One of the things that was immediately apparent when I saw “District 9” for the first time is that Neill Blomkamp has a fantastic eye for detail. Everything about that movie is in service of selling the reality, and when I recently rewatched it, I found myself repeatedly laughing at the tactile sense of place that Blomkamp’s films evoke.
In “Elysium,” it’s even more critical that environment serve as storyteller, and the decision to shoot in real Mexican dumps, using those to double as Los Angeles, is both bold and slightly terrifying. I can’t imagine the stress of taking a movie star as well known as Matt Damon to a location shoot in a place where kidnapping is an industry, and there’s no way I would have been able to stop thinking about John Wayne’s health problems after shooting “The Conqueror” as I was running around that dump amidst toxic materials and wind machines. When you see how it all reads on film, though, Blomkamp made the right call. It doesn’t feel like a set, like something put together by a production designer, but instead feels like what it is, a monument of human waste, built over time.
We don’t get to see much of Elysium itself, and that’s a bit of a bummer. I would have liked to have seen more of this society built by the wealthy elite to satisfy their wants and needs. Unlike Earth, where we’re always building on the past, where we’re updating and paving over and retrofitting, Elysium was a blank slate for them to build with purpose and specific function in mind, and I’d love to see more of what that looks like and how people share that space and how they customize it.
I think it’s a testament to the way Blomkamp creates the spaces for his film that I’m that curious about the things we don’t see. Sure, anyone can hire WETA and have them build nice props, but Blomkamp’s visual imagination all seems to serve this aesthetic, and it’s becoming one of the things I look forward to in his movies. When we sat down to discuss “Elysium,” it was frustrating because I could easily have spent an hour just discussing the peripherals of his world with him, and we had to somehow have our whole conversation in five minutes.
I have a feeling Blomkamp’s in it for the long haul, though, and I’m sure we’ll have many more conversations about many more films in the future, and I look forward to all of it eagerly.
“Elysium” opens in theaters on Friday.