On Monday in Hollywood, writer-director Neill Blomkamp, star Sharlto Copley and producer Simon Kinberg joined lead actor Matt Damon from his own simulcast in Berlin to show the new trailer that debuted today, plus 10 minutes of footage from their upcoming futuristic thriller Elysium.
Afterwards, Damon answered a few questions via satellite before Copley, Blomkamp and Kinberg headed upstairs for a longer Q&A to discuss how they feel Elysium builds on the themes from District 9.
Like District 9, the modestly budgeted South African thriller that grossed $210 million worldwide and launched Blomkamp and Copley's global careers, Elysium is a dystopian science fiction flick with a real world bent. District 9 was about the haves and have-nots in South Africa. Elysium expands that idea to the solar system. On earth, the poor live in squalid 60-story skyscrapers and get roughed up by robot policeman. In the sky, the rich live in a space station called Elysium where robots serve them beverages as they lounge by the pool. It's the ultimate gated community, and the setting for a flick about the ultimate break-in.
While the trailer doesn't reveal much -- Blomkamp enjoys secrecy -- the footage was more revealing. Damon plays Max Coburn, an earthbound ex-con in future Los Angeles trying to reform with a low-paying factory job. “He's been in and out of trouble his whole life,” said Damon, which explains the thuggish neck tattoos that look a little odd paired with Damon's snub-nosed, clean-cut looks. After a work accident leaves Max seriously injured, he vows to make it to Elysium for the cure.
But first, the people helping him get there demand a favor - one that requires implanting Max with a new metal brain stem and robot exoskeleton. He'll need both to fight off the main villain: an Elysium security guard (a heavily bearded Copley, looking like a demented version of Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables) who's a little too eager to blow up space shuttles of desperate refugees. Except for calmly ordering two droids to shoot-to-kill, Copley's character barely spoke in the footage we saw, but he looks as gloriously unhinged as he did in District 9, even though here the outspoken improv actor actually had to memorize lines.
“The South African is the villain again,” joked Copley, who's gone from playing District 9 hapless hero to Elysium's brutal heavy. He and Blomkamp considered making his bad guy British or Eastern European, but finally settled on a specific type of local bush soldier who disappears into the wild for months at a time. “We just undid all the work we did for our country.”
From the footage shown, Elysium's modern day parallels about health care and immigration are sharply drawn. The wealthy slip into Prometheus-esque medical pods and cure their own cancer as easily as grabbing a quick tan. The poor are left to die—and if they try to fly to Elysium for help, monitors like Jodie Foster quickly alert the guards to blast the “undocumented" ships from the sky.
According to Damon, Blomkamp mapped out and illustrated Elysium's segregated worlds a full year before shooting even began. To contrast with the eerie green and blue beauty of the space station, Blomkamp committed to shooting the earth scenes at the grungiest locations he could find in Mexico City: the second largest garbage dump in the world, and an outdoor sewer that the locals called, “Poo River.”
“I'm painting ridiculous ideas with a brush of reality,” said Blomkamp. “Proper science was thrown out of the window a little bit. Building a space station with marble and slate is semi-not-that-smart. It's not really something that you want to do. But the metaphor of Bel Air in space is correct, so you just work towards that. So my approach is: start off with something ridiculous, and then try to use the most realistic portrayal of the ridiculous as you can.”
Still, Blomkamp stressed that Elysium wasn't directly inspired by current events like the Occupy movement. “It's just being interested in the world,” he said. Plus, he recognizes that $100 million movies aren't the most-straightforward way to change the world. “You can put ideas in there that are real issues,” said Blomkamp, but added that if he really wanted to affect the global conversation, he'd make a documentary. “That would be the closest I could come to trying to make a difference.”
As for if the much buzzed-about District 9 sequel is still on the table, Blomkamp merely said, “I think the world of District 9 had a lot of very interesting race and oppression-based ideas that I would still like to explore,” before talking cryptically about the “iconic characters,” he'd love to take his own crack at. Alas, Disney isn't likely to invite him to turn Jar Jar Binks into a metaphor for global inequality.
But even though Elysium isn't a direct sequel to District 9, the two share enough of the same ideas that they look like the natural progression of an imaginative director who got Hollywood to quadruple his last budget. Now, the pressure is: with Damon onboard, can Blomkamp's second shot at folding social satire into a sci-fi flick at least double District 9's box office–and maybe even get a serious chance from the Academy Award for Best Picture?
Elysium hits theaters on August 9, 2013.