In an effort to write a review of Elysium that isn’t a re-review of District 9, I’ll look outside Neill Blomkamp’s current, two-film body of work for comparisons. That way I can say more than “It’s kind of like District 9 but worse,â€ and I’ll already be ahead of about 90% of other critics. The director Neill Blomkamp is most beginning to resemble is James Cameron. Even Matt Damon thinks so, and when is that guy ever wrong? The important thing about both directors is that they are making action movies in a sci-fi setting. You shouldn’t go to either one looking for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The purpose of science fiction in Elysium either was or should’ve been to turn Jason Bourne into a cyborg. So while Elysium and District 9 are both thematically touching on inequality, Elysium in particular is doing it more in the way that Avatar deals with imperialism – it’s a simple, easy to grasp concept that gives your action movie just enough weight to not seem silly.
In his review of Avatar, Mr Plinkett (the guy who made those reviews of the Star Wars prequels that are almost as long as the actual movie.) refers to James Cameron as “the thinking man’s Michael Bay.â€ Like so much of what we see during summer, that’s all it really boils down to. Dumb people get to watch Transformers and slightly smarter people have to pretend there’s a reason that dude is swinging at people with a katana and throwing exploding ninja stars. It’s being ham-fisted about it, but that’s really all Elysium is aspiring too. If you told that to Neill Blomkamp he would probably disagree, but that’s kind of the problem. People like him tend to want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the exploding ninja stars and the space lasers and all that bullshit, but they can’t admit that to themselves so they make especially whiny action movies. The moral message of Elysium is this: Some people have a lot of stuff, and some people have almost nothing. Instead, everyone should have a lot stuff. I think that message is stupid. Inequality is bad. The solution isn’t “So give me more stuff.â€ All that does is make it so that inequality continues, but you’re comfortable now so who fucking cares right? I guess my point is that under any sort of scrutiny, the messages and themes of Elysium fall apart and that this could have been avoided by either buckling down and making it a hard sci-fi examination of these issues or just by making it the popcorn flick you very clearly wanted it to be in the first place. Either way, put your best foot forward – don’t draw attention to things that are only supposed to be in the background.
I’ve already mentioned it twice, but I really just want to bring your full attention to the fact that one point in this movie a character throws an exploding ninja star. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep that in mind when I talk about Elysium. You can make action movies that contain intelligent social critique, but they need to be good action movies first. Things like exploding ninja stars generally send out the vibe that action is your priority. So make that movie well. When you strip Elysium down to its core, it’s a very basic hero’s journey flick. There’s nothing story-wise or dramatically that’s really all that complex. Matt Damon gets from point A to Point B and kicks a bunch of ass along the way. When he finally arrives at point B, he’s learned something about himself. That’s it. It should be simple and basic and streamlined. If you want to slip critique in under that then be my guest, but make the action movie first.
The inequality message in Elysium comes off stupid and preachy because to really say something intelligent about social equality takes time, much like action scenes and exposition and character moments all take time. By the time Elysium showed us why we should like Matt Damon and explained the way Elysium works and got all the awesome set pieces it wanted to put together out of the way, there just wasn’t enough time. And also because it was so concerned with being a “smartâ€ movie, it didn’t really have enough to do those other things right either. Don’t be the guy that tells people “No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.” in your movie with exploding ninja stars. Just make the dumb movie you obviously wanted to.