The concept behind the new sci-fi blockbuster Elysium began, like all great stories, with an arrest in Mexico.
During a brief detainment in Tijuana years ago, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp walked the notorious border, witnessing firsthand how proverbial lines divide society. There, he began to visualize life as a direct split between dystopian nightmares and romantic wonderlands.
Cut to the fictionalized year 2154 in his new film, humanity has separated between the white, European race living a picturesque life in a sphere outside the planet, and the rest of society toppling atop each other in the shantytowns of the Earth.
“I always thought about that image [of Tijuana], and that concept,” the 33-year-old director tells theGrio. “It’s wanting to flip the view for Americans, where this is what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence, looking over the fence. It’s flipping America into a dilapidated, broken, more economically depressed America.”
Blomkamp’s idea for the future of race
In the socially thwarted world of Elysium, the underclass of Earth has become a mosh pit of dysfunction. Laborers toil under harsh conditions imposed by elites in the sky, most of whom fail to even touch the same ground as their slaves.
The tree leaves practically sparkle in the idealistic land above whereas below, poverty, crime and disease run rampant.
“That is my realistic vision of a future Earth, which is the borders being erased entirely, and having this fluid population group that basically moves from Chile all the way up to Canada,” Blomkamp remarks. “It just flows because it can, like the [European Union] on steroids…The numbers of people that are Latin are going to overwhelm the people who aren’t.”
Expectedly then, the broken society consists primarily of Hispanics, yet the lack of other races comes as striking unless there’s reason to believe everyone but white and brown people are completely wiped out.
It’s a metaphor, says Blomkamp, who was raised in Johannesburg and rose to fame with 2009’s District 9.
“Wealth is contained within North America and Europe,” he explains, describing the Caucasian-select population in the promised land. “I specifically didn’t want to try and include China because it just complicates it.”
And evidently, African-Americans weren’t available in Mexico.
Despite a $115 million dollar budget, Blomkamp says he succumbed to production restrictions.
“The only thing that didn’t stick true to the metaphor or the realism was that, in Mexico City, I couldn’t get enough black actors,” he explains. “I tried as hard as I could, and the only black actor I could find was the kid at the end…That was literally the only guy I could find. It’s just insane in Mexico how few actors there are.”
The filmmaker did throw in a scene with Africans at the end, which he shot in South Africa on the set of another project.
“I was shooting a test for the new film that’s half the size of Elysium, I was trying to [include all races],” he recalls. “I was like we should roll some footage of people running to the ships.”
From Eminem to Matt Damon
According to reports, the rapper turned down the part because the studio refused to shoot in Detroit, and Damon accepted thereafter. As the two stars provide seemingly opposite personas, Blomkamp says they were selected for different versions of the story.
“The version of Elysium that I wanted Eminem for was a very different film,” comments the filmmaker. “When I came up with the idea for District 9, I was very much in this sociological mind – this Tijuana-border kind of thing, and growing up in South Africa. I was just interested in it, and I knew I wanted to make a science fiction film about the haves and the have nots. The original script that I had was purposefully much lower budget and the set up was completely different.”
The way he describes it, initially Elysium was raw, “stranger” and “edgier,” the things Eminem is and Damon isn’t. This was before the money rolled in.
“I wanted an unusual star and that’s when [Eminem] was approached,” Blomkamp recalls. “Then, what happened was the concept that I originally liked never felt right for the story. It wasn’t really designed for a haves, have nots kind of story, so I shelved that. I came up with the idea of a physical ring that you would go to that was lined with Beverly Hills mansions, and the second that happened, I just jacked the budget up by $60 million.”
Enter Hollywood’s golden boy.
In the movie, which hits theaters Friday, Damon plays a street kid all grown up and working in a factory, where he’s subjected to a dousing of harsh radiation and must get to the grandiose ellipse to save his life.
Freedom for Damon’s character revolves around the liberties and failures of his people, and finding a sense of solidarity in a world destined to break it down.
Nelson Mandela’s ‘moral high ground’
Growing up in South Africa, Blomkamp pulled from his past and present observations to imagine how social justice fares in the future.
On the day of this interview, he wears Nelson Mandela’s prison number on a bracelet around his wrist, and describes the world leader’s influence on his filmmaking as subconscious.
“They way that he dealt with not turning the country on itself, and the sort of level of moral high ground is incredible,” Blomkamp remarks. “That is inspiring. All those things are linked.”
Riding both sides of the fence
On that note, Blomkamp poses a theory on the evolution of humanity. The trick is in understanding that motions continue but circumstances change, therefore civilizations maintains a sort of repetitive stasis.
Theoretically, the world really could transpire to the state of affairs in Elysium.
“The genetic structure of human beings has been the same since we were on the African savannah,” Blomkamp believes. “We’re not regressing, and we’re also not going forward; we’re doing exactly what we’ve always done. The difference is for the first time ever, and why I think we’re maybe going to go off the cliff, now all of the sudden the population growth is exponential. It’s never been witnessed before.”
He adds, “We’re at this cut-off point where we’re either going to go off the edge, and it’s a Methuselian catastrophe, or right before we go off the edge, we’ll come up with technology that will get us off the ship. Other than the curve of population, we would just keep doing the same thing. It would just be like feudal Europe and Egypt all over again.”
All that from one little run-in on the border.
Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @CourtGarcia