on a much larger scale. The story is based on a Philip K. Dick (The Adjustment Team), and having cut his teeth on a film based on work by Sci-fi royalty, you can bet Damon will be up to any challenge Neill Blomkamp may throw his way.

There is a worry that a high-profile star like Damon will distract from the overall effect of the film, but he has proven himself a worthy performer in the past. Part of the believability of Wikus in District 9 came from Sharlto Copley’s relative anonymity, and keeping the star quality in check could be the difference between effective human drama and a cast of surrogates acting out a clash between socio-economic archetypes.

“But second chances are rare. Right? And that’s worth celebrating.” - Drive (2011)

Neill Blomkamp

The follow-up to a debut hit is always tricky business. I mentioned Richard Kelly earlier, and he’s not the only director to stumble at the second picture. Rian Johnson burst onto the scene with high-school noir flick Brick, then lost a lot of goodwill with the throwaway The Brothers Bloom. He bounced back last year with Looper, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that his second film was not quite up to scratch. Then again, some directors have succeeded in impressively following-up, and even bettering, their debut. Tarantino is a startling example of this – somehow eclipsing the refreshing Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction.

If you’re a fan of Sci-fi, you’ll know that there is some exciting talent out there. Alex Garland, who wrote screenplays for Dredd, Never Let Me Go and the criminally underrated Sunshine is a great example. It is important that new talent is encouraged within the genre. (An interesting note: Garland originally wrote a treatment for the long-awaited Halo movie, whilst Blomkamp has been rumoured as a possibility to direct). It’s genuinely inspiring to see that there are plenty of possible maestros being given their chance. Gareth Evans may be a controversial choice for the Godzilla reboot, but it is a great show of faith in young talent. Similarly, Josh Trank is attached to the latest attempt at a Fantastic Four movie, and after Chronicle, it seems that the sky is the limit for that young man.

Blomkamp has already shown flashes of a special talent, and Matt Damon has said of his director that he may well be this generation’s James Cameron. Hopefully Blomkamp will conduct himself with a higher degree of subtlety than Mr. Cameron, but it is high praise from a man who has worked with his fair share of quality directors. Elysium is, without doubt, a make-or-break moment, but with so much promise shown in District 9, it seems impossible to think that Blomkamp will waste his opportunity. Sci-fi is a genre ripe with potential for social commentary, philosophical debate and some good old-fashioned balls-to-the-wall action. Such a thrilling prospect is not often found in other genres due to their familiarity with the “real world”, and Neill Blomkamp could prove to be the leading light in one of the most talented batches of Sci-fi talent that has ever been.

Correction: it was in fact Image Engine who did the majority of the VFX work. Weta still gets credit for their designs, but Image Engine’s work was instrumental in making those designs work. Also, The Embassy get credit for the work they did, particularly the excellent exosuit. Thanks to Conrad (Digital Compositor for Elysium) for pointing out the confusion and correcting me.

What do you think? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Article covers: Film

Article by: David Tatlow

1,943 Points
David Tatlow
You can call me Tatt. I like all kinds of films, as well as talking to/boring people about them at great length, so brace yourself.

36 Comments

  1. Wow this hyped me up even more than I already was! District 9 tonight with some pizza: WIN!

    • David Tatlow

      I might watch it again myself. I can think of little else that has so much win.

  2. Taylor Ramsey

    I loved Disrtict 9 and now am really looking forward to the new film.

    • David Tatlow

      Hopefully D9 wasn’t a fluke. My gut tells me it wasn’t, and I hope I’m right.

  3. Very engaging post! I consider myself in the Blomkamp cult and I can’t find a single reason why he would disappoint us. We have seen bad second films before by directors, like that German director that made Lives of Others (one of my favorite movies) and then came to the US to make The Turist (lol). But we’ll see. I believe in this one.

    • David Tatlow

      I hold Lives of Others in very high regard also, and I believe in Blomkamp! Thanks for reading.

  4. Found this article originally by a cut-down version here: http://ow.ly/h9yeS
    It’s getting some love there…

    Just thought I would come here and read the whole article and give you some praise, it is easily the best article I’ve read all week, thank you!

    Just hoping that Elysium will not be delayed, I want it this year!

    • David Tatlow

      Thank you very much Claire. It’s nice to see our articles get recognition on other sites, so I appreciate you letting us know! I’m in the same boat as you – if I have to wait much longer for this I’m going to get me one of those exosuits and hunt me some studio executives!

      • This is a tad nick-picky on my part, but I wish you had referenced the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as a re-make of the most excellent 1956 film of the same title (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049366/). It just seems that many young writers today fail to reference prior works these days.

        That pet peeve aside, it ‘is’ a wonderful article. :)

        • David Tatlow

          Thanks for the comment! I was aware of the 1956 version, but I myself have a pet peeve about people making references to films that they haven’t seen, and I have not seen that version. It never feels right to me to go off second-hand knowledge, as I have an inkling that the 1956 version has real-life implications regarding post-WW2 paranoia. I thought it would best to reference the one I’d seen, rather than BS about one I hadn’t.
          However, the 1956 version, from what I hear, is also very relevant to the point I’m making in the article, so I thank you for your input, and for hopefully expanding horizons!

  5. AnnaLar

    I love this article! Have you seen the promo picture of Sharlto Copley in this? That alone gives me butterflies!

    • David Tatlow

      It is very intriguing, but very odd! He kind of looks like he’s headed in to an audition for The Hobbit. It does make things interesting though, and the less I know about Elysium before it comes out, the more I think I will enjoy it! Thanks for the love!

  6. I will be watching this film purely for the purpose of entertainment. I have read the synopsis, and it seems that the film will be promoting a typical Socialist & Cultural Marxist theme, thus I will most likely despise what it stands for.

