Neill Blomkamp

Review: Chappie

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The Pitch: Number 22… is alive! Your move, creeps.

The Review: The cinema of my childhood was defined by two very different film watching experiences. That’s if you can call it cinema, as the demise of picture palaces in my home town saw me watch most of my films on the technological wonder that was VHS. Some of that was made up of the typical family fare that was a staple of popular cinema in the Eighties, from The Karate Kid to Flight Of The Navigator and The Goonies to Short Circuit. As the decade drew to a close I was allowed by my very liberal mother to take in some of the action greats of the decade before I’d reached the 18 rating recommended, such as Aliens and Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Robocop. I suspect, although he’s half a decade younger than me and from the other end of the world, that Neill Blomkamp may have had a similarly formative childhood, given that his latest film appears to be an attempt to splice together those two genres by combining the family friendly robot education of Short Circuit with the corporate satire and blood-letting of Robocop.

Normally I’d suggest it’s fairly reductive and not particularly helpful to boil a film down to such obvious constituent components, but Blomkamp seems to be going out of his way to remind us of the heritage of his film. While it’s thrust into the same milieu as his breakout film District 9 with the South African slums providing a stark backdrop, there’s more than a little feeling of Old Detroit about the wasteland hideout of the gangsters who take in Chappie and try to give him an unsuitable education. Even the ED-209 style robots that form the bulkier competition in the security robot industry have the voice of old Tinhead himself, Peter Weller. On the flipslide, Chappie (Sharlton Copley) is a South African accent and a set of wheels away from being Johnny Five and while the film’s conceit of what would happen if you dropped a learning robot into the wrong environment feels original, the patchwork from which it’s been composed verges on over-familiar.

But you want original? How about making two of your lead characters a South African rap duo Die Antwoord who are friends and fans of the director with no real acting experience? As security droid Chappie falls under the influence of Yolandi and Ninja, he’s torn by the basic morality given to him by his creator (Dev Patel, yet another example of a single genius creating artificial intelligence in film making you wonder why we even bother to have corporations, but I digress). At the same time, the audience is torn by wondering if casting two non-actors as the two main human leads in your film is brave or foolish, and it’s probably a bit of both. Ninja and fellow cohort Yankie (actual actor Jose Pablo Cantillo) feel like stock villains, but Yolandi adds some maternal instinct and warmth and the gangster trio are certainly quirky for this kind of film, if not always particularly appealing. Adding to that off-kilter feeling is the fact that Die Antwood’s music is playing regularly in the background – although complemented well by the hard work that Hans Zimmer’s score does to integrate it – and what you’re left with is a whole bunch of oddness to offset the familiarity.

I wouldn’t say that there was much else original about Chappie – the other prominent humans (Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver) are stock characters and for a long stretch, the story doesn’t progress in any surprising directions. There’s a weak grasp of science, some of the dialogue – especially most of what Weaver is lumbered with for exposition and pretty much anything Patel says – is corny and unbelievable and Blomkamp applies many of District 9’s worst flaws, such as reality TV overlays that he promptly forgets about, without being able to capture its most redeeming features. The film makes a genuine attempt to combine the sweetness and naivety of Short Circuit with the satirical violence and grunge of Robocop, and not for one minute does it ever look like working. It’s only in the last half hour or so when the warmth begins to shine through that Chappie feels like a worthwhile exercise, and even then there’s as much to be at best bemused by as there is to love. Chappie is eccentric, oddly sweet and unlike the work of any other big-budget film maker you’ll see today, and for that we should be grateful, but District 9 is feeling more and more a one-off than the start of a solid career and Blomkamp will have to do more to convince that he’s not headed for a career residing at the bottom of the bargain DVD bin at your local supermarket.

Why see it at the cinema: Blomkamp does make good use of his frame and films his action well, even if there’s probably less of it than in either of his previous films. If South African rap-rave soundtracks are your thing, then hearing them on a top quality cinema sound set-up is also not to be sniffed at. (Based on this evidence, I can take them or leave them.)

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and bloody violence. There is one stand out moment of violence at the end which feels almost incongruous against some of what’s come before, although it would have felt right at home in Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop. I’d buy that for a dollar.

My cinema experience: Saw this at on a weekday evening at The Light cinema in Cambridge. The joys of the film playing on a large screen at The Light are that I get a seat in the middle of a row with enough legroom to sit comfortably: if you change anything as part of your takeover of the cinema, The Light owners, please keep that legroom, it’s invaluable for lanky so-and-sos such as myself.

