Neill Blomkamp unveils new footage from the Matt Damon science-fiction film ‘Elysium’

Sony Pictures held an event today in Hollywood to introduce new footage from Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” the first film from the acclaimed science-fiction director since his breakthrough debut, “District 9.” Ralph Garman moderated the event, which featured in-theater appearances by Blomkamp, actor Sharlto Copley, and producer Simon Kinberg. The star of the film, Matt Damon, is in Germany right now shooting the movie “Monuments Men,” and so he was patched in via satellite from a theater in Berlin. The new trailer, which arrives online tomorrow, was the first thing shown, and then there was a ten-minute reel prepared specifically for the event. At the end of the footage, Garman asked Damon what he thought of what he saw. Damon waited for the satellite delay, then answered, “Well, we’re in Berlin watching it, so I have to say that I’m impressed. My German was flawless.”

It’s fitting that the event was staged on an international scale, since the movie was an international affair. The film is a very immediate science-fiction metaphor that deals with the real-world divisions between the haves and the have-nots right now, and in order to create a stark difference between the perfect world of the Elysium space station and the left-behind slum that is the Earth, Blomkamp shot the Earth footage in Mexico City, and everything on Elysium in Vancouver. He did his best two treat the two parts of the production as totally independent units, and it pays off in the visual contrast we saw even in the ten minutes of footage they showed us.

Matt Damon plays a guy who lives on Earth. He’s an ex-con, a guy who had a rough youth. He’s served time, and he’s trying to settle in to a “better” life. It’s a shitty system, though. We see how easy it is for the authorities to push Damon around, how hard it is for him to escape the life he’s been living. He has a factory job, and he’s happy to do it, but it’s a terrible job. When he’s involved in an incident involving a stuck door and a radiation leak, he is essentially thrown away like trash. He knows that there are machines on Elysium that could fix him instantly, and he also knows that there’s no legitimate way he’s going to ever get access to those machines.

The first thing that stuck out about today’s presentation was just how clearly we can already see that there is a certain aesthetic that defines a Neill Blomkamp film, a sort of grimy, hand-made quality to the technology. He told us today that “Aliens” is his favorite movie, and I’m going to bet that when Sigourney Weaver stepped out wearing that power loader, ready to fight the Queen Alien, that was the greatest single moment Blomkamp ever had in a movie theater. It resonates through his work. Here, Damon’s character realizes that if he’s ever going to set foot on Elysium, he’s going to need to modify himself. He goes to a back-alley shop, and they do a surgical procedure that ends up grafting a sort of exoskeleton onto him, drilling deep into bone and tissue, and adding a dataport to his head that he’s going to use to hijack security information from an Elysium citizen who is visiting planet-side.

They had the new one-sheet for the film up in the lobby, and it’s a view of Damon from the back, after he’s had the augmentation. We saw a chunk of the hijack, and the person who he’s chasing is played by William Fichtner. He’s being guarded by Droids, and we see that for the most part, security forces have been mechanized. The augmentations just help Damon stand some sort of a chance in the fight. It’s a very brutal action sequence, and the process by which they grab the data from Fichtner’s head and transfer it into Damon’s is a very hands-on, organic, physical process that looks painful.

At the very end of the footage, we got a glimpse of Sharlto Copley as the bad guy in the film, Kruger. He is an Elysium operative who lives on Earth, waiting to be activated. When they need him, they reach out to him, and when the attack on Fichtner begins, Kruger gets the call. He moves in, and we saw just a hint of how deadly that confrontation is going to be when it finally happens.

Most of the on-stage Q&A was about the chemistry between Copley and Blomkamp. The biggest difference between this film and “District 9” is that this time around, it’s rigorously scripted. Copley was allowed to ad-lib his character in “District 9,” so in the months leading up to the shoot this time around, Blomkamp really emphasized that this was going to be a different process. They explored a number of options for what sort of accent his character would have and what his background would be, and they finally settled on a very specific Black Ops persona from South Africa, and Copley really lost himself in the character physically. He grew in this crazy homeless person beard and took on an accent that he says is very striking. They were careful not to show us any footage involving him speaking in the film, and Copley seems excited for people to see it in the context of the film.