    • David Tatlow

      I think you’re right about the theme. If a film is entertaining enough, then thematic grievances can be forgiven. As I mentioned, Avatar is a similar example – I’m not one for the whole Iraq war blamce game, yet I enjoyed Avatar for its entertainment value.

  7. What makes you think Weta are doing the VFX? Weta did a few VFX for District 9 but most of the VFX work was done by Image Engine: http://film.image-engine.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=79&Itemid=86

    http://www.awn.com/articles/people/neill-blomkamp-talks-idistrict-9i

    • David Tatlow

      Thank you for pointing this out. Clearly the material I had read didn’t give the full picture. It looks like I’ve not made a clear enough distinction between the actual weapons designs and the VFX that made said weapons do impressively OTT things. I will get this fixed asap. Thanks again for the heads up, I appreciate any kind of further info about this as I love D9 and I am very excited for Elysium.

      • Ah. I didn’t get that you were talking about the actual designs and props. I work in VFX so was reading it from that bias.

        • David Tatlow

          I’m still going to correct it anyway, because the VFX are spectacular. I appreciate your reply, I am very much looking forward to what you bring to Elysium!

  8. Fantastic post! I don’t want to get my hopes up and want to watch this movie in a natural awareness to avoid any form of disappointment. Watched Prometheos with a huge anticipation and was so disappointed, but when looking back at it, it’s a good science fiction with a bad script.

    • David Tatlow

      Thanks! It’s difficult to stay in that “neutral” mindset, but some of the best films I have ever seen are those that I have gone in to with no prior expectations.
      I really enjoyed Prometheus, and I think I’m one of the only Alien saga fans that did! I hope you succeed in keeping your hopes in check.

  9. TheGolar

    Just got round to reading this article. Awesome work, Tatt, your articles are somehow getting better and better each time. Nice work getting it reposted too!

    Can’t wait for this movie. Group viewing of District 9 soon methinks.

    • David Tatlow

      Thanks man. Group viewing you say? I can arrange that…

  10. Great times for science fiction with three promising movies: This, Oblivion and After Earth. Each one of them hyped!

    • David Tatlow

      I hope the hype will be justified. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this being a great time for Sci-fi. There’s a hell of a lot more on the way this year too. Personally, I can’t wait for Star Trek: Into Darkness. I think the franchise has exploded beyond its previously limited, though devoted, fan base into something that is a genuine mainstream contender.

  11. Thanks so much! I am a HUGE Sharlto fan as I couldnt believe that he hadnt acted before. He wasnt even meant to lead in D9 and was just helping Blomkamp out with the promo…. what a guy, such crazy raw talent. I even loved him in the A-team (which I only watched to see Sharlto)

    I really think he was robbed of more nominations for D9 because he carried that movie and acted brilliantly!

    • David Tatlow

      I’m inclined to agree with you Hilary. I thought he did a great job, and I expect the same in Elysium. He is still a young guy too, so I’m hoping that his best performances are still ahead of him.

  12. F*********CK YES! WHEN is the trailer out?!

  13. I could be saying this out of my biased affection toward Neill Blomkamp, but I don’t think he’s going to hit a sophomore slump. I just don’t think he will. In my opinion, his love and respect for the science fiction genre leads me to believe that he won’t screw this up. Directors who are very careful and meticulous in that regard tend to make one great film after another. To have Matt Damon already comparing him to James Cameron, when realistically he could’ve praised Blomkamp with a different set of words if he didn’t really believe that, is enough to make me believe that “Elysium” is going to be a special film.

    Plus, Sony moving the film from its initial graveyard slot of March 1st to the back end of summer, which happens to be the same exact weekend D9 opened back in 2009, tells me that they believe they have a massive hit on their hands.

    Can’t wait to finally get a trailer for this. I think it’s safe to say it’s coming next month with “Oblivion”.

  14. Fuck yeaaah! Great article dude! Biting my fingers to the point where my whole hand is in my throat in anticipation for it.

  15. J. Bryan Jones

    Nice in-depth breakdown, Tatlow. It didn’t occur to me that the American wealth divide was the theme. Instead, I thought it was criticism at America for its attitude towards Mexican “undocumented immigrants” based off the trailer. Radical themes ruined blue-people-Avatar for me, so it would be a shame if this turns out to be the case.

    • David Tatlow

      I think that, thematically, there will be a lot of broad strokes. There are plenty of hot-button issues that will fall under the idea of dividing people, communities or even countries. One thing that Blomkamp showed us with District 9 was that he doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with his thematic ideas, unlike James Cameron did with Avatar. Cameron has a reputation for doing that, like when he undercuts the symbolism of the mother/daughter dynamic in Aliens by having Newt say that the aliens have babies, just like humans…hopefully Blomkamp will be able to avoid being as preachy as Cameron usually is.

  16. Austin Bender

    This movie looks great. Blomkamp surprised me with District 9, I can’t wait to see what he does next.

  17. Vic Millar

    I agree that the body horror elements were a great addition to D9′s style, it made everything feel so gritty and real, unlike all the sleek and shiny sci-fi movies we’ve been getting recently. It looks like Elysium will continue that with Damon’s exoskeleton thing, the scene where they attach that should be a trip.

  18. Thomas Munday

    Great article! Neil Blompkamp is an inspired and scintillating director who is unafraid to speak from the heart. District 9 is a creative cinematic achievement that intelligently discusses South Africa’s ongoing conflicts. I hope Elysium is even half as though-provoking and potent as his previous efforts.

    • David Tatlow

      Early word is he’s retreading old ground somewhat in Elysium, but it’s an impressive film nonetheless. I will definitely go see it.

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