Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama
Synopsis: In the year 2154, 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. The people of Earth are desperate to escape the crime and poverty that is now rampant throughout the land. The only man with the chance to bring equality to these worlds is Max (Matt Damon), an ordinary guy in desperate need to get to Elysium. With his life hanging in the balance, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission – one that pits him against Elysium's Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her hard-line forces – but if he succeeds, he could save not only his own life, but millions of people on Earth as well.
Release Date: August 15th, 2013
In 2009, Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene with his first feature film, District 9. It was an enormous critical and commercial success: critics praised Neill Blomkamp's filmmaking style, and audiences around the world turned out to the box office to support the film's originality and innovation. But the reason it resonated was that the movie had themes that grabbed the audience: the way the film seamlessly blended a genre alien-invasion movie with biting and relevant social commentary pleased both moviegoing audiences and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who nominated the movie for Oscars® for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
In his new film, Elysium, Neill Blomkamp has returned to the realm of science fiction to draw two distinct and separate worlds: an overpopulated, ruined Earth, and Elysium, a man-made space station for the extremely wealthy. While in 2013, six astronauts live and work on the international space station orbiting about 250 miles above the surface of the earth, 150 years from now, in Neill Blomkamp's vision, those humble beginnings will expand to become a home with the best of everything for the rich. 'The idea, in a way, is ludicrous," says Neill Blomkamp. 'The idea of taking up stone, and mortar, and concrete, and swimming pools – and everything you'd need to build these mansions in a space station – is satire. It just reinforces the central idea of the film – the people of Elysium have unimaginable wealth, and they use those resources to build a separate, synthetic, almost hermetic environment for themselves. In that way, Elysium is the reverse of an alien-invasion story – it's still about human beings trying to protect a way of life, but instead of fighting for Earth, they do it by going into space."
Neill Blomkamp based his ideas for a perfect world apart from a desperate, ruined Earth on real-life concepts. 'Back in the -70s, people were actually discussing the idea of leaving Earth and building space stations for us to potentially live on one day. One of the top answers to that challenge was the Stanford Torus. I like the idea of taking this well-known science-fiction concept and caking it with wealth, diamonds and Bel Air-style mansions – the idea, the image, of putting these exorbitant, ridiculous mansions on a doughnut-shaped space station is hilarious to me, and it becomes something I want to make a movie about."
Simon Kinberg, who produces the film with Neill Blomkamp and Bill Block, says that the non-stop action of Elysium and the political subtext of the film mesh well together, because both come out of who Neill Blomkamp is as a writer and director. 'First and foremost, Elysium is an action movie, but the thing about Neill is that he happens to be very interested in the world and politics," he says. 'There are themes in the movie that you wouldn't expect from a summer action movie, but hopefully, a moviegoer can see the movie and enjoy the action experience, but have something seep in about the real world as well."
'Neill Blomkamp has the gravitas and expertise as a filmmaker to deliver a crackling action thriller that also tackles serious themes and subjects," adds Bill Block, the CEO of QED International, which also produced District 9. 'After our experience with Neill on District 9, we were thrilled to do this one with Modi Wiczyk and MRC."
'I want to blow things up as much as I want to make films that are about serious topics," Neill Blomkamp says. 'I'm more of a visual artist than anything else. I don't want to make movies that are too serious – I like action and visual imagery, and that's where it starts for me. But I'm also interested in politics, so once I've set up the world and start getting into character and story, the political ideas that intrigue me work their way in there. The subjects that interest me tend to be large, sociological concepts, and I like the idea of making films about those concepts in ways that aren't heavy-handed or preachy – I hope that putting these topics in a science-fiction setting will let the audience look at them from a different perspective. The most important thing to me is that the movie is entertaining, but I like to put a worthwhile story underneath, so it isn't just pure popcorn."
Just as District 9 explored ideas of social justice, class separation, and race relations, Elysium asks important questions about where we are now in a context of where we are going. 'The entire film is an allegory," he says. 'I tend to think a lot about the topic of wealth discrepancy and how that affects immigration, and I think the further we go down the path that we are on, the more the world will represent the one in Elysium. In that sense, I think the questions that underlie the film are quite accurate."
Neill Blomkamp says that while the setting is sci-fi, the heart of the conflict is more real than one might realise. 'When people see the wealth of Elysium back-to-back with the poverty of Earth, I think some will think that it's more extreme than reality – and it is not. The two things exist, on Earth, right now," he says. 'In Mexico City, in Johannesburg, in Rio, you have pockets of great wealth, gated communities, amidst a sea of poverty. And I think that's where the cities of the US are going to end up, too – that's why the movie is set in Los Angeles. But that disparity can't last. And I don't know what we're going to get – whether we're going to pull ourselves forward or self-implode. Elysium is the fork in the road."
The idea of juxtaposing images of extreme poverty and extraordinary wealth is one that has stuck with Neill Blomkamp for a long time – in fact, he experimented with combining those images in photoshopped pictures years ago. 'One photograph he made was of kids playing in a village in the Sudan, with the Hollywood sign in the deep background. Another was an overpopulated bus from India, driving through Red Square. That kind of image is interesting, even shocking, in a way that works well for the film," says Simon Kinberg.
At the center of the chaos on Earth, between the two worlds, is Max, played by Matt Damon. 'Max needs to get to Elysium to save himself, but in his desperation, he gets involved in a plot that makes him realise that the problem is much bigger than him," says Neill Blomkamp. 'And he ends up fighting for something more than himself, fighting to save other people on Earth."