It looks like the information that Damon steals from Fichtner is not just a security password, but is instead the key to the entire Elysium system, and Damon is suddenly the most dangerous man on Earth. After the footage presentation, a group of journalists were led to an upstairs lounge where we were able to ask some questions of Kinberg, Blomkamp, and Copley. The first thing asked was about how much of the movie takes place on Earth and how much of it takes place in Elysium. “Most of the film is on Earth,” Blomkamp said. “I wanted to make Elysium an aspiration for the characters and for the audience. It’s about the first two-thirds on Earth, and then a third of it on Elysium.”

Blomkamp was asked how much the events of the Occupy movement influenced the film.  “Hopefully it didn’t impact it at all,” he said. “I think there are things that are just on people’s minds. I remember reading something about Nolan trying to shoot something around the Occupy movement, and I realized I could be shooting something that could be reduced to a CNN sound bite, and that upset me.”

He was asked about the augmentations that they put on Damon and how long they took to apply each day. Blomkamp said he worked very hard to get product placement into this film so that it would feel grounded in a real world. His greatest accomplishment was getting Kawasaki to sign on, and on Damon’s arm devices, you’ll see their logo. “I personally wrote to companies I wanted to use in the movie. I wanted it to look grungy and low-end and real. He’s sick in the movie, and this makes him stronger. And as far as the practical application… there was a surprising amount of engineering that WETA had to do to make it work.”

Someone asked if the design of Sharlto’s character was them consciously trying to do something that was the opposite of who he played in “District 9,” and Blomkamp shook that idea off.  “I never wanted to go opposite just to go opposite. I try to find things that are appealing. I never start from what I’m trying not to do. Sharl built this based on these guys, these real Black Ops guys who lived on their own, and we saw photos of these guys, wearing just a pair of shorts and holding a beer, and with this big beard, celebrating after they just killed someone.”

Asked about the various mechanical ports we glimpsed on Copley’s face and arms, Blomkamp explained, “They’re metal implants drilled into his body. The ones on his face are for night vision. You can just click them on. The others… well, no, I don’t want to discuss that.”

Blomkamp talked about how hard he worked to explain just a hint of the history without doing a huge info dump at the start of the film. They’ve been fine-tuning it, putting more material in, then taking some of it out, and I’m curious to see how much of the history of the great Elysian emigration they have in the final film. “Part of me wanted to just put you there so you have to deal with it. There was a more aggressive version of the film where it just starts. I also shot some footage that explained the intro a little more. It’s about halfway. There’s some introduction, but not too much,” he said.

When asked about the research he did into real-world trends and technology, Blomkamp was quick to say that this is not meant as a prediction. “If you try to make a speculative piece of science-fiction, that’s a very different product. Proper science was thrown out the window in favor of metaphor and plot. Building a space station out of marble and slate is not that smart, but the metaphor of Bel Air in space works. Try to make the most realistic version of ridiculous that you can. You have to come from reality on some level, though.” That’s something I like about Blomkamp’s work. He wants to make these movies thrilling, and he wants to create a world that illustrates an idea, a world that plays out the drama from the moment you see the setting.

Damon Houx asked Blomkamp if he sees himself as a smuggler, hiding ideas in big mainstream packages. I don’t think Copley and Blomkamp knew the term “smuggler,” and they seemed delighted by it. “In terms of a commercial film, the amount of smuggling you get to do is limited. You’re on thin ice. You can put ideas in there that are real issues. There are ideas that interest me, and the film formulates out of that. If I wanted to make a real difference, I’d make a documentary. The film does talk about topics that have a big impact on me.”

He talked about the experience of shooting in Mexican shantytowns and how overwhelming it is. Obviously, they shot “District 9” in a very difficult part of the world. Asked what the comparisons were between the two, Blomkamp said, “Mexico is all about kidnappings and South Africa is all about carjacking. In the areas where we were, the random violence was very low and carefully planned kidnappings are very common. In Johannesburg, it’s the inverse of that. There are many similarities between Mexico and South Africa.”

Copley said, “I felt fairly safe in Mexico. I figured they’d go for Matt Damon before they’d go for me. The scale of Mexico City surprised me. The size of the place was astounding. I had no idea how big it was. We’d be flying in a helicopter, and it just goes on and on.”

Still laughing about Copley throwing Damon into harm’s way, Blomkamp said, “In Mexico, when you look out, it’s all concrete grey. If you complete a building, you have to start paying property tax, so people leave things unfinished. It gives the entire city a very strange cinematic look.”

