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)
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”
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”
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?).
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?):
“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.
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
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)
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.
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