Posts Tagged ‘Neill Blomkamp’

You might be forgiven for thinking that yet another film about robotics and AI couldn’t help but feel a bit repetitive and over-familiar, following the plethora of movies on this topic. You might be forgiven for thinking that Neill Blomkamp’s particular kind of socially-conscious, photorealistic-VFX-driven SF movie might equally be starting to lose its novelty value, given both District 9 and Elysium stuck reasonably closely to the same formula. You might even be forgiven for thinking that the only kind of genre movie coming out at this time of year would be the least ambitious and inventive kind. But I think you would be wrong, because Blomkamp’s Chappie is none of these things.


The story is set in a (very) near future South Africa, where a soaring crime rate has led to the introduction of robotic police auxiliaries, designed by idealistic young scientist Deon (Dev Patel) and produced by the company of Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) – all this is rather to the chagrin of ex-military designer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), whose own heavy-duty robot drones have been somewhat sidelined as a result.

However, Deon has higher aspirations than corporate profits, and is quietly working on a project to create true artificial intelligence. Bradley, needless to say, can’t see the benefit in a robot poet, or indeed any machine that can think for itself, and so Deon ends up having to install his AI in a junked chassis heading for the scrapheap.

Things get somewhat fraught as Deon and his project fall into the hands of a group of rather desperate gangsters looking for an edge against the robot police. A deal is struck where Deon is allowed to help educate the now-sentient droid, christened Chappie by his unlikely foster parents, in return for the gangsters being allowed to make use of it in an upcoming robbery. (Chappie is mo-capped and voiced by Blomkamp’s regular collaborator Sharlto Copley.) But Vincent has also got wind of what Deon is up to, and has spied an opportunity to strike a blow against the whole programme, giving his own machine an opportunity to shine…

As mentioned, there seem to have been a lot of films on this sort of topic lately – we had Ex Machina out only a few weeks ago, after all. And Chappie, on the face of it, a pretty derivative piece of work, an action thriller very reminiscent of any version of RoboCop you care to mention, to some extent retreading Blomkamp’s other films. I feel obliged to mention that Chappie has been the recipient of some rather mixed reviews, and I can sort of see why: the plotting is a little contrived in a number of places, and there’s a distinct sense of the director battling to keep all the various plot strands under control as the story continues. The film does have a very rough-around-the-edges feel, which is perhaps increased by the decision to cast rappers in a couple of pivotal roles – their characters are named after their stage personae, which is an admittedly very odd decision, but in the final analysis both Anri du Toit and Watkin Tudor Jones give quite effective and even moving performances. (This is just as well, as they are probably rather more prominent in the film than the ostensible ‘star names’ of Weaver and Jackman.)

That said, the most eye-catching contribution is from Copley and the special-effects team, who together manage to make Chappie a remarkably affecting and human character. They are helped by a script which manages to wring a considerable amount of poignancy and humour from the scenario – in the final analysis, this is still essentially an SF action movie (and the director handles the heavy-duty hardware-based crash-bang-wallop with casual aplomb), but there is a lot of droll comedy along the way, together with some surprisingly moving moments. (All of it is driven along by a great retro-synth soundtrack from Hans Zimmer.)

All this means that when the film touches upon deeper and more serious concerns, it’s as part of a story which already has you engrossed (if you’re anything like me, at least), rather than one which just functions as some sort of abstract and cerebral meditation on a particular theme. At one point a distraught Chappie asks Deon why he chose to create him with a body which will inevitably fail, leading to his cessation as a conscious being, and what’s previously been a sort of grimy roughneck action-comedy is suddenly considering humanity’s relationship with God and the nature of mortality, and the shift in perspective is both dizzying and exhilarating. There’s a touch of religion-bashing in the film, which is perhaps regrettably predictable, but set against this is the film’s general philosophy that it’s not your nature or your position in society that defines who you are, but the choices that you make: meeting and taking responsibility for Chappie leads to the redemption of a couple of characters who were initially unsympathetic scumbags, and this is convincingly done. The plot takes a sharp turn in the third act which perhaps strains credibility a bit, but not insuperably so.

In the end Chappie isn’t just another film about AI, but one about what it means to be human, which is surely a more profound question. That it does so with some skill and subtlety within the framework of an extremely accomplished action thriller is a pretty neat trick. In many ways Blomkamp’s adroit skipping between the different strands of drama, comedy, and action recalls District 9, and for me this is a more impressive film than Elysium, even if one wonders quite how long he can keep knocking out limitations on a relatively limited stylistic and narrative theme. But, of course, the release publicity for Chappie has been dominated by the news that Blomkamp and Weaver look set to work again on a new instalment in the Alien franchise: something which has a large number of people very excited indeed. I don’t know. Yet more Alien sequels interest me about as much as the threatened string of annual Star Wars cash-ins, and I’d much rather directors like Neill Blomkamp were working on their own original projects. Chappie is by no means perfect, but it is still a proper SF movie with a lot going for it – I wish we had many more films like this.


