Neill Blomkamp‘s District 9 was an amazing feature film debut, and whatever he chose to do next would demand the attention of all the fans he amassed in 2009, myself included. His new film, Elysium, had been cloaked in mystery until a synopsis recently appeared online. I was even more intrigued after reading the synopsis, and Elysium was easily one of my most-anticipated movies of Comic-Con 2012. And the presentation didn’t disappoint.
Hit the jump to check out the recap, and click here for all of our Comic-Con coverage.
The moderator brings out Blomkamp, who notes “Comic-Con was good to me.” He went on to say that he feels like he should be among the fans, and that there’s an element of salesmanship that makes him feel a bit distant, but Comic-Con feels genuine because it’s a direct connection to the fans. He then says that we’re goin to see seven minutes of rough footage.
Before I get into the footage, here’s the film’s synopsis:
In the year 2159 two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster), a hard line government ofﬁcial, will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn’t stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max (Matt Damon) is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.
Plot-wise, here are some important additional notes to the plot:
- People on Elysium never get sick because they have machines that can cure diseases. One shot shows a woman getting into a machine that instantly cures her cancer just by scanning her over.
- The corner Max is backed into is when he gets trapped in a radiation vault at his job. He’s hit with radiation poisoning and given pills to manage the symptoms, but he’ll still die in five days. The only way to save his life is to get to Elysium.
- His ticket to Elysium is to join a heist where he and two co-horts plan to download important information directly out of a guy’s brain (the guy is played by the great William Fichtner). Even though Fichtner’s character is on Earth, he’s a citizen of Elysium. Max is basically turned into cyborg in order to be able to extract the information from Fichtner’s character. However, that was incredibly important data so Rhodes sends down an assassin-type character played by Sharlto Copley.
Those were the major plot beats, but the driving force is that Max has five days to get off Earth, get to Elysium, save his life, and use the information from Fichtner’s brain to save the people on our planet.
Regarding the tone, the easiest way to describe it is “District 9 but bigger.” The movie has two distinct locations: the dusty ruins of Earth (which were shot in Mexico City) and the high-tech Elysium (which we didn’t really see because it’s so special-effects heavy). There are a bunch of elements that are in the vein of District 9 such as:
- Social disparity, in this case relating to wealth.
- Dirty environments; the ruined Earth bears a striking resemblance to the dirty Johannesburg from District 9
- Bloody destruction; if you loved how the weapons in District 9 obliterated people, Elysium is going to follow suit. One goodie we saw was when some guy gets hit with a ninja shuriken in the chest, and some other guy says “That’s not so bad,” and then the guy who was hit with the shuriken explodes.
But for all the great visuals (Blomkamp has once again taken his budget and made it look like far more than he had, and this was without even seeing a ton of special effects), what hooked me from the footage was that I cared about Max. Yeah, it’s awesome to see that Copley’s assassin wields a katana and uses a forcefield. But the hook came when Max, who’s bald, gets harassed by a couple of police droids who ask him what’s in his bags. “Hair products,” he responds.
Then they knock him to the ground and force him to visit his parole officer. And his parole officer is a robot. The bureaucracy is literally robotic. Blomkamp doesn’t handle this moment in a heavy-handed, preach way. It’s fun satire because immediately after seeing the robot bureaucrat, the robot says to Max, “You seem stressed. Would you like a sedative?” and then a tiny dish of pills pops up from the desk.
- The origin of the story was the idea of that the wealth had left Earth and been brought to a spaceship.
- Damon was drawn to the project because of Blomkamp. “It was a very easy decision for me,” says Damon because he was so impressed by District 9. But beyond that, Blomkamp showed Damon a graphic novel he had done that was on Blomkamp’s computer. And then there was a book about the weaponry and another about the vehicles. “Normally, we don’t get to see the movie before we’re in it,” but Damon says there was so much information here, and there was no way he was going to let this project get away.
- Foster thought District 9 was a perfect film and she wished she had directed it. But she wanted to work with Blomkamp, she got the script, and she was in. She liked how he was able to marry big ideas with big action.
- Blomkamp says the theme is obviously about wealth disparity, but it needed to take place inside interesting environment. It became a science fiction place he wanted to see the story and characters evolve inside of. “But layered on top of that is a ton of explosions.”
- Copley was attracted because he gets to play a fun, entertaining villain that’s different than what you would expect from him.
- Kinberg also wanted to work with Blomkamp. and liked the blending of social ideas with a bloody sci-fi action film.
- When asked about the hardest roles they ever played, Damon says the hardest thing was trying to get a job at the beginning of his career. It was incredibly frustrating and difficult, but ultimately he got to do what he loved. There hasn’t been a “challenge” ever since he got his foot in the door since his job doesn’t feel like work since he loves it. Foster says she’s always had a very intellectual approach to films. She processes things in her head first, such as Nell, which was a challenge because the character is nothing like her.
- Damon felt like there wasn’t a question Blomkamp couldn’t answer about Elysium. He talks about being unable to stump Blomkamp, and how he could explain stuff like why the space station was shaped the way it was.
- Copley says the transformation from anonymity to stardom has caused him to move around a lot. He’s currently trying to figure out how to play Angelina Jolie‘s true love (in Maleficent). He says he feels blessed to have this opportunity, and it was given to him by this audience in Hall H three years ago at the District 9 panel. He adds that it’s incredible to work with actors of this caliber.
- Blomkamp says Foster is on the set with the most green screen, and the stuff with the robots and droids are guys in motion capture suits so there’s something to play off. The danger is when the actor is playing off a non-human creature and is acting against a tennis ball on a stick.
- Foster said Blomkamp prepares and has great discipline and passion which allows him to make what looks like a $250 million movie even though it was made for less money than that.
- Blomkamp’s approach to Elysium was similar to District 9. “It’s an equally scaled up version. You’re trying to push the budget far beyond what the budget can sustain.” The pressure on the crew remained at a high level. Blomkamp went on to say they wanted to get more reality so they went to Mexico City rather than try to dress up Vancouver. He said how some crew members thought Vancouver was tough, and Blomkamp knew that they were going to go to Mexico City, and thought “You guys have no idea what you have in store.”
- When they were in Mexico City, they shot at a sewage plant and the world’s second largest landfill. So when the helicopter comes by and sweeps up dust, a large amount of that dust is fecal matter. Matt Damon said after a scene like that, Blomkamp would come over, take off his respirator and say “I promise you: The footage looks terrific.”
- In another part of the film, Max had to hide under a pig cart. But then for the more extreme shots, they put Damon’s stunt double under the pig cart, but because the helicopters overheard had so riled up the pigs, they ended up pissing all over Damon’s poor stunt double.
- For Damon, he says that when it comes to acting, he tries to work out all the little details before hand and then he can play with the character after he arrives on set.
Judging by the footage, Elysium has the goods where it counts. The action looks terrific (and we saw a lot of action), but more importantly it has a compelling protagonist, serious stakes, and thoughtful subtext. Blomkamp appears to once again have blended great sci-fi with a kick-ass action flick. I was already excited about Elysium, but it’s easily now one of my most-anticipated films of next year.
Elysium opens March 1, 2013.