MATT DAMON'S HEAD is no longer shaved like it was in Elysium - his hair has grown back to its recognisable length. And if he still has a six-pack, it is not evident under his loose T-shirt. Sitting in the Four Seasons Los Angeles, Damon looks relaxed and comfortable; there is no sign of Max, the anti-hero he recently portrayed in South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp's new science-fiction movie.
Unlike the director's 2009 debut feature, District 9, Blomkamp's second effort is a straight narrative rather than part mock-documentary. But like that movie, in which extraterrestrials are forced to live in slum-like conditions on earth, Elysium serves as a platform for Blomkamp's rather dark vision of the world, where 1 per cent of the population control everything and live in a pristine, but surreal, gated space community called Elysium. There is no middle class and the crippled, impoverished 99 per cent of humanity left on earth are subject to the whims of the super-rich and their brutal robot army.
Although Elysium opens with the dateline 2154, Damon shoots down the notion that Blomkamp meant for his parable to be strictly sci-fi, or set in the distant future. "It's totally meant to be today. The difference between life for you and me and for someone making a dollar a day is as stark as someone living in a space station," the actor says.
Starring opposite Jodie Foster ( Elysium's power-hungry Secretary Delacourt) and Blomkamp's countryman, Sharlto Copley (who plays the evil character Kruger), Damon is forceful on camera. He dominates every scene, whether he is winning over his childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga), bantering with his best friend (Diego Luna), or struggling inside his newly pimped-out robotic body.
"The character becomes more and more desperate, but his goal is very singular and easy to understand for the audience. I think that is very important where you are introducing so many concepts. You have to have characters the audience can identify with and understand, and whose motivation makes sense to you," says Damon.
Many of the concepts and themes touched upon in the film are in line with Hollywood-crafted dystopic scenarios for earth. But Elysium is unusual in terms of it being a Hollywood blockbuster with a complicated message, and without a guaranteed happy ending.
Blomkamp says one of the biggest things he noticed while making Elysium was, "I don't think I was 'correctfully' grateful for how District 9 turned out. [I didn't realise] how lucky I actually was."
District 9 received four Oscar nominations in 2010, including best picture and best writing (adapted screenplay).
He says he now understands the way that Hollywood works and is comfortable with the pressure that a big-budget film like Elysium, which has an estimated US$115 million budget, can put on a director. "The irony," says Blomkamp, "is that this budget isn't even that high compared to the films out this summer."
Early critical reception for Elysium has sometimes been harsh. But it is impossible not to want to see more of the slick Elysium space station designed by concept artist Syd Mead, of Blade Runner fame.
Growing up, Blomkamp was a big fan of Mead. "I collected anything he made," says Blomkamp of his passion for the artist's memorabilia. He was struck by Mead's rendering of a "torus" space station (torus was a 1975 Stanford University Nasa collaboration for a proposed space habitat) that was commissioned originally for National Geographic magazine. Happily, Blomkamp was able to call on his design hero to work on Elysium.
Blomkamp chose Vancouver to film scenes set in Elysium that weren't computer-generated, but based his idea of it on the rich communities he witnessed growing up in Johannesburg, a South African city whose climate and style he considers similar to that of Southern California. Johannesburg even inspired Blomkamp's name for the film.
Although Elysium is the Greek mythological heaven for dead heroes, it is not why Blomkamp chose the name. That decision was closer to home. "The reason I named it Elysium is because it's a giant gated community. And in Johannesburg they have the cheesiest names for the gated communities, like Eden."
Blomkamp's depiction of earth, in contrast, is of a planet suffocating in its scorched dustiness. Earth bears a striking resemblance to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But the scenes were filmed in Mexico City.
"We shot at 'Poo River'," says Copley, using the local nickname for the toxic location that, in real life, is part of Mexico City's dump. Copley considers that nickname was well-deserved. "It was the worst smell ever," he says of the stink that permeated the air there.
Copley is quite familiar with the down side of filming with Blomkamp. The South African actor was the star of District 9, and has known Blomkamp since he was in high school. He says the stink meant that gas masks were de rigueur for the crew on set.
But actors in make-up that could not be reapplied - notably the film's lead actor, Damon - didn't have that luxury. Yet Damon, in spite of the toxic stench, was still pleased to be part of what he feels is an action film with above-average intelligence. He hopes that the movie is a success, because that will encourage the studios to continue taking risks on original story ideas. "There are only a few people making movies on a big scale that are not superheroes or a franchise," Damon says.
Elysium opens on September 26