District 9 director Neill Blomkamp follows his breakthrough hit with another sci-fi war of the worlds starring Matt Damon armed to the teeth by Weta Workshop. Michele Manelis reports
It might be his bigger-budget, bigger-star, bigger-everything second movie after his remarkable debut District 9, but director Neill Blomkamp is still slumming it.
Only he's gone from the shantytowns of his native South Africa - above which he parked a stranded alien mothership in his 2009 Oscar-nominated box-office hit - to a Third World Los Angeles of 2154.
And like the Johannesburg of District 9, this future LA also has something very big floating above it. That's Elysium, a 3km wide, 60km round space station, 400km above Earth. It is home to the thousands rich enough to join its orbiting residential country club.
Below, the rest of the world fights for survival. And though the film's set-up may deliver echoes of everything from Logan's Run to Wall-E, Blomkamp says Elysium isn't about the way the world might become, but the way it already is.
"This film isn't futuristic, it's about now," he says, his accent showing mixed traces of his South African upbringing and his years since spent in Canada.
"I'm probably more pessimistic than most people, and whether I'm right or wrong, in my humble opinion we'll drive ourselves into the ground. It simply will get worse and worse. We're not able to control the population levels and we don't have enough resources for the amount of people we're creating. There'll be a Malthusian catastrophe."
Despite those philosophical undercurrents, it is also a film featuring Matt Damon and some very big guns.
Damon plays a factory-worker-turned-revolutionary who tries to get to Elysium - and its excellent healthcare facilities - after being exposed to a lethal dose of toxic radiation on the job.
It's Damon's first action role since finishing the Bourne trilogy. That it was a big-blast sci-fi movie with an underlying message helped persuade him to sign on.
"I make all my decisions based on the director, but with Elysium there was the added benefit of if being a big movie that was original; it wasn't a franchise, it wasn't a superhero movie, or a remake. Now that is hard to find.
"It's great to have the huge popcorn entertaining movie but it needs to have a soul if anybody is going to remember it. This is not a movie people will instantly forget."
Damon's appearance is certainly memorable. He spends much of the movie bald and strapped into a performance-enhancing exoskeleton - one of the many design elements in the film created by Weta Workshop, which also worked on the Peter Jackson-produced District 9.
Says Damon: "Those Weta Workshop guys are just awesome. They put this thing through so many levels of R&D because I needed to be completely mobile in it. They'd send me videos of these stunt guys in New Zealand doing somersaults and jumping jacks until they got to a place of 100 per cent mobility. It weighed 25 pounds and was distributed over my whole body so it didn't feel like I was carrying around a barbell."
Blomkamp also cast Sharlto Copley, his District 9 star and childhood friend, as a maniacal assassin. Jodie Foster stars as the Hillary Clinton-esque administrator of Elysium.
"I thought if I had a few world-famous actors that would work in its favour. It makes it more like an event. And with Matt, he's done such diverse work, critically acclaimed stuff and the Bourne total action movies. When I met him for the role, I didn't know anyone in that category back then, and he was so approachable and normal and smart, and interested in doing the film for the right reasons, that I thought it would be cool to make a film with this guy."
The cast includes Brazil's Alice Braga (City of God, On The Road), and Mexican star Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Milk).
But arguably the real stars of Elysium are the two worlds Blomkamp has created. The space station was inspired by a drawing that Syd Mead - the futurist conceptual designer whose work has featured in Blade Runner, Tron and Alien - did for a Nasa space station for National Geographic in the 1980s.
"It was a visual concept where thematically they'd be separate from Earth and it just clicked with me."
The Elysium residents have access to cure-all healthcare and look down on the Earth much like the residents in the hills of today's Los Angeles gaze out at the city's poorer neighbourhoods. The desolated L.A. of the future was shot in a Mexico City slum which is situated on a garbage dump.
"I liked the inherent satire of it," Blomkamp says. "The rich live in Beverly Hills-style mansions on the space station and they took all the wealth with them from Earth.
"It's the same question I ask myself: 'Why does Cedars Sinai hospital in LA have MRIs and why does the Sudan not?"'
"I grew up in South Africa with the wealth discrepancy and it never really left me. I always think about it and when I go to countries I always seek out the worst or most poverty-stricken areas. That thinking is always in the back of my mind and I knew that one day I'd make a film about that."
Elysium was made for a reported budget of US$100 million ($127 million) - more than three times the budget of District 9, which was done for US$30 million and earned US$211 million.
"I wanted Elysium to be different from District 9. I wanted the scope of the film to be greater and the epic-ness of it to be bigger on every level."
And it has bigger ideas too. So does Blomkamp feel the end is nigh?
"We're at a unique time in history where technology is at the point where it might help think us out of the problem. I think it's like a fork in the road - it's 50:50 about whether we're doomed.
"I think for humanity to survive we will have to go into space. The rich and the poor are a metaphor, but it's not really about that. If you go back to the dinosaurs and just play the film forward 350 years, over time, are you really turning into humans, or is it one evolutionary animal that keeps taking different forms?
The question is, will we snuff ourselves out before we turn into something else? But that's me. People argue with me all the time about it. I'd say, before the nukes and the famine comes, get off the planet."
What: Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp in his first film since District 9 and starring Matt Damon
When: Opens at cinemas August 15