Flashback three weeks. Elysium, the cinematic sophomore effort from director Neill Blomkamp, hadn’t yet come out, and with the exception of a sparse handful of knockouts, the summer of 2013 had yet to deliver a champion—a universally-beloved, in-no-way divisive blockbuster. An Avengers, if you will. I was banking on Elysium being it.
Blomkamp had already blown off socks the world over with his alien apartheid masterpiece District 9 just four years ago, and with Elysium, it looked as if he was primed to do it again. It had all the earmarks of a prescient yet relevant-to-our-time tale: a fragile but desperate struggle between the haves and the have-nots, social unrest on an unprecedented scale, and, if we were lucky, some good old-fashioned robot-on-powered armor action. I was there opening day. And I was sorely disappointed.
I was approached to pen a review for Titan Books’ upcoming Elysium: The Art of the Film before the movie’s release, but an unexpected delay in the arrival of the 176-page, full-color hardcover (apparently, my house is difficult to find) meant I would see the film before I read the material. This filled me with dread. How could I write an objective review of the mechanical designs and conceptual illustrations for the film if I hated it? The answer, as it turns out, was to do just that. So what follows is something of a side-by-side comparison of the two, the art vs. the film. Concept vs. execution.
If you don’t already know, Elysium is the story of Max, a former gang member trying to live an honest life in the abject, deleterious 2159 A.D. near-ruins of Los Angeles, which has sprawled into an overpopulated mega-city asphyxiating on a dehumanizing stew of toxic air, water, and privation. While L.A. and, presumably, the rest of the world suffer from rampant disease and the oppressive thumb of a callous, robot-patrolled fiscal-military state, the wealthiest 1% live on Elysium, a 40-kilometer-wide space station in Earth’s orbit where their every need and desire are met without wait or fail. Food, clean air and water, truly miraculous healthcare—nothing is denied those who can afford it.
While the movie isn’t incompetent, it does commit an unforgivable sin: It takes place in two of the most visually captivating worlds I have ever seen on film and unapologetically refuses to explore either one. I was relieved, however, when I opened Elysium: AOTF and quickly discovered that it would go farther and delve deeper into the worlds and the philosophies that led to their creation than the movie ever attempted. So let’s get into this.
First of all, the collection is gorgeous. It’s a hardcover edition with impressive heft that would look striking on any coffee table. Do not think to bury it on a shelf. Second, it features marvelous conceptual illustrations by industry giant Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Tron), who, at a staggering 80 years old, can still design rings around Hollywood’s best and brightest, many of whom also contributed to the art team.
The book is aptly divided into two sections, Earth and Elysium, and those sections are further fragmented into multiple chapters covering in borderline-obsessive detail everything from locations and the characters that appeared in them to what weapons, vehicles, and/or machinery were employed during those scenes. Candid behind-the-scenes stills round out the lot, but the highlight is easily the annotations from Blomkamp and his designers, who thankfully have no fear of waxing poetic on the inspirations behind even the tiniest, seemingly most inconsequential details.
Concepts I wish had been addressed in the film that lend weight and depth to the two warring worlds abound in this compilation. Even an idea as simple as “there is nothing new on Earth” excites the imagination. Cars, guns, computers, starships, even the robots that routinely intimidate and marginalize the human characters are all secondhand and third generation—rusted, weatherworn, rebuilt and repurposed time and again with little or no effort to disguise that they were once used for something else on Elysium until a newer, shinier model was introduced and they were exiled to this landfill Earth.
Unused variants of the robots that appear in the movie fill page after page. Designs for police bots carrying riot shields and a particularly inspired concept for a SWAT robot wearing a “Police” ball cap are worth the price of the book alone. There’s even a design for an animal/human hybrid robot. I can only wonder how that was to be employed in the film before the idea was scrapped in favor of another. Weapons designs take up as much space, if not more, and a part of you will regret the loss when you learn the men in Krueger’s mercenary unit initially had larger roles, including one who was to carry an enormous rail gun strapped to his hip. Bigger, badder versions of both Max and Krueger’s exo-suits make an appearance, and they are Aliens Power Loader-caliber awesome!
The designs for Elysium itself are no less impressive. A handful of pages are dedicated to labeled schematics that offer you more of an understanding of what life on the Torus is like beyond sunbathing and marble floors, but the high point of the Elysium chapters comes in the form of a series of propaganda posters drawn up by the powers-that-be to entice the wealthy into leaving Earth to live among the stars. There’s even an example of a bill of sale for what I can only assume is an “average” estate on the station, which clocks in at just over one billion dollars. These small flourishes may seem unimportant in the grand scheme, but they are exactly what I needed the film to lend more attention to: a look beyond the façade into the philosophies and mentalities of both Earth and Elysium’s inhabitants, and a more ambitious exploration of the ideals held by both societies, which are neither wholly altruistic nor sinister.
In the end, I believe the movie becomes better when Elysium: AOTF is used as a companion piece. It adds a much-needed layer of realism and a “lived-in” feeling to the two worlds Blomkamp has brought to life and elevates them beyond the mere cosmetic.