7 Things to Know About Elysium

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures / Sony Pictures

Elysium, director Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to District 9, hits theaters today. Here are a few things to know about the film.

1. The film is set in 2154—and Blomkamp thinks his dystopian vision of Earth will come to pass.

In the film, the have-nots live on a polluted and overcrowded Earth, while the have-lots live in an idyllic space station called Elysium, where there's no sickness or poverty. When Max—a blue-collar Earthling with a criminal past—has an accident on the job that gives him just five days to live, he makes it his business to get to Elysium and get cured.

The disparity that Blomkamp portrays in Elysium isn't all that far from reality—many cities around the world have pockets of wealth surrounded by slums. And Blomkamp thinks it will only get worse. His vision of Earth is "a total step backwards, compared with where people think we're going," he told io9. "It's just diseased. It's like a complete lack of technology, and Third World. ... But I think that's where we're going."

2. Before he started shooting—or casting—Blomkamp created a graphic novel as a reference.

Most of his films begin with a visual concept, and Elysium was no exception. “It absolutely blew my mind," Damon told Wired. The book featured not only detailed illustrations of the film's universe and its weapons and technology, but also how Blomkamp wanted Max to look. "Neill was so specific ... He actually had a picture with my face tacked onto this guy with this body," the 42-year-old actor told Variety. Pulling off that muscle-bound look wasn't easy, either. "They literally hired me a trainer and I went to him with the picture," he said. "It was four hours a day in the gym—and I’m not 26 anymore but I got in shape.”

3. Damon wasn’t Blomkamp’s first choice for Max.

First, Blomkamp approached Ninja from the South African musical group Die Antwoord, who turned him down because, according to Wired, he “didn’t want his first screen role to be an American-accented character in such a high-profile film.” Next, the director went to Eminem, who was game—but only if the movie was shot in Detroit. Finally, in 2010, Blomkamp cast Damon, who told MTV that he didn't mind about being third in line for the role. "I just found out about Eminem because I read it somewhere," he said. "It's the kind of thing like ... asking your girlfriend about ex-boyfriends. You don't want to know, and it doesn't affect your relationship. You just get the parts you get."

4. The set for 2154 Los Angeles was the second largest garbage dump in the world.

Soundstages in Vancouver served as the set for Elysium, but to create Blomkamp's vision of a dystopian Los Angeles in 2154, the crew shot for two weeks in a dump in Mexico City, which Damon has said were the toughest two weeks of his career. Because the dust kicked up by the production wasn't dust. It was fecal matter.

"[We had to] literally eat s**t," he said. "It was explained to us that, like any dump anywhere in the world, the dust is actually comprised largely of fecal matter. So, at the end of every day, as we'd wipe this stuff off, we'd be basically throwing these s**tty towels at each other." Meanwhile, during one sequence, Damon's stunt double got soaked in pig urine.

According to the LA Times, conditions were so toxic that at one point the production had to scrape off the top layer of silt and replace it with prop garbage, and the crew had to pass through a clean zone before lunch. 

Shooting in Mexico City also called for increased security. "I very specifically scouted the areas because I wanted them to be as run-down as possible," Blomkamp told Esquire. "That was Matt's only trepidation—the security in Mexico City. He's very game, but the whole thing there is kidnapping, and it's different with him than it is with you or me. He's internationally recognized. People know he's in the country. We had to hire a security firm. Our security guys would run different routes to the set in the morning, do reconnaissance, make sure there were in-and-out routes everyplace we went."

5. Syd Mead designed some of the Elysium sets.

Blomkamp is a huge fan of future-minded designer Syd Mead—whose work you might recognize from films like Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens. So he asked Mead to help out with Elysium. "I did a rendering for National Geographic on space travel and the future," Mead told Vulture. "One of them was a view inside a 'torus' kind of world. I call it inverse perspective because the ground plane goes up out of sight, up into the ceiling. He saw that rendering years ago, and that fascinated him. Elysium is one of the few or only films with that inverted perspective." The two met in Vancouver, and Mead signed on to help design the space station's briefing and control rooms.

6. Weta Workshop created the film's weapons.

From futuristic AK-47s to deadly droids, all of Elysium's weapons are fully realized. According to Wired, they were designed in a yearlong collaboration between Weta, Blomkamp, and conceptual artist Doug Williams. At a press conference during San Diego Comic Con 2012, Damon said that "Neil and the guys at Weta Workshop came up with all these things; they worked, they made sense, all these guns. You'd see these guys with battery packs on, really kind of gnarly weapons that don't exist in the world that we live in but you totally buy them when you see them. Just seeing them on set, you'd say, ‘This looks like some terrible weapon that someone is going to invent someday.'"

The company also built the exoskeleton that Damon's character wears. "They did a really good job," he told the Huffington Post. "By the time I got it, they got it down to 25 pounds. [It was] distributed over my whole body, so it really wasn't bad." According to press notes for the film, the HULC suit required eight months of research and development and 75 revisions just to finalize the design.

7. The design of Elysium's space station is based on real science.

Specifically, a design called the Stanford Torus, proposed by NASA in 1975. Scientists envisioned a donut-shaped ring over a mile in diameter that would rotate once a minute to create artificial gravity on the inside of the ring via centrifugal force and hold 10,000 people. It would be built from materials from the Moon. Behold:

But although its design is scientifically accurate, Blomkamp admits that the way he imagines Elysium would have been built is not. "Elysium is 'Bel-Air in Space,'" he told io9. "The dark satire of like building a mansion in space—with the weight of taking stones and sh** up there [from Earth]—is hilarious, you know? It's not scientifically plausible, but it's incredibly funny."