Elysium's Neill Blomkamp shares the secrets of designing a dystopia

Now that you've seen the first stunning trailer for Neill Blomkamp's Elysium and picked apart the screencaps, you can start to see a few similarites to Blomkamp's first movie, District 9. The politics, the cool gear, and the massive object floating in the sky. We caught up with Blomkamp a while ago, and he told us the secrets of a compelling dystopia.

Note: we talked to Blomkamp before the trailer came out, but this still helps to illuminate a lot of the stuff you saw in the trailer.

So one of the images that we’ve seen a lot from Elysium is basically this little kid kind of looking up at the Torus in the sky and it’s kind of looming over him, which reminded me a lot of the images from District 9, where we would see the ship looming in the distance, and it symbolized the ghettoization of the aliens. And I’m wondering in Elysium, is it kind of the flip-side of that?

Blomkamp: Yeah, it is. It’s interesting — no one’s ever said that to me before, but yeah, it’s definitely... it’s a space station filled with billionaires, so, they’ve left Earth in this kind of very destitute, diseased fashion. So, it is, it is somewhat the reverse, I guess. Although Johannesburg in District 9 was also a ghetto, so there was less wealth discrepancy between the two.

So in Elysium, it seems as though the wealthy people have access to a lot of advanced biotech. Are they basically post-human? We've heard hints that they're actually altering their DNA.

Yeah, there is [some of that]. I mean, the whole like transhumanist [idea and] all of the sort of science fiction ideas and somewhat real speculative fiction ideas and everything are incredibly interesting to me. You know, what happens is, there's so much data out there, it becomes a question of how much you want to include in any one direction.

You know, like for instance, there is just the story and the plot. If you don’t have something that glues the audience to the screen, you’re in trouble. Like, that’s the staple. Right? On top of that, you can start layering things, like the whole transhumanist movement is just really interesting to me, you know.

Elysium's Neill Blomkamp shares the secrets of designing a dystopia

The question is, how much time you can invest in a film with that, if you want to keep the audience invested in the story. And the answer is you can’t do as much as I would like to do. Like [a different] kind of film, a documentary or something like that, may be a way to get more of those ideas out. But with less money, you don’t see the cool [stuff] — you don’t see the way it can be actually implemented. So I put as much of that in Elysium as I could, that didn’t feel like it was violating the film I wanted to watch. It’s a fine balance.

So another thing that we see cropping up a lot in your work is a connection between the problems with corporations and body horror.

Body horror, yeah.

So we're wondering, what’s the connection there?

This has no body horror, though. Elysium doesn’t really have any body horror.

But it seems like there's a grey-area corporation, and an emphasis on people modifying their bodies.

Yeah it’s maybe not as much as you think, though. Like, the viral [marketing] stuff is cool, because you can experience and go to areas you don’t in the film — but the film doesn’t mess with DNA as much as the viral maybe makes you think it does. Although body horror is incredibly interesting to me.

We’ve seen a few peeks of Matt Damon wearing what looks like basically body armor or some kind of biomechanistic suit. And you had that in District 9, there’s a lot of sort of merging of bodies with devices and technology and weapons. Why are you drawn to that?

I don’t know. I’ve been fascinated with that stuff [for as long as] I’ve been conscious. I have no idea why. There is something fundamentally fascinating about the mechanics, I guess, of the human body and where consciousness and mind exist, and what you can do with the mechanics of the body while keeping those intact, and where those two cross over.

Elysium's Neill Blomkamp shares the secrets of designing a dystopia

Can you put a human mind in a horse? What’s the result of that? Can the human mind operate in a simulation in a computer? What’s the result of that? There’s a lot of Kurtzweilian stuff, where they’re running simulations of rat brains, on an IBM supercomputer — where the nervous system of a rat is actually functioning, and working in a simulation. So if you could scan, at an atomic level, the entire brain and run it again, you could theoretically have that running in a computer. That’s just interesting, I don’t know why, [but] it’s interesting to me.

But I want to see that stuff in films, you know — and I have a lot of ideas with that sort of thing, that coalesces down. That’s the problem: You have a million ideas, and you can only have like four in a film. So you have to do like X number of films, to get like the satisfaction of [getting] X number of ideas out.

But, yeah, and the body horror thing — which is not in Elysium — for me, it has to be organic. If it’s [mixing] organic with organic, that, to me, is body horror. Like there has to be like slime and like scales and like psychology to it. Elysium, with Matt’s suit, is [just the fact that] he’s sick and really what it is, is an amplification of strength — like it would allow a patient to walk out of a chemo ward, essentially. That’s kind of what it is in the film.

Like an exoskeleton basically.

Yeah, it’s just strength. Still, that concept is interesting. You know, like using technology in that case on a very simplistic level that just makes you that much more agile or able.

Elysium's Neill Blomkamp shares the secrets of designing a dystopia

What are some of the visual cues that you give us about the difference between the wealthy worlds up in the Torus, versus on Earth? How do we viscerally see the class differences you're showing us?

Well, the way I always went about it, is Elysium is "Bel-Air in Space." It was always Beverly Hills in space. Right? The film isn't as satirical as District 9, but there's still a lot of dark satire to it. And so the dark satire of like building a mansion in space — with the weight of taking stones and shit up there — is hilarious, you know? It's not scientifically plausible, but it's incredibly funny. So showing the level of opulence and wealth, where they've actually recreated Bel-Air on a space station, and having pulled all of that wealth and those resources out of Earth, results in the visual landscape that is diametrically opposed. And also, both are equally interesting. To me, personally, I would almost argue that the imagery of Earth, to me, is more interesting. Just because the way that I portray Earth — which I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with — is just interesting. It's just a total step backwards, compared with where people think we're going.

Elysium's Neill Blomkamp shares the secrets of designing a dystopia

Can you tell us more about that?

It's just diseased. It's like a complete lack of technology, and Third World. When you see that as a futuristic setting, it kind of messes with you. It messes with me, a little bit. But I think that's where we're going.

And when you say that it's low technology, has there been an event that's caused a problem? Or just a gradual decline?

Just a gradual [decline]. It's like, how do you explain [why] South Sudan is in the situation it's in? That kind of thing. When you pull the wealth out and you're unable to get the resources together to do X, and you take it from the whole planet, that sort of Malthusian-like breakdown can spread quite rapidly. And those images are interesting. The space station, I have to say... It feels to me like all of the imagery of science fiction that I saw when I was a kid. It feels like that, which is cool. It's just being on the inside of this [massive object in space].

Are there any interesting technology and objects on Earth? Are people cobbling together tech, maker-style?

Yeah. There is that. There's kind of a black market, cyberpunk element to the film, where people are cobbling together cerebral-interface, kind of, screwed-up technology in a Third World kind of way.