Sometimes shooting on location allows you to experience the majestic landscapes of New Zealand or the old-world charm of a European capital. Other times, it means you’re standing next to an enormous mountain of garbage, throat burning and eyes watering as a helicopter’s blades spray dried fecal matter over every exposed inch of your body. Elysium was the latter case.
The socially conscious sci-fi action yarn takes place in 2159, when the world has been divided into two classes: The rich elite live aboard the titular high-tech orbital space station, and everyone else suffers down below on a withering Earth. To depict our planet’s unpromising future, writer-director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) took a trip to the outskirts of Mexico City to film at one of the world’s largest garbage dumps. ”The first day we drove in there, the smell came into the car and I was questioning if this was even possible,” says Blomkamp. ”I was like, ‘What have I done?”’
While the crew wore face masks and respirators, the actors didn’t have that luxury. ”From a hygienic standpoint, it was a DEFCON 1 couple of weeks,” says Matt Damon, laughing. ”Neill did get a little bit of enjoyment pointing out it wasn’t dirt we were covered in, but fecal matter. We’d say, ‘Man, I’m dirty,’ and he would be like, ‘Well, not technically.”’ Although the experience wasn’t pleasant, Damon says he was happy to hold his nose for Blomkamp’s vision. The actor plays Max, a resident of Earth who gets irradiated at his factory job and must break into Elysium to cure himself using the station’s advanced medical technology. His plan involves abducting an Elysian resident (William Fichtner) and making a brain-to-brain transfer. ”It becomes this act of desperation for him just to get to Elysium,” says Damon. ”And he’ll basically do anything.”
Max’s efforts put him on the wrong side of the Elysium Corporate Authority (headed by Jodie Foster), which dispatches a nasty problem-fixer named Kruger, played with psychotic glee by District 9 star Sharlto Copley. ”He’s definitely off his rocker,” says Blomkamp of the character. ”Every time he comes on screen, there’s a smile on my face.” Kruger carries a number of deadly gadgets, including a samurai-style sword, and he’s so intense and off-putting that the actor needed to rein in his typical process of improvisation. ”I had a five-second rule for Kruger,” says Copley. ”I couldn’t be in character for more than five seconds off camera so I wouldn’t mess up the vibe on set. He’s not a nice guy.”
Science fiction has always been a strong avenue for social commentary — the first great sci-fi film, 1927’s silent Metropolis, was set in a future strikingly similar to Elysium‘s — and Blomkamp’s film plucks a number of political strings: immigration, health care, wealth disparity, pollution. ”For me, my films always seem to begin with something that’s more of a conceptual thought,” says Blomkamp. ”I was like, ‘It would be really interesting to make a film on the science-fiction level about the haves and the have-nots.’ Then I started messing around with the idea, and it started to just write itself.” But he also hopes Elysium will give your heartbeat a workout along with your brain. ”All that social stuff is somewhere in there,” says Damon, ”but none of it is heavy-handed. It’s ultimately an entertaining, fun, big summer movie.”
Blomkamp, who made the F/X-driven District 9 for only $30 million, says Elysium similarly punches above its weight despite a heftier cost of nearly $100 million. ”Elysium tries to achieve the same ratio of budget to quality that District 9 did,” he says. Another thing the films have in common: D9 was also filmed at a garbage dump. ”That’s definitely a repeating theme with Neill,” says Copley. ”I always know when I work with him that I’m going to experience some new and interesting smells.”