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When someone comes straight out of the trap and makes a brilliant, brilliant film at the first attempt, you’re naturally delighted, but also perhaps a little wary: could they have peaked too soon? How can they live up to the weight of expectation thus created? This was kind of how I felt when Neill Blomkamp announced himself to the world with District 9 four years ago: one of the great SF movies of the 21st century. Now he has returned with Elysium, a film which – if we’re honest – perhaps cleaves a little too closely to District 9 in terms of its content, theme, imagery and style.


On the other hand, this is a major studio release with a big budget and A-list stars, and an accordingly conventional feel in places: which is to say that in places it quotes liberally from the Big Book of SF Cliches, starting with the voice-over explaining how the world went to rack and ruin in the latter part of the 21st century. By the mid 2150s anyone with money and sense has left the planet and is resident on Elysium, a space habitat in Earth orbit, where they all live the life of Riley with swimming pools and non-stop garden parties. Down below on Earth, of course, no-one has even seen a cucumber sandwich in decades, with the majority of the population trapped in vast, squalid slums while a lucky few toil away in degrading, menial jobs. The proles are policed by brutal robot enforcers, backed up by the occasional human operative.

Anyway: our protagonist is Max (Matt Damon, who – bemusingly – was only offered the part after Eminem turned it down), a petty crook turned factory worker. Once he had dreams of moving to Elysium himself along with his friend Frey (Alice Braga), but now he has accepted that it’s just not going to happen and his life is essentially worthless. However, receiving a fatal dose of radiation in an industrial accident leads Max to reconsider this – he has only days to live, unless he can avail himself of the miraculous medical assistance available up on Elysium. But how to get there? Hooking up with an old pal who still has underworld connections, Max agrees to take on the dangerous job of stealing the contents of the brain of a top Elysium tycoon, in return for which he will be smuggled up to the Orbital.

It’s a lot less like Inception than it sounds, I promise. What follows is somewhat complex, mainly due to the political machinations of Elysium’s icy security chief (Jodie Foster) and the violent excesses of her chief agent (Sharlto Copley giving another eye-catching performance), and not without a few improbabilities along the way. But in the end, in many ways it adheres to the District 9 template, in that it is a serious, good-looking SF movie with striking visuals, fun gadgets and technology, and a nice line in violent mayhem. What’s missing is the black humour and the wit and invention of the earlier movie – convoluted though the story gets, the actual throughline in terms of characters arcs is very straightforward, and I guessed the ending about halfway through (and it isn’t even as if I sit there trying to anticipate these things).

I don’t want to be too hard on Elysium as it is a proper SF movie for grown-ups, not a remake, a reboot, a sequel, or too obviously derivative of any other movie in particular: and that really does make it quite distinctive these days. (It’s also arguably the first really good cyberpunk movie in ages, long after Hollywood seemed to have given up on the subgenre and moved on.) The production designs are beautiful and the technology, on the whole, convincing – although Copley’s pocket force-field generator seemed to me to be a little too Star Trek. And central to the advertising, though not really essential to the story, is the cyborg exoskeleton into which Max is plumbed quite early on. I get the impression this was more of an idea Blomkamp thought was cool than anything else, because as plot devices go it doesn’t really do much. (As Damon is surgically bonded with it through his clothes, I found myself wondering what he did when he needed to, er, take his trousers off. The film has loftier concerns, needless to say.)

I suppose that in the end, part of my dissatisfaction with Elysium stems from the slightly hackneyed script, but also because the film does that mildly annoying thing of not wanting to be just a dumb SF action film and then never quite following through on its ambition. It’s a bit like In Time in that you don’t need to be John Clute to figure out that the movie’s world of haves and have-nots, with limitless medical care and support for a few and barely anything for the rest (and the differences between life on Earth and that on the Orbital and presented almost solely in terms of the healthcare available), is a thinly-disguised commentary on the state of healthcare availability in much of the real world. You’re never in doubt that where the film’s heart is at – like any other decent person with a brain and a soul, Blomkamp clearly thinks that free universal healthcare should be a no-brainer for any civilised society worthy of the name. And yet for a film apparently aspiring to address a real-world problem, it doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of real-world solutions. The film’s argument in favour of universal healthcare is almost entirely sentimental, and implied at that – the plot is actually resolved by a big action sequence, a Maguffin, and some computer hacking. Quite what’s going to stop the original status quo being restored PDQ is not made clear, unless the characters at the end of the film are now living in a socialist state governed and enforced solely by machines: an unusual conclusion for an American-financed SF blockbuster, to say the least.

