Chappie (2015)


Chappie PosterDirector: Neill Blomkamp

Release Date: March 6th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Shartlo Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman

As Chappie gets under way atop a wave of rolling news clips and documentary-style snippets, there’s a vague familiarity in the air. We soon meet Dean (Dev Patel), a quirky and smart employee, and shortly thereafter encounter the film’s titular robot (Sharlto Copley). The two become entrenched in a rebellion against corporate injustice, where agendas are warped by power and economics. There is a CEO overlord (Sigourney Weaver) with iffy morals and a brash militant understudy (Hugh Jackman) with iffier intentions, and it doesn’t take long for our artificially intelligent robot to intertwine with humanity’s complexities.

If you can hear any bells ringing in your mind at this point, it is because Chappie is another Neill Blomkamp film wrapped up in the woes of society and class and science. It’s District 9. It’s even sort of Elysium. The thematic content isn’t bad at all — the director has proven in the past that exploring societal issues can be a rewarding experience. Rather, Blomkamp’s third film struggles because it doesn’t differentiate itself from his previous two.

Nor does Chappie click tonally. We’re in a constant kinetic flux, the tone jumbled and jumping around too much, a problem embodied by our central machine who manifests as a bubbly toddler one minute and a gun-wielding lunatic the next. The robot doesn’t garner enough empathy to start with because he (it’s male, apparently) has never been a human. But the disconnect is ultimately established due to Chappie’s lack of identity. A human character can get away with this lack of identification because we can relate to a person more than a robot. It is possible for an AI character to do the same — Alicia Vikander manages without personality in Ex Machina — but not in this instance. Chappie, voiced fairly well by Sharlto Copley, is at his most engaging when he’s acting up; a car-jacking scene is one of the film’s few brilliant moments, almost as culturally reflective as it is hilarious.

Generally though, the bits and pieces that make up the film are all a bit weird. As former soldier Vincent, Hugh Jackman (despite being an entertaining watch) looks like he is about to film a Steve Irwin biopic. The South African duo, a musical group known as Die Antwoord, don’t fit into the gritty urbanised world. They belong in a Tim Burton fantasy adventure, though on the basis of their performances here, that won’t be happening any time soon. For some reason, Sigourney Weaver — who will be teaming up with Blomkamp again for his upcoming Alien revival — is underused as a plain company figurehead.

On the more reality-mirroring side of things, we see capitalist manipulation: “It’s expensive, it’s big and it’s ugly,” is the reply Vincent receives as he tries to sell army-ready machines to the army (we’re subsequently left to wonder why money isn’t being thrown at him). A thematic favourite of Blomkamp, machine intelligence versus human ideology, fuels an underbelly that is certainly justified given the postmodern technological surroundings, yet never really amounts to much. Had they not been made in such close proximity to one another, you would be forgiven for thinking the folks behind Chappie were privy to Wally Pfister’s Transcendence in relation to ideas on concluding. Despite that movie’s many shortcomings, it is actually better and more accomplished than Chappie.

On an aesthetic front, the post-industrial setting is a good one, however instead of being a vehicle for entrapment, the relentlessly murky and dank atmosphere quickly becomes a trend-setter for the bland story unfolding (pathetic fallacy gone wrong). There are some impressive slow motion shots employed during the action sequences that reverberate well with the film’s technological arc. In fact, Trent Opaloch’s cinematography is a success — in purely visual terms the film does its job. Opaloch worked on Blomkamp’s previous two outings as well as The Winter Soldier, and his notable efforts have earned him a spot on the next Captain America film too.

Unfortunately, the visual aspect can’t quite rescue Chappie from a messy final third. The film slowly saunters along towards a fairly energetic conclusion but by then we’re sitting wondering why we should care. There are so many different parties involved in the action at the end that it feels like the battle of the five armies all over again. In screenplay terms, this wholly contrived finale is just about the final nail in a coffin of banality and nonsensicalness.

Chappie isn’t a bad film, but at some point Blomkamp needs to change things up or else risk artistic homogenisation. He is obviously a talented filmmaker; the simple fact that his films have something pertinent to say about how we live, have lived and might live is testament to his skill level. But after two solid outings, Chappie feels like a step backwards. It’s almost as if the director who once challenged the norm has conformed to it.

