(On Cable TV, January 2016) I’m … not sure where to begin with Chappie, given how many problems it has. I want to applaud it as a third consecutive original science-fiction film by writer/director Neill Blomkamp, even if it’s nowhere near as good as the quasi-classic District 9, nor close to the ambitious disappointment that was Elysium. I’d like to rave about the special effects almost perfectly integrated with its gritty cinematography, but I found much of the film’s focus on the zef subculture to be actively irritating to the point of distraction. Despite being open to different experiences and worldviews, slumming with Die Antwoord actors in decaying Johannesburg tested the limits of my tolerance. For every good concept in Chappie (not the least being the corruption of an artificial intelligence by selfish human parenting), there seems to be two or three truly bad ideas taking up far too much space, or sending the film in frustrating directions. While Chappie certainly is part of 2014–2015’s cinematic anno roboticis, it also works without rigour, throwing in personality uploading as a third-act bonus without exploring a significant fraction of such a breakthrough’s implications. It would rather retreat in robot-criminal jokes and give far too much screen time to aggravating characters. Blomkamp is a skilled director, but he can’t do it all. He needs a competent writing partner who can point out the absurdity of his stories. He needs someone to highlight that irritation on-screen often become exasperation off-screen. He needs to make more judicious use of his actors, because Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel and Sigourney Weaver are almost entirely wasted here. I’m trying to be nice and not say anything bad about the Die Antwoord performers, but the best I can do is mention that Watkin Tudor Jones (as “Ninja”) can be surprisingly charismatic at times—I make no such claims regarding Yolandi Visser. Few other big-budget productions I can recall have moments as annoying as Chappie does with its criminals teaching a newly sentient robot about their lives. At the end of the film, we’re left cheated of a better movie using most of the same elements.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp made a splash in 2009 with his debut feature District 9, an exceptional blend of kinetic thrills and thematic wit. Elysium may not benefit from the same element of surprise, but it certainly operates in the same vein: Drawing a clear line between impoverished Earth and privileged space station Elysium, the film tackles social issues in an explicit SF setting with gritty aesthetics and impressive action sequences. Matt Damon is quite credible as a lower-class working man who is forced to become a hero through desperate circumstances while Jodie Foster is perfectly ice-cold as the orbital protector, but it’s Sharlto Copley who steals scenes as a crazed mercenary. The film’s other unassailable highlight are the action sequences, shot a bit too close, but with a documentary-style dynamism that works pretty well. In-between clever visual design and various bits of post-cyberpunk plotting, there’s enough here to keep true Science Fiction fans happy. Unfortunately, Elysium has enough small problems that it seems somewhat less than solid as a whole. The intention to discuss issues of class, wealth and privilege is laudable (there’s even a historical reference to the mercenary class taking over the rich elites when the barbarians come knocking), but it’s ham-fisted and riddled with inexplicable bits of world building. Never mind the open-sky design of Elysium or the software-based plot to overthrow the station’s social order: the lack of a shown middle-class to keep the poor in line is historically strange (it can’t be explained solely by robotics), and it would have been nice to see a bit more nuance beyond the Manichean Earth-is-poor-Elysium-is-rich world-building. The ending makes little logistical sense, and even less political sense –it med-beds are so effective, wouldn’t it be an effective instrument of social control to install them downside? The problem with Elysium may not be that it’s as nonsensical as most Hollywood SF blockbusters, but that it’s so thematically and visually ambitious that it invites greater scrutiny, and that its world-building isn’t able to sustain more than surface-level contemplation. (As an aside, I expect that as Hollywood Science-Fiction gets better and smarter -pushed along by, yes, people such as Blomkamp and movies such as Elysium-, the contrast between its stated sophistication and brute-force Hollywood-style plotting will be more and more apparent.) Elysium is, all things considered, pretty good at what it tries to do. But it’s missing the extra little bit of credibility that would have vaulted it from merely good to potentially great.
(In theatres, August 2009): There are a lot of things that annoy me about District 9: Elements of the premise makes little sense except in a satiric fashion (which the film eventually softens); the “magic mutation” shtick smacks of lazy screenwriting; the film’s eventual slide into action at the expense of ideas is well-done but a bit empty after the concept-rich first hour. Nonetheless, I still want to defend this film against all naysayers for what it does well. Starting in Johannesburg away from the western world is a first good step, but picking a nebbish, vaguely fascist bureaucrat as an unlikely protagonist really cements District 9’s intention to do things differently. The aliens don’t escape this treatment either: few of them are portrayed in any positive light, making easy empathy with them even less obvious. The pseudo-documentary nature of the film’s opening gradually cedes ground to more naturalistic hand-held direction, but it’s really the unusual nature of the film’s setting that captivates. When the ideas recede to give way to the gunfights, at least they’re replaced by robust action. After a summer of feature-length Transformers and Terminators, it’s a bit of a surprise to find out that a scrappy medium-budget film manages to outsmart its competition by featuring a restrained and gripping robotic exoskeleton sequence. Taken together with a decent script and some clever direction, District 9’s risk-taking and uneasy adhesion to genre conventions makes it a superior B-grade science-fiction film, the likes of which we don’t see enough… but may soon do, thanks to the film’s remarkable budget-to-box-office success. After an impressive apprenticeship in short films, director Neill Blomkamp suddenly finds a place as an accomplished genre auteur: District 9 may not be perfect, but watch what he’s going to do next.