Jodie Foster stars opposite Matt Damon as Secretary Delacourt, the hardline official determined to protect Elysium for the wealthy. 'She sees Elysium as a utopia – what Earth could have been, but wasn't," says Jodie Foster. 'Her job is to keep the immigrants out of this new habitat. She's finding herself handcuffed by a new, more liberal administration, but she remembers how Earth fell apart and why they created Elysium in the first place. She knows what will happen – it'll end up just like Earth. If you try to give Elysium to everybody, you'll end up giving it to nobody."
Sharlto Copley – Neill Blomkamp's childhood friend and the star of District 9 – re-teams with the director to take on the pivotal and villainous role of Kruger. 'He's ex-Special Forces, now a gun-for-hire operative, a professional soldier who works on Earth for the elite of Elysium," explains Neill Blomkamp.
'Sharlto Copley will always find a way to make things funny – even subconsciously," says Neill Blomkamp. 'Even in the most extreme, dire situation, there's a natural, sardonic humour that comes out of him. He never, ever plays it straight. I provide the parameters for the character, and he turns it into a magnetic performance, that, to me, is extremely satisfying to watch."
Sharlto Copley was able to draw on his unique experiences to create the character. 'Kruger wasn't written as a South African, but I saw a way to play him that way," he says. 'I drew on two South African stereotypes to try and create a unique character that you've never seen before. Firstly, for his accent and sarcastic humour I drew on these guys from -The South' – a tough neighbourhood south of Johannesburg. Secondly, for the military aspect, there was a unit in the South African Defense Force during the apartheid years called 3-2 Battalion. It was a notorious but highly respected battalion – they fought in Angola during the -Bush Wars,' trying to stop the spread of Communism in Africa. Kruger's beard, his PT shorts and his utterly lethal military ability was inspired by them."
Like Sharlto Copley, the cast of Elysium is rounded out by a variety of actors that might not be well-known in America, but are extremely famous in their home countries. 'The notion of this movie being multicultural and multinational was built into its DNA," says Kinberg. 'We have two lead actors from Brazil, Alice Braga and Wagner Moura – Wagner in Brazil is a star on the level of Will Smith or Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in the rest of the world. Diego Luna is a huge star in Mexico. We wanted the movie to look like the world in which we live."
'This is not obvious casting," says Wagner Moura, who is the star of Brazil's highest-grossing film of all time, Elite Squad 2. 'Neill Blomkamp could have hired any actor in LA he wanted. Why bring in this guy from Brazil? But I think with the subject of this film – which is so much about social differences – having a multinational ensemble helps."
In Elysium, Wagner Moura plays Spider, an underworld kingpin he describes as 'a cross between a revolutionary and a human trafficker – a coyote; he's a guy who helps people get into Elysium illegally. The question is, why didn't he want to go to Elysium himself? And the answer is that he doesn't want to be a part of Elysium – he has bigger plans in mind."
Alice Braga plays Frey, Max's childhood friend – though their paths have diverged. 'They were kids together in an orphanage," Alice Braga explains. 'They've become almost like family, even though life has taken them in different directions. She always wanted to be a nurse, and she went for that dream and fought for it. Max, on the other hand, got drawn into a very hard world. So even though they have missed each other for part of their lives, the underlying relationship was always there. When they reunite, they pick up where they left off."
The film was primarily shot in two locations: Mexico City, which doubles for Los Angeles in 2154, and Vancouver, which doubles for Elysium. 'Vancouver is the ultimate choice for Elysium – it's so clean and so safe, with a very high standard of living. On the other hand, everything about Mexico City seemed correct to represent the film's vision for L.A. in the future," says Neill Blomkamp. 'The city lights are the same as L.A, the sprawling topography, the size, the sunlight and pollution, and when you consider the demographic shift that L.A. will go through in the next hundred years, Mexico City was a great choice for the accelerated, one-hundred-years-in-the-future version of LA in our film."
Neill Blomkamp says that Mexico City has an energy to it that is hard to describe but was important to capture. 'When you're unfamiliar with parts of the world that some people call the -third world' – parts of Mexico City, or parts of India, or parts of China, or parts of Johannesburg – it's difficult to know what it's like for the people who live there. There is complete poverty and it's difficult to get medical care – but there's also a vibrancy and an optimism to life there that I wanted to get into this film," he says.
'Neill Blomkamp's aesthetic sensibility is about making things real, and that comes through both in the locations and the action," says Kinberg. One of the other aspects of District 9 that captured audiences and critics was that at times, the film felt real – dramatic scenes, mockumentary footage, and real news video were all part of the same story. Kinberg says that Neill Blomkamp brings the same sensibility to Elysium. 'The sun is real, the smoke is real, the smell is real. The chaos, struggle, and danger of the city informs and infects the movie. Physical action feels gritty, real, dirty, in a way that you don't usually see in a science fiction action movie."
Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Muyzers re-teams with Neill Blomkamp after collaborating with the director on District 9. 'District 9 was fairly straightforward – we had a real environment, and we put characters into that environment as realistically as we could," he says. 'On Elysium, it was almost the other way around – Neill Blomkamp wanted to create a world that didn't exist, but had to look absolutely believable. We created the environment into which we inserted live-action characters. Because of what Elysium is – the home of the very rich – we did lots of research. Neill Blomkamp provided us with images and video of Beverly Hills and Hollywood and the luxury lifestyle. We coordinated closely with Phil Ivey, the production designer, to determine the size of the ring, the width of the ring, how many people could live on Elysium, and how many houses would there be, what do these houses look like, what kind of infrastructure would there be and then obviously, how you get to Elysium. We ended up with a ring three kilometers wide, with a diameter of sixty kilometers – that translates to about a half-million people, living on this space station."