By Casey Tourangeau

Mailed on August 09, 2013

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Dear Syd Mead
Set Designer

Dear Syd,

I'll admit that your association with Elysium - and director Neill Blomkamp - struck me as odd, at first. You're known for creating much more polished visions of the future for directors like Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. After seeing Blomkamp's debut feature, District 9, his South African aesthetic seemed to favour a more down-and-dirty approach. That's hardly in line with the devices you designed for Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Aliens. But after actually watching Elysium, it all made sense.

Your job was not to meld your sleek and shiny with Blomkamp's dirt and grime, but to intentionally clash with it.

In this vision of a future Earth (2154 to be exact), humanity has been neatly divided into two groups: those who can afford to leave the dying planet, and those forced to stay behind and scrape out some sort of living. It seems pretty clear that your designs were used to create the Utopian environments of Elysium - like an orbiting space station that serves as the ultimate gated community - while Blomkamp focused on those left behind. It's no coincidence that Elysium's Earth feels a lot like_ District 9_'s titular sector (which itself echoed the real slums of Johannesburg).

Not to focus too much on plot machanics, but this neat divide works its way right down into the story and characters: Matt Damon as Max, an orphan raised on Earth who is trying to go straight after a life of crime. After a work accident leaves him deathly sick, he decides his only option is to do that "one last job" for the local crime lord so he can get himself an illegal shuttle to Elysium, and cure himself through its advanced medical technology. Jodie Foster, by contrast, Elysium's Minister of Defense, who, as the most relentless Neighbourhood Watch coordinator ever, has made it her life mission to keep Elysium pure, no matter the cost.

As far as conflicts and social commentary go, this is pretty simple stuff. And, really, simple is kind of refreshing after a summer of convoluted self-seriousness. It was a smart move for Blomkamp to employ your skills to help make that clarity part of _Elysium's _visual design as well.

Blomkamp's overall design for the film, though, is not quite so simple. Along with his desire to make a social statement, Blomkamp also likes to blow things up. Well, blow people up, to be more specific. Like District 9, Elysium's main cast members are an array of intricately-designed weaponry. I didn't detect your hand here, Syd, as the guns, rocket launchers, and swords used owe more to games like Quake _and _Halo than anything else. Once these weapons started appearing, I sort of hoped Damon would wield his very own BFG before the credits rolled.

Luckily, Blomkamp takes a simple approach to action. Some of the cinematography and editing is a bit on the chaotic for my liking, but the amount of action is just right. Instead of the more-is-more approach, in which character is lost in an orgy of impersonal effects and explosions, Elysium, like your designs, prefers clarity. The scale of the action is always small and personal, even when motivations are the basest possible. It makes all the difference. Investment in the outcome of a conflict will always win out over simply watching conflict, no matter the size of the effects budget.

This conflict carries Elysium _through its clunkier moments - including Foster's performance. The slight French accent she gives Delacourt is distracting, and as a result, she comes off as stiff instead of determined. And when Max's childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) becomes a main part of the storyline, Blomkamp's commentary becomes a little trite and neat. His reliance on too-cute flashbacks to hem as children nearly undermines _Elysium's momentum. Thankfully, Sharlto Copley, as a relentless mercenary hunting Max, keeps things moving.

The clarity of vision does come through overall. And if Elysium feels a little too pleased with its not-terribly-deep commentary, at least we know that's by design.

Looking upward,


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