I think I’m being too harsh on a film which is well made, directed, and acted, and the sentiments of which I broadly agree with. And, after all, Elysium is a big-budget socialist cyberpunk movie, which manages to comment on the state of the world’s healthcare while still including men in cyborg exo-skeletons having fistfights in space. So it has a certain sort of uniqueness to its credit, if nothing else. Creditable: that’s a good word for Elysium. It’s no District 9, certainly: but it’s a lot better than the likes of the Total Recall remake, too. I would applaud it for its ambitions rather than dismissing it for failing to realise them perfectly.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 17th September 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that brings a new meaning to the words ‘semi-regular’. We still have a couple of years to wait before Christmas is Tolkien time again, but there’s still ample proof of the talent and good judgement of Peter Jackson and Wingnut Films around in the form of Neill Blomkamp’s remarkable District 9. (Apparently Blomkamp was at a loose end one day when Jackson turned up and said ‘Here’s 30 million dollars, mate, do whatever you like with it.’ If you’re reading this, Pete, my address is…)

Set in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, this is an ambitious and startling SF movie. The premise is that the world changed forever in the early 1980s when a vast alien starship suddenly appeared in the sky above Johannesburg. Upon boarding the ship, the authorities discovered it contained only malnourished and apparently dim-witted giant insects. The aliens (nicknamed ‘Prawns’ by the humans) were relocated to a holding camp in the city (the ‘District 9’ of the title), which rapidly turned into a slum as the visitors became a fact of life in the city. Now, many years later, the humans have become sick of the presence of the aliens in their midst and are planning to relocate them to a new camp many kilometres away. The corporation charged with overseeing their eviction is preparing to move in, with field operations supposedly the responsibility of well-meaning administrator Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). However, some of the aliens have their own relocation plans, and this will have a life-changing effect on Wikus and those around him…

My first impression on seeing the trailers for this movie was that it looked extremely technically proficient in its blending of documentary-style camerawork and extensive use of CGI, but that the central idea was… well, it’s not a million light-years away from the back-story to Alien Nation, even down to the aliens being given vaguely absurd human names, while the social commentary (the South African government treats the inhabitants of slums and townships as if they aren’t even human) had the potential to be even less subtle than that in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Yes, these are issues unlikely to trouble the average multiplex habitué, and yes, I have probably spent too much time watching old science fiction movies, but happily, the movie itself only uses this scenario as a launchpad for an accomplished mixture of action, drama, and black comedy.

To start with the thing it most closely resembles is a jet-black and slightly surreal version of The Office as the hapless Wikus explains who he is and what his work entails. It’s a testament to the film-makers’ skill that the realisation that while Wikus tries to do his job conscientiously and is fairly decent to his workmates, his job has actually brutalised him to a considerable degree only happens very gradually. He’s actually fairly unsympathetic at this point, which makes the achievement of the rest of the film, where he’s transformed into someone you actually feel for, even a bit of a hero, all the more impressive.

Copley gives a tremendous performance, especially given that this is really his first acting part of any scope (he was a producer before this). On top of that he improvised all his own dialogue in this movie, even if he does use the F-word or some variant of it about 137 times (someone else counted, not me). At this point I was about to say that he can look forward to the fate of all foreigners who give great leading performances in movies from outside the States and UK (namely, to be a given a wacky supporting role in a bad Hollywood action flick), but they’ve beaten me to it: he’s already in talks for the big-screen version of The A-Team. Sigh…

Wikus’ story is at the centre of the film but every bit of it seems to have had the same care and attention to detail spent on it by the director. District 9 and the world around it are wholly believable, in a thoroughly depressing way, from Wikus’ employers, to the mercenaries he has to work alongside (a good performance as their leader from David James), to the Nigerian gangsters who also exploit the Prawns, to the aliens themselves. The effects shot of the alien ship over the city is surely an icon-in-the-making, and if (as I hear tell) $30 million is bargain basement stuff where a movie’s concerned these days, it doesn’t show here. Possibly the most memorable character in the film is an unnamed child Prawn who manages to be effortlessly cute without being twee and while looking like something I’d normally squirt with lemon juice and eat.

The social commentary tract that District 9‘s trailer promised is thankfully kept pretty much in the background, though given the nature of the film it’s pretty much inescapable. It’s hard to accuse a film, the climax of which revolves around a gun battle between heavily-armed mercenaries and a giant death-ray toting mecha, of being too worthy or highbrow, to say nothing of the rather high horror and gore quotient in the course of events.

On paper it looks like the makers of this film have set out to make a film to appeal to the widest possible demographic, with satire, humour, drama, horror, not-too-challenging SF and action all central to the story. And while this is true, I never got the sense that this was done in anything like a calculated way; they just seem to have told a story that they really fell in love with, and done it in the best way they could. The results are highly impressive and Blomkamp and Copley are officially added to the 24LAS list of Guys To Keep An Eye On In Future.

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