The Project: Elysium
The Panel: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, writer-director Neill Blomkamp, producer Simon Kinberg
Footage Screened: Blomkamp prefaced the screening admitting that the only time he’s comfortable with the “salesmanship” aspect of his job is when he is screening footage at Comic-Con for true fans. And even though almost all of the visual effects were very much in the rough stages, he did not skimp on delivering some tasty new footage.
It’s 2154. Earth, explains some title cards, is “diseased, polluted, and vastly over-populated.” It’s a wasteland, packed so tight with people that roofs of major skyscrapers have been converted into slums. So the very wealthy have escaped to Elysium, a vast, circular space station in a far orbit around Earth where there is no poverty, no sickness, and no war. Over this explanation, we see a model-perfect woman in a palatial home getting scanned for, and cured of, cancer, in a matter of seconds.
In other words: Paradise, a perfect utopia. But as we see a space ship racing to get inside, we see a final title card: “And you are not invited.” The ship is shot down before it can ever get close.
We cut down to Earth, and Damon, a wise-acre factory grunt on some kind of criminal probation, whose probation officer is a dirty plastic robot who can perceive Damon’s sarcasm and dispense pills for mood disorders. One day, while making giant droids, Damon is trapped and irradiated, and told by another robot in a sing-song voice that he has five days to live.
His only chance of survival: Getting to Elysium to cure himself, but that is a bit…tricky. He turns to some underground criminal types, who enlist him in a risky heist of the data chip embedded in the skull one of of Elysium’s citizens working on Earth, played by a sleek William Fitchner, who speaks with an intriguingly clipped, almost robotic accent. To pull it off, Damon is essentially converted into a cyborg, fitted with a pneumatic exo-skeleton that is literally drilled into his skull.
The attack on Fitchner alerts Elysium, run by Foster – also speaking with that same robotic accent – who enlists the station’s nearest Earth-bound agent to help out, played by a dirty, bearded Copley. He spends the rest of the reel delivering as much pain as possible on Damon, who eventually makes it to Elysium. We also got a quick glimpse of Alice Braga, playing a mother desperate to get her sick son to Elysium.
The footage ended with the implication that the data stored in Fitchner’s cranium is perhaps somehow powerful enough to cause serious damage to Elysium.
Snap Judgment: Personally, I found it thrilling: Brutal, dark, and riveting, and deeply relevant. But perhaps because there were no aliens, or the visual effects were unfinished, or the storyline was more complex than your standard studio tentpole – and therefore hard to follow in a compressed sizzle reel – Hall H seemed to greet the footage with measured enthusiasm. There were big cheers, for sure, but not the kind of raucous reception I witnessed when District 9 debuted in Hall H three years ago.
The Big Revelations: Unlike the other two Sony projects that came before it, Looper and Total Recall (more on them shortly), this was the first anyone had seen or heard pretty much anything from Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his widely acclaimed 2009 sci-fi touchstone District 9.
Damon revealed that to sell him on the role, Blomkamp showed him a detailed, graphic-novel-like book about the universe of the film, and then corresponding books on weaponry and vehicles. “I had never seen anything like it,” Damon said, “but it was completely familiar to me.” Of course, the actor needed no sales pitch anyway. “After I saw District 9, if Neill had called me and said ‘This is Neill Blomkamp, do you want to be in my next movie?’, I would’ve said yes.”
Even though Elysium had a bigger budget than District 9, Blomkamp still endeavored to push the production past his financial limitations. Which meant shooting on in a Mexico City garbage dump, the second-largest in the world. Naturally.
As Damon explained, “The dust [in the dump] is mostly dried fecal matter.” After one sequence, he and Sharlto Copley were black from the dust, and Blomkamp walked up to them. “He said, ‘I promise you, the photography looks great.’” That was easy compared to Damon’s poor stunt double, who ended one particularly harrowing sequence soaked in pig urine. Ew!
Most Randomly Revelatory Audience Question: After Damon misheard a questioner and thought he was claiming to be Matt Damon, the conversation randomly turned to the 2004 Trey Parker-Matt Stone marionette action comedy Team America: World Police, which famously featured a Damon puppet that was essentially mentally handicapped. Cue Jodie Foster: “That is my favorite movie of all time!” Whoa.