Have non-white protagonists. The premise of Elysium is racially charged, with citizens of a predominantly Latino future Los Angeles trying to gain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from a predominantly white elite class orbiting Earth on a rotating space station. Even so, the hero is white guy Matt Damon, pitted primarily against villainous white lady Jodie Foster and brawny South African white guy Sharlto Copley; the most prominent minority characters are hot Latina doctor Alice Braga, crazy Latino gangster-hacker-buddy Wagner Moura, and ineffective Indian president Faran Tahir. Thanks for lending us your relevance, y’all—now step back and let the white folks handle this joint.
Nerd out on rotating space stations. I know this isn’t the kind of movie where we’re going to stop the action for a ten-minute briefing about the logistics of containing an atmosphere via centrifugal force…but can we even have 30 seconds?!
Think about what would actually happen if two dudes in exoskeletons had a fistfight. These exoskeletons make you strong, but don’t protect your soft bits. Logically, a fight between two people wearing them would be grotesquely dirty, with each warrior trying to rip at the other’s exposed flesh. Not in Elysium, though: the climactic battle starts as a Samurai swordfight and turns into a college wrestling match.
Say something interesting about immigration. Early on, shuttles full of dirty “illegals” try to make it to the Elysium space station, with predictably tragic results. One interpretation of this scenario would be that it dramatizes the heartlessness of current U.S. immigration policy; another would be that it offensively reinforces stereotypes about dirty, desperate, sick immigrants who want to drain our resources. In particular, note the empty beer bottles floating in the immigrants’ zero-gravity shuttle.
Say something interesting about health care. On Elysium, they have magic pods that can instantly cure any disease up to and including advanced cancer and blown-off faces. This could be the occasion for serious consideration of health-care access issues, or even philosophical meditations on the meaning of life and death (you know Star Trek would have gone there). Instead, miraculous health care becomes the movie’s giant MacGuffin—the thing everyone wants, just because a movie like this needs to have a thing that everyone wants. (Also consider the development at the movie’s very end: would that really go smoothly, or would all hell break loose?)
Have fun with the idea of a reprogrammable space station. Another MacGuffin is computer code that can reprogram the entire space station. The villains want to use the code to put themselves in power, and the heroes want to hack the system to provide free health care for everyone. Those are appropriately fascist and noble aims, respectively, but think of everything else you could do with complete control of Elysium’s systems. Doesn’t anyone want to, say, make the toilets start speaking Esperanto?
Have fun with robots. After an early encounter with a mechanical parole officer that feels like this film’s one nod to Phillip K. Dick, Elysium proceeds to give us almost exclusively the most boring kind of robots: battle drones that look like walking sets of football pads. The movie’s scenario strongly recalls WALL-E, which was full of memorable robots because someone gave Pixar permission to use a little imagination.
Create political intrigue. Audiences love political drama so much that when Netflix set out to give people precisely what algorithms suggest we want in screen entertainment, they came up with House of Cards. So why does Elysium squander its opportunity to develop the intra-cabinet machinations beyond I-hate-you-no-I-hate-you-more?
Avoid icky elliptical rape references. Does the world really need yet another movie full of scenes where oily men take beautiful women captive and then play with the women’s hair, saying things like, “I’ve never been the marrying type, but…[lascivious glance downward] you make me want to settle down”? No, it does not. I know they’re “the bad guys” and what they’re doing is portrayed as “wrong,” but if we’re going to start really talking about rape culture, we need to start calling out the pervasiveness of scenes like these, which dramatize and reinforce the idea of women as sexual property to be battled for among men.
Stage a giant battle in a pleasure kingdom. The big fight scene in Elysium is set on an immense spaceborne luxury lounge—but instead of sending his rock-em-sock-em robots to have it out in a water park or a swingers’ club, writer/director Neill Blomkamp positions them on (groan) a catwalk in (yawn) an industrial facility that also happens to have (jerk-off motion) cherry blossoms that can blow lazily in the HVAC.