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Biological Chemistry


Science fiction is the backdrop for director Neill Blomkamp’s exploration of humanity’s dark side

by William G. Schulz
August 14, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 33

A graphic with a screen shot from Elysium, a list of the director and pricipal cast, and a rating of four flasks.
Credit: Sony Pictures/C&EN

If not lots of science, there is lots of eye candy—real and imagined—in “Elysium,” a summer sci-fi drama from South African director Neill Blomkamp, whose last feature film is the 2009 cult favorite “District 9.”

Even if the backdrop is a ruined, overpopulated Earth, as represented by Los Angeles in the year 2154, “Elysium” is a beautiful film to watch. For starters, there is the gleaming artificial world of its title. From Earth, the slowly rotating space habitat appears as a sort of artificial moon, a lustrous wheel of fortune shining just above the horizon—and completely out of reach for most of humanity. It is a gated community on steroids, setting up the film’s haves versus have-nots theme.

Still, the movie’s space habitat, spacecraft, robots, computers, and other technological wonders all seem plausible mostly because we have seen them all before. In fact, the so-called science in this movie is so derivative and familiar it doesn’t need—and doesn’t receive—much explanation in the script. The scientifically astute viewer will have no reason to question the plausibility of most of the dystopic future Blomkamp portrays in “Elysium.”

A huge portion of the movie was shot in Mexico City, including the city dump and many “areas rife with crime,” Peter Muyzers, “Elysium” ’s Oscar-nominated director of special effects tells C&EN. It was a security nightmare in terms of managing cast and crew, he says.

But the most difficult aspect of making the movie, Muyzers says, was realizing Blomkamp’s vision for the Elysium space habitat. He says they agonized over such details as its proximity to Earth, rate of rotation, the plausibility of clear exterior windows on the massive space station, and the presence of water—experts told them to include a lot of it. He says they consulted with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech to make sure that their basic vision for Elysium made sense.

“Neill took that very seriously as a director,” Muyzers says. “But once you have that understanding, you do go toward creative liberties.”

It is fiction, after all.

Credit: Sony Pictures

Up close, Elysium is a near-Earth paradise of fabulous homes and gardens for its privileged residents. Not a blade of artificial turf is out of place, thanks in part to the watchful eye of Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster), who has ice water for blood and a heart of stainless steel.

Delacourt hardly pauses when she shoots down two renegade space shuttles from Earth that are full of the sick and dying, including many children. The would-be immigrants were hoping to access the “med bays” of Elysium—miracle machines that can rearrange the body’s atomic structure, wiping out disease and deformity on their padded leather gurneys.

Down below on the squalid Earth, the film’s antihero Max (Damon) sports some awesome-looking tattoos to enhance his muscled physique. His crew of homeboys in the trashed City of Angels are similarly buff and tatted up, lending some tough-guy appeal to the otherwise depressing grime, impoverishment, and sickness endured by basically everyone.

Max meets up with his former childhood friend Frey (Braga), a caring nurse trying to save her young daughter, who is dying of leukemia. After Max suffers a workplace accident, leaving him with just a few days to live, he begins his own journey to reach salvation on Elysium. Spider (Moura), Max’s former partner in crime, can get Max a ticket to Elysium—and thus a new lease on life—but only if he pulls off the ultimate computer hacking job, which could potentially fling open the doors of Elysium to everyone.

There’s no spoiler here. This is a movie worth seeing, especially in the big-screen IMAX format. Ultimately, however, the future is a setting for Blomkamp to explore the human condition and the human heart. The science fiction is a pretty wrapping for his dark vision of humanity.


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