Favela on Blast
The way Blomkamp imagines Los Angeles in 2154, the California city has become the Third World, with the remains of downtown being surrounded by favelas.
In the world of director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the difference between rich and poor is painfully evident to the naked eye. If you want to see immense poverty, look around Earth; if you want to see immense wealth, look to the heavens and the off-world colony that is the film’s namesake.
On what’s left of Earth in Elysium, everything—including the cars—looks hacked together from salvage.
That economic disparity creates a gruesome struggle in the film, and it presented an intriguing challenge to Blomkamp and his production and concept designers: Imagine Los Angeles in 2154 as a grimy, decrepit city of favelas, while also dreaming up a glistening paradise in space. To do that, they spent hours upon hours sketching out the world with every possible detail — designs now available in the book Elysium: The Art of the Film.
Escape From LA
The poor people of Earth have only one way to get to the opulence—and medical attention—available on Elysium, and that’s via illegal space shuttles. “The brief was these ships would have started out transporting materials, like grain or metal, when Elysium was being built, and since then they’ve fallen into the wrong hands and been retrofitted to take human cargo up,” production designer Phillip Ivey says in the book.
Since the illegal aircraft taking Earth denizens to Elysium weren’t made to transport people, they are meant to look very improvised. “So there’d be old aircraft seats bolted to the walls and benches; you sit wherever you can,” Ivey says in the book. “They’d be filthy with lots of graffiti and floating rubbish.”
“My largest personal goal making this film was to try and frame a vision of the future for the audience, and to do that with a world that felt as real and multi-layered as possible,” Blomkamp says in the forward to the book, out this week. “The only way that can be accomplished is with a shitload of conceptual design and visual ideas.”
In Elysium, Max (played by Matt Damon) attempts to go to the off-world colony to wreak havoc and get medical attention (not necessarily in that order). To do that he gets outfitted with an “exo-suit” that helps him overpower Elysium’s defenses. He gets the suit thanks to a seemingly unsanitary surgery in the lair of “Spider” (Wagner Moura), whose home base is in the worst area of Los Angeles.
To create and curate that “shitload” — more than 3,000 pieces of concept art in total — Blomkamp relied on a lot of collaborators. Not only did he bring back District 9 collaborators like production designer Philip Ivey, he also called on legends like set designer Syd Mead, the “futurist” behind Blade Runner and Aliens. The director also got a little help from Weta Workshop cohorts like concept designer Aaron Beck, who worked on both District 9 and now Elysium.
Paradise in the Heavens
One of the big decisions in the concept design was whether or not Elysium would have a roof (like in the above concept drawing from Aaron Beck) or exposed to space. They opted to leave it open. “You had to be able to see the surface of [it] without having to crash through a glass roof-like structure,” Ivey notes in the book.
Matt Damon in his full exo-suit regalia.
The resulting concepts paint a picture more bleak than the one Blomkamp put on screen. L.A. is crushed and stacked so thoroughly that it resembles a refugee camp, while the place known as Elysium looks like a Stanford torus straight out of NASA in the 1970s. And yet, both worlds are so rich with detail, it’s hard to imagine they’re in any way unequal.
“Elysium was a step forward and Earth a step backward,” Blomkamp notes in the foreword. “That contrast, between poverty and wealth, haves and have-nots, provided great inspiration because when viewed together, the stark cleanliness of Elysium and the impoverished wasteland of Earth complement one another hugely — on a design level.”
Blomkamp wanted the surgery that attached Max’s exo-suit to be very hardcore and very gory. Thanks to this concept drawing from Weta’s Aaron Beck, it’s obvious Matt Damon got off lightly.
Check out a few excerpts of Blomkamp’s dystopian future in the images above from Elysium: The Art of the Film, which is currently available in limited edition from Titan Books.
All images: TriStar Pictures