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Hall H at Comic-Con International was packed for the exclusive debut of footage from the upcoming sci-fi thriller Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp’s highly anticipated follow-up to 2009’s District 9. Blomkamp was joined by stars Matt Damon, Jodi Foster and Sharlto Copley, who discussed their characters, the film’s themes, and the unorthodox conditions endured while shooting.
The director explained he’d be showing seven minutes of footage that was captured last year, and the visual effects would still be incredibly rough – pre-visual, gray-shaded and low-resolution. After setting up the reel, he told the audience he was “quite excited” to show them a first-ever glimpse Elysium.
Frankly, the movie looks completely bad-ass – like District 9 on steroids, with many of the same themes at play – a dystopian future world where the rich and the poor are separated. Only here the wealthy no longer even live on Earth; they inhabit a space station called Elysium, headed by Secretary Rhodes (Foster). Those less fortunate live in a bleak, dusty, overpopulated wasteland of slums alongside robots. One such man is Max, played by Damon – he’s an ex-con who works at a steel factory and is involved in an accident that causes him radioactive exposure said to result in death within five days. He knows they can fix him on Elysium, a place where disease is easily treated, and is shown consulting with two men, one of whom tells Max if he performs a job in his favor, he’ll get him there. The only problem is it involves plugging into a high-powered executive’s brain and downloading information into his own. “This can be your ticket up there,” the man tells him. Max agrees, and then asks, “Is this shit gonna hurt?” We then see him undergo graphic back-room brain surgery, in which he’s fitted with a microchip and mechanical metal straps on his arms.
The unveiling of his new look is decidedly crazy, and he’s given airburst ammunition, and then pursues his subject, battling men and robots alike. Also pursuing him, though, is Copley as what appears to be a completely unhinged bounty hunter. As Max zeroes in on his target, Copley cuts away men left and right, in one shot wielding throwing stars that explode a victim upon contact. Shots of the Elysium space station are, as Blomkamp said, rough, but the station is a hollow circular model, sleek and modern in comparison to the poverty of Earth. Max finds himself with the key to overriding the entire system, saying, “We’re breaking into the most heavily guarded place in the fucking universe,” and a battle to equalize the classes is clearly set into motion.
In the applause-laden afterglow of the footage, Damon admitted he took the job because of Blomkamp’s District 9. He said, as a cherry on top of the fantastic script, Blomkamp had also created a graphic novel on his computer, “with this entire world that he’d built that was just in such incredible detail, and so arresting.” He said there were also corresponding books about weaponry and another about vehicles – all equally impressive.
Foster echoed Damon’s sentiments, saying, “I saw District 9 and I felt like it was a perfect film. I wish that I directed that movie! After I got over the jealousy I just said, ‘I want to work with this guy.’ Luckily the script came in and there was a girl in it!”
Blomkamp addressed the similarities in theme to his previous film, admitting, “There’s no question that the theme is about wealth discrepancy, and the separation between rich and poor, but primarily in a science fiction setting, for the story to take place inside of it.”
Copley called the opportunity to work once more with his District 9 director “incredible,” to which the audience responded with cheers and applause. “It was a defining moment of my life when I came here in 2009,” he said. “I’m not going to cry, because my character needs to look tough! You don’t get a chance to do entertaining original villains very often.”
Blomkamp described the approach to the film as, “Incredibly similar to District 9. It’s an equally scaled-up version where you’re trying to push the budget farther than the budget would sustain.”
He went on to describe the difficulties of shooting in the slums of Mexico City, among them one the world’s second-largest garbage dump, saying, “There was a morning when we drove into that garbage dump. … The sun was just coming up and the car all of a sudden smelled like a sewage processing plant. You just wear your respirator and go to work! And then a sandstorm comes, which is made of dried fecal matter … but the photography looks awesome!”
Damon recalled the conditions, saying, “It was like helicopters kicking up that poop. They told us that the dust was comprised mostly of fecal matter! At the end of these scenes, these helicopters would come through and we’d be black with dust and we’d look at each other … and Neill would come up with his respirator on and he’d be like, ‘I promise you, the photography looks great!’ I always knew why I was there – it was one of those things where I was still so happy to be there, I just tired not to think about it.”
While describing one of the movie’s more difficult stunts within the garbage dump, Blomkamp and Damon laughed recalling one particularly awful day endured by a stunt man, who had to act among a mass of pigs spooked by a helicopter’s noise. “The pigs had already been so riled up by the chopper,” Blomkamp said, “The pigs basically urinated on him for the entire take while the chopper kicked up the dirt on him.”
Damon added, “He said it was the toughest stunt he’s ever done!”
Elysium opens March 1, 2013.