On the strength of precisely one feature-length movie, “District 9” (2009), South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2009, by Forbes magazine as the 21st most powerful celebrity from Africa, and by legendary director Ridley Scott as a “game-changing filmmaker.”
“Elysium” grossed $11 million on opening day, and $139 million box office to date. It’s already made back the $115 million production costs.
“District 9” was made for a paltry $30 million and did $211 million box office. So it’s a safe bet Hollywood is going to let Blomkamp make more films.
That is unless they catch on to what he’s up to. Then he’s toast.
“Elysium” is set in a very dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2154. The city is a third world slum populated by a massive influx from Latin America.
Max (Matt Damon) is the rare underclass Anglo. He’s a former car thief/convict who works in a factory which makes robot police. The same ones who beat the stuffings out of him for sarcastic backtalk.
Overhead in orbit is Elysium, a wheel-shaped space colony (technically a Stanford torus) populated by one percenters in the ultimate gated community.
Lots of the earthly poor would like to get there, not least because every mansion has med-pods which can fix anything short of death.
Most get shot down by Kruger (Sharlto Copley) an operative with a thick South African accent, employed by Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster).
The squeamish president of Elysium wants this to stop. Delacourt cooly asks him if he has any children, as she does.
Delacourt has a stake in the future, and is willing to protect it at any cost – including staging a coup.
Back on Earth Max is trying to go more-or-less straight, but is forced to hire on with a gangster in a job to invade Elysium when he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work. He’s got five days to live and needs to get to a med-pod.
Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse, also has an interest in the job because her daughter is dying of leukemia.
Hollywood loves to hate rich people running evil corporations who get warm fuzzies oppressing and exploiting the poor and downtrodden.
Hollywood is of course the home of humble craftsmen toiling in a cottage industry.
Reviews have been wildly divergent. Some conservative media have dismissed “Elysium” as socialist claptrap.
On the other side of the aisle, Ben Kenigsberg at Roger Ebert’s site calls it a “class allegory.”
Me? I think Blomkamp is trying to make us think uncomfortable thoughts about problems which have no easy solution – or perhaps no solution at all. An unforgivable sin in Hollywood.
Blomkamp is an Afrikaner, descendant of Dutch, French Huguenots, and a mixed bag of European dissenters. He was raised during the last gasp of Apartheid, and saw civilization in South Africa start to unravel after it ended.
His mother took him and his siblings to Canada after a 17-year-old friend was murdered by carjackers in his own driveway. He once saw a black janitor beaten half to death by a gang of blankes (whites).
On a trip to Tiajuana, just across a thin line from San Diego, Blomkamp was kidnapped and held for $900 ransom – by the police.
Note the fictional Los Angeles of “Elysium” was filmed in the very real Mexico City.
What Blomkamp presents us with fictionally, is the reality that industrial civilization provides us with a lot of nice stuff, not least of which is medical care that prevents most of our children from dying in childhood.
But that’s not the case in much of the rest of the world. From our southern border to the tip of South America are millions of people who would like to have what we have. People who love their children as much as we love ours.
But what would happen if the borders fell?
Apartheid was morally repugnant. So is what happened after the apartheid regime in Rhodesia fell to the joy of all right-thinking peoples who don’t live there. So is what’s happening in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.
And maybe Los Angeles soon enough, the city Blomkamp calls “Johannesburg lite.”
Anyone remember that Cuban and Argentine working classes once had higher standards of living than the United States?
Blomkamp sees that civilization balances on a knife edge, and appreciates it more than those who’ve always had it ever can.
Hollywood evidently saw “Elysium” as a movie about the virtuous poor versus the villainous rich. They didn’t see that Blomkamp’s vision of the future is much more complicated than that.
Shhhhhhh! Don’t tell them, and maybe we’ll see more movies from this game-changing filmmaker.