Chappie - Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Elysium (2013)


Director: Neill Blomkamp

Release Date: August 9th, 2013 (US); August 21st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; Science-fiction

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga

Acquiring aesthetic influence from director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and combining that with a story inspired by Total Recall, Elysium takes its time as it slowly burns through its first hour — asking many of the same questions as those proposed in District 9 and Total Recall. However, with 40 minutes remaining and a more prominent role for Sharlto Copley developed, Elysium explodes into life with sci-fi action as entertaining and engrossing as much that has gone before it this summer.

Much like Total Recall, Elysium is set in a future where the wealthy live idyllic lives and the poor are left to fend for themselves. This time around, an enormous manufactured space station called Elysium plays host to those whose class and money outbid most others’. The Earth has been over-worked and over-populated, housing the vast majority of humanity — most of whom are poor and without essentials such as health care and shelter.

Elysium was hyped up fairly extensively throughout a summer dominated by science-fiction. Perhaps this was down to a combination of being directed by sci-fi extraordinaire Neill Blomkamp and boasting a juicy plot set to ignite many a discussion amongst viewers. For the most part, Elysium does hold up its end of the bargain and meets the high standards set beforehand. The film is not too dissimilar visually to Blomkamp’s District 9, which portrayed some of the Earth as extremely run-down and over-saturated by people, rubbish and rot. This obvious likeness is not a problem as the film certainly needs and benefits from the landscape it is primarily set in, with the contrast between Earth and the fresh, artificial Elysium comprehensively mirroring the gap between the rich and the poor. The film begins by scoping across the worn city of Los Angeles, projecting visuals which would not be out of place in a post-nuclear disaster. The camera then pans up towards the gleaming Elysium, signalling the overall objective of the film — to explore the results of mass-immigration and its impact on class divide.

Blomkamp appears to take significant inspiration from Total Recall, as Elysium incorporates two geographically and internally separate habitats into its story: a wealthy and a poor one. The film also sparks up many of the same questions asked in District 9, and the combination of these two somewhat recycled elements act as a small constraint against the piece. For example, just as District 9 is an analogy of oppression against ‘outsiders’ (the prawns), so too does Elysium focus on a lack of acceptance of ‘outsiders’ (the poor). Another key element which makes its way into Elysium much like it did District 9 is the lack of adequate health care offered to those who are in need of it. Installing similar themes to the extent Blomkamp does here runs the risk of being too referential in nature, however Elysium manages to overcome such an obstacle by way of an interesting (albeit slightly predictable) narrative and, in particular, a storming second-half.

After an hour comprised of plot points designed to set-up the main act of the film, Elysium bursts into life with the more prominent, speech-driven arrival of Sharlto Copley’s character, Kruger. A mercenary who works in an unofficial capacity for the Elysium Secretary of Defence, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), Kruger’s primary objective is to prevent any immigrants from escaping Earth and establishing themselves on Elysium. Copley — who also starred in District 9 — is tremendously vicious in the role, giving off the impression that his character is so unhinged he could snap at any given moment. Interestingly, Kruger’s dishevelled, vile look indicates that he has spent his life living off of scraps along with the rest of the poor on Earth, which adds another dimension to his relationship with the pristine Delacourt — it is likely that he does not want to see any form of success or joy amongst his peers on Earth and in order to ensure misery, he must ensure nobody can migrate to Elysium.

Matt Damon stars as an ex-convict named Max Da Costa who is trying to turn his life around and who finds himself, through a variety of circumstances, as the head of a mini-rebellion against the corporate Elyisians. There is a wonderful scene between Damon’s Da Costa and a robot near the beginning of the film (robots control the Earth as most upper-class humans deem the landscape unworthy and too polluted to exist on themselves). Da Costa becomes increasingly frustrated by the machine’s lack of care or understanding in regards to what he is saying to it. This essentially sums up the whole film, as Da Costa represents the poor and their struggle to be noticed and aided, against a discriminatory, emotionally unavailable upper-class. Both Damon and Foster are thoroughly convincing in their respective roles, however Copley’s effortless attempts at vulgarity ensure he is loathed universally, therefore he demands most of the plaudits. The final 40 minutes of Elysium are well worth the ticket price, as the drama evolves into hard-hitting action whilst maintaining an enveloping aura, much of which is to do with the uncertainty surrounding Kruger.

Even though the early stages of Elysium are slow-burning and a little nonsensical in parts, the film eventually hits full throttle as it meshes together awesome visuals, good performances and exhilarating action. The Total RecallDistrict 9 hybrid poses a number of recycled-yet-relevant questions to the audience, assuring its intentions are in the correct place.

Credit: The Location Guide
Credit: The Location Guide