About two thirds of the way into the film, I became distracted when someone in the row in front had seemingly become bored of the film and took his phone out to check Facebook. In my book if you’re that unengaged by what you’re watching there’s just one think you need to do: leave. On politely asking the gentleman if he would turn off his phone, I got sworn at for my trouble. I’m sorry, whoever you are, that you felt personally affronted by me asking you to turn off a four inch square torch that you were shining in the middle of a darkened room which immediately took me out of my own viewing experience, but if you believe it’s OK to sit and check your social media during a film then can I politely ask you don’t watch the same films as me in future?

The Score: 6/10

Review: Elysium

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ElysiumThe Pitch: Prigs In Space.

The Review: The world should be grateful for the cinematic legacy of Peter Jackson, from his seemingly never-ending tramping over hills in New Zealand to his early splatterfest horror movies (the scene with the custard in Braindead still makes me wretch just thinking about it), but he can also take credit for helping to bring the work of Neill Blomkamp to a wider audience. Blomkamp is a South African film maker who came to Jackson’s attention when a Halo movie was in the works; when that didn’t pan out, the pair produced District 9, the 2009 film that went on to box office success and a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Blomkamp has now branched out on his own, both writing and directing this follow-up which takes a similar allegorical view of world issues, and couples it with “how-did-they-do-that?” visual effects and an eclectic cast.

After two attempts to get rappers to play the lead role fell through (and imagine how different this would have been with second choice Eminem in the role), Matt Damon has stepped forward and shaved his head to play Max De Costa, career thief making an effort at rehabilitation in the slums of Los Angeles, now entirely occupied by former Mexican immigrants and policed by overzealous robots. When Max gets on the wrong side of them, his parole gets extended but also lands him in hot water at work, a chain of events that leads to Max being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. With only five days to live, his only hope is to make it to the space station Elysium, where medical beds can cure any ailment, but the borders are closed and secretary of defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is willing to take any measures, including getting her earthbound agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot down any attempts to gain entry. With Delacourt’s power under threat and Max being asked to help not only himself but his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), the stakes are soon escalating and Max may have to resort to desperate measures to achieve his goals.

District 9 managed to successfully blend action and high concepts and explored a number of recurrent themes in South Africa. This time the American setting is no less politically minded, but it’s immigration, healthcare and the general class divide that get the big budget treatment. Blomkamp has stated an intention to avoid being overtly political, but it’s hard not to feel that he’s on the side of the immigrants in this situation, even if that immigration process has driven the wealthier classes all the way to space. We actually get to see very little of life on board Elysium, which also naturally reinforces our sympathies towards those on the ground, and the rich and the elite are generally seen to be operating in a rather selfish moral vacuum. Where Elysium doesn’t quite work is then in gaining your sympathies in the same way as District 9; there Wikus succeeded in being an entirely unsympathetic character that still drew pathos as his plight became fully apparently, but there’s never the same level of engagement with Max and Frey’s predicament.

There are a few other issues as well, which can be summed up by occasionally over-shaky shaky-cam action scenes, a slightly convoluted plot that gets bogged down in the middle, and the accents: Jodie Foster’s magical floating one and Sharlto Copley’s so-thick-you-could-stand-your-knife-up-in-it one. There is still a lot to like about Elysium, as many of the other supporting roles work well (including the always good value William Fichtner, fresh off the back of an even slimier turn in The Lone Ranger), Matt Damon makes a reasonable anchor for proceedings and the action scenes, when at their best, are remarkably effective. The visual effects work is, by and large, stunning, and blends seamlessly with the grubby slums that make up a large part of the setting. It never quite sets the pulse racing in the same way as District 9, so the all-action finale doesn’t quite grip the same way, but it’s still original storytelling executed reasonably well, and for that in a summer clogged up with half-baked revisions of unoriginal ideas and more sequels than you can swing a stick at, should give us cause for a small celebration. Let’s just hope that Blomkamp’s next project, sci-fi comedy Chappie, has slightly more to offer.

Why see it at the cinema: The scale of the action justifies seeing this on a bigger screen, and some of the shaky-cam means you’ll have a better chance of following what’s going on if you give yourself a larger screen area to work with.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, bloody violence and gory images. I’ll be honest, I watch a lot of horror and there was one shot here that was enough to make me go “eew”. If that’s not clear, that’s a recommendation, albeit a twisted one.

My cinema experience: A reasonably busy showing on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon at the Cineworld in Cambridge. I arrived just as the film was starting, and the opening’s so dark that it took me a moment or three to find my seat. Once settled, there were no noticeable issues in projection or sound.

The Score: 7/10