Blomkamp told us that there is a way for people to join Elysium, that it’s not an impossible dream, but that it’s all based on wealth. “You can get citizenship for a certain amount of money. It’s very self-selecting.”

One of the most important questions for Blomkamp had to do with how both of these films have been original material that he’s generated. I know every single time we talk about existing franchises that are looking for new filmmakers, and I get it. I know why everyone says they want to see him do a “Star Wars” film or whatever, but I think Blomkamp elegantly addressed the question. “I don’t think I actively sit down and think I’m only going to do my own stuff. I still really like the universe of ‘Halo,’ and if I was given control, I’d like to do that film. The problem is when things pre-exist, there’s my interpretation, but there are 150 other people involved who all have their own interpretation, and the audience brings in theirs, as well. It really comes down to what I have to say, and these worlds give me a chance to say those things. I’ll sequelize my own stuff, and there are some pieces of cinema history that I’d love to be involved with. There are some characters I’d love to play with.” Since he mentioned that he loves “Alien,” someone asked if he’d be willing to make an “Alien” sequel if it was offered, and he nodded, serious as a heart attack. It really does come down to giving him something he can’t resist, and until that happens, I’m perfectly fine seeing him do his own thing.

During the footage presentation, Matt Damon talked about how he signed on because he loved “District 9,” and during his first meeting with Blomkamp, he was impressed by how much visual work Blomkamp had already done. A year out from the start of production, he had a huge book full of designs and visual ideas. Asked what was in that book, Blomkamp said, “I’m a visual artist before anything, and the amount of inspiration I get from the images is a massive part of the birth of the film. WETA was doing designs while I was writing. It’s all about painting a ridiculous image with a realistic brush. This is all industrial Lockheed type stuff, while ‘District 9’ was all based on alien designs. This film is particularly realistic. There’s a vehicle here that flies around on plasma energy, but we wanted it to look real.”

This isn’t a case of a movie with obvious villains. Kinberg pointed out that there is no simple black and white in terms of good guys and bad guys. The first scene for Jodie Foster’s character is her at home with her grandkids, and while her job is to make sure no one from Earth is able to access Elysium, she doesn’t relish those moments she has to do it. Blomkamp said, “It’s a mirror of how the West is now with immigration. Some people want to help the world, while other people want to close the walls. Sharl is a soldier on the ground who is does what he’s told.”

Copley added, “He’s not about politics. It’s just soldiering.”

Blomkamp described the character that Fichtner is playing, talking first about the sort of stilted manner of speech we heard in the scene we saw. Someone asked if Fichtner is playing a robot because of how he sounded. “The cadence is not robotic. There’s some satire in terms of his character, and he’s just a billionaire who is uninterested in small people who get in the way of him making a profit. That cadence, a lot of it came from Bill. He has no emotion when dealing with people who are below him. He’s rich and elitist.”

Blomkamp was asked if the character is based on people he’s dealt with in Hollywood, and Copley started laughing and looking around the room. “Where’s the publicist?”

Also laughing, Neill considered his answer. “Ummm… yes.”

Blomkamp talked about how hard it is for him to give anything about his film away ahead of time, but how he also understands the balance that must be struck. “I try to show as little as I can. But if you’re a responsible filmmaker in the 21st century, you can’t spend $100 million and then act like you’re going to keep something wrapped up completely. It’s part of how the system works. I like the film. I liked Comic-Con with ‘District 9.’ It fit. I feel like I’m the same as the people who will watch the film. You have to get the movie out there. I tried to limit this as much as I could.”

Finally, since Blomkamp was talking about the business of things, someone asked him if he views the action sequences in his films as what he has to do so he can make films about big ideas, and Blomkamp made it clear that he loves the set pieces and the action. “To me, I like films in this genre. My favorite film of all time is ‘Aliens.’ What ‘Elysium’ doesn’t have that I’d like to put in the next film is slime and eggs. It does have robots and suits and action, though. Cinema without those things, for me personally to be invested in it, it has to have that stuff in it. It also has to have things that interest me. I have to be engaged.”

It’s obvious that he’s engaged fully, and I look forward to seeing how Blomkamp brings it all together when “Elysium” opens on August 9, 2013.