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'Elysium' director Neill Blomkamp reflects on sci-fi thriller that feels more relevant 10 years on
SYFY WIRE caught up with Blomkamp for a look back at the 2013 release that's now streaming on Peacock!
Writer-director Neill Blomkamp exploded onto the Hollywood scene in August 2009 the with the release of District 9. A feature-length adaptation of his 2006 short film "Alive in Joburg," the movie effortlessly blended sci-fi, action, and social commentary for an arresting parable about South African apartheid and humanity's penchant for baseless hatred. It was an impressive debut from Blomkamp, who nabbed some well-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay right out of the gate.
Four years later, the director unveiled his follow-up effort, Elysium, another genre-blending action/thriller with a lot more on its mind than just cool sci-fi concepts. Building on District 9's powerful themes of inequality, immigration, and societal alienation, the film (now available to stream on Peacock) takes place in a dystopian future, circa 2154, where Earth has become a polluted wasteland occupied by the impoverished segment of humanity. The wealthy class fled the dying and overpopulated planet long ago for a self-sustaining space station in the atmosphere called Elysium (named after the paradise-like afterlife in Greek mythology).
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"I think the core idea is this obsession I have with bifurcated societies, wealth inequality, class struggle — probably all coming from growing up in South Africa, I guess," Blomkamp tells SYFY WIRE over email. "I wanted a sci-fi way to represent wealth and poverty simultaneously, and how those two parts of the globe might interact."
Tapping into his sharp eye for societal decay, Blomkamp transforms the city of Los Angeles into a parched and sunbaked slum that wouldn't feel out of place in a Mad Max picture. "It was pushing the idea of an overpopulated, over-polluted planet onto the viewer," he explains. "As much as I love Blade Runner, I seem to be drawn to more arid, dusty versions of the future." Elysium, on the other hand, resembles the glamorous Hollywood of old: a relaxing and palm tree-laden fairy tale land of opulent homes and backyard parties.
Matt Damon fronts the story as Max Da Costa, a lowly robot factory worker with a criminal record, who harbors an impossible dream of saving up enough money to one day travel to Elysium. Max's timetable is drastically moved up when he's accidentally exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that will result in his death unless he can gain access to one of the Med-Bays in the affluent society floating above the Earth.
Posed with a choice between a painful death and a mission bordering on suicide, Max takes the latter route. He links up with an old underworld contact, Spider (Wagner Moura), who helps desperate individuals sneak into Elysium by forging their citizenship. Armed with a badass exo-suit wired directly into his brain, Max rages against the rigged system, finding himself at odds with Elysium's power-hungry Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her ruthless sleeper assassin, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
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"I loved working with all of them," Blomkamp says of the ensemble cast, which also included a pre-Star Wars Diego Luna as Max's best friend, Julio. "I am a huge Jodie Foster fan, so it was great to work with her. All of them are incredibly talented, incredibly professional, and all good people. I was lucky."
Released on Aug. 9, 2013, Elysium brought in almost $300 million worldwide against a budget of $115 million (a significant increase from the $30 million that went into the production of District 9). Despite the fact that critics weren't as enamored with Blomkamp's sophomore endeavor as they were with his first, the movie — which hit the big screen less than two years after the Occupy Wall Street movement brought gross economic disparity to the forefront of the cultural dialogue — most certainly deserves another look 10 years later.
Not only do the visuals, performances, and action set pieces hold up a decade after the fact, but the overall premise of haves vs have-nots in a dying world ravaged by environmental devastation feels more relevant than ever before. "I'm not really sure about its legacy. Does it have one?" Blomkamp muses. "I personally love Elysium. I love the core idea and setup for the world it takes place inside of. I think as time goes on, it will become more and more accurate in terms of guessing a possible future we might be entering."
Blomkamp's next project, Gran Turismo (his first major studio feature in almost a decade), opens in theaters Friday, Aug. 11. While a sequel to District 9 (aptly-titled District 10) has been in the works for a while now, Blomkamp says there are "no updates" to share at this time.
Elysium is now streaming on Peacock.