After its buzz-ridden San Diego Comic Con appearance last year was swiftly deflated by a release change from this past March to later this summer, “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore sci-fi effort “Elysium” was in dire need of a resurgence of interest. Well, consider that challenge met, as on the eve of their premiere trailer debut, Sony screened about 10 minutes of the film to press and fans, and the results were nothing short of spectacular.
Linked via satellite to Berlin — where the actor is currently shooting George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” — Matt Damon joined Blomkamp, star Sharlto Copley, and producer Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Days of Future Past“) in LA to introduce the trailer, and then the new footage. You can catch the former later today, but what about the extended look?
As it turns out, the footage seemed to lay out the film’s first act, starting with its main, socially-conscious conceit: The year is 2159, and Elysium, a massive space station populated with the rich and powerful, orbits Earth, while the poor wallow in slums on the decrepit planet below. When those who are penniless attempt to escape to Elysium, the station’s government (including Jodie Foster) enlists agents to eliminate the threat. Kruger, Copley’s bearded, South African character, is one such dangerous entity, and in the first scene shown, he brutally uses a rocket launcher on a fleeing ship.
Enter Damon as Max de Costa — just one of the disenfranchised millions, and a bald, shabbily dressed ex-con looking to go clean. As he stands in line on the garbage-covered streets waiting for possible work, we see how his past haunts him; robot police (done beautifully by the wizards at WETA) scan his criminal record, and when he replies with sarcasm to their queries of his bag’s contents (“Hair care products, mostly.”), they proceed to break his arm and leave him in the dust to recover.
In these early scenes, there are some stunning copter shots of Mexico City, where Blomkamp and the crew settled to shoot their Earth portions of the story. The director commented on the “concrete-gray” stylings of the city — an aspect that carries an interesting backstory. “What happens is if you actually complete your building [In Mexico City], all of a sudden you have to pay property tax.” he explained. “So what they do is get just up to the point where they’re ready to go, and then just never paint it.”
Next up in the footage, we cut from Max’s beating to a hospital, where he’s treated by Fray (Alice Braga) — a nurse from Elysium whom he knows from their orphanage upbringings on Earth. There’s obviously still great affection between them, and based off quick glimpses of Fray’s daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) in distress, it’s likely Max will have a hand in the family’s fate by the film’s end.
The plot really kicks into high gear though as Max heads to work at an industrial droid factory, while fielding verbal abuse from his boss. Under pressure of job termination, Max is forced to repair a door to a radioactive chamber, but after it unjams with him inside, a high dose of radiation blasts and nearly kills him.
The next scene we see is with actor Wagner Moura, who plays an underground hero operating on Earth. After waking up to the news that he has five days to live, Max comes to him with a fact: cancer-curing procedures exist on Elysium, and he intends to utilize them by any means necessary. This includes entering his body into Moura’s hazardous mech-experiment, wherein tattooed men use a bonesaw, alongside many other tools, to transform Max into a cyborg of sorts, complete with exo-skeleton drilled into his head.
That gets us to the first stage of Max’s journey to the station, and the main action setpiece of the footage. Moura explains that the key to entry on Elysium is switching identities — completed by hijacking another person’s brain and wiring a data transfer via a port at the back of the neck. Max’s target: billionaire CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner), sporting a robotic mode of speech that Blomkamp says is one of many slightly satirical elements to the story.
Max teams up with Moura, and together they shoot down Carlyle’s shuttle back to Elysium, unleashing a team of robo-guards. Max dispatches two droids: first with a vicious triple-shot pulse rifle, and then simply with his hands. The fight showcases Max’s incredible strength in spite of his condition (which “makes him strong but not Iron Man strong,” says Blomkamp), as well as the director’s returning focus on a visceral, tactile weight to his special effects and sequences. Also — as the flash of images near the footage’s end promises — another round of exploding bodies seems wholly imminent.
Foster’s role, as government official Rhodes, was the most downplayed of all the characters, only briefly being seen mingling with her family on Elysium, and giving orders when Max’s mind-heist is in progress. It is Kruger though — sent to hunt Max down in his “Raven” airship and kill him before he reaches the station — that looks to be the star of the show, as his placidly maniacal methods and energy-bred samurai sword hinted at some mind-boggling scenes. Blomkamp described Copley’s performance in the film as having an “explosive unpredictability,” and from what we’ve seen so far, we’re inclined to agree.
The footage overall was an extremely promising, darkly funny look at the gritty atmosphere and grounded action set to come. After the footage was screened, Blomkamp explained that with “District 9” and “Elysium,” proper science was “thrown out the window in favor of metaphor and story, and to make the mechanics of the theme work.” However, if the final result matches at all what was shown Monday, the absence won’t be missed in the slightest.
“Elysium” hits theaters on August 9th.