May 24, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT


Director Neill Blomkamp is no stranger to fantastical science-fiction settings. In District 9, he created an alien slum outside Johannesburg. But that was just a warm-up for Elysium, a dystopian thriller that features two distinctive visions of a sci-fi future. In the film’s 2154, the rich live on an orbiting space station called Elysium, while the poor — including blue-collar worker Max (Matt Damon) — live on a polluted Earth. The movie’s aesthetic is miles from the current vogue for glittery sci-fi. ”A lot of films nowadays have that iPod, slick future look. I wanted our design to feel a little bit more classic,” says Blomkamp, who collaborated on concepts with artist Syd Mead, a ”futurist” whose credits include Blade Runner and TRON. For the space station, the filmmakers looked to a design called the Stanford torus, theorized by NASA in the mid-’70s. ”It’s basically a gigantic bicycle wheel that spins to give it a gravitational field,” says production designer Philip Ivey (who also worked on District 9). ”The inner surface is lined with hundreds of mansions.” Those run the architectural gamut from faux Tuscan to ultramodern. ”Even in the future, the rich people don’t necessarily have taste,” jokes Ivey. ”It’s Bel Air in space.”

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