Review – Chappie

Humanity’s last hope may not be human as the poster to Neill Blomkamp’s latest dramatically implies, but it also isn’t any good.

A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony

A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony

Instead, Chappie is a mess; a further misguided step backwards in what was once a career full of real promise for its writer-director.

In promoting the film, Blomkamp has taken the admirably honest approach of conceding that he “f**ked up” his previous picture Elysium (2013) by not having developed a strong enough narrative and script out of what was a promising concept.

Chappie's creator Deon (Dev Patel)

Chappie’s creator Deon (Dev Patel)

The same charge can also be levelled at Chappie; an intriguing idea crippled by a shoddy script and a tone that drunkenly veers between family friendly cutesiness and over-the-top sweary violence; usually involving a pair of ridiculous cartoon gangstas played by South African rappers Die Antwoord.

Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg for this near-future parable in which robots have been purchased from multi-national weapons manufacturer Tetravaal by the police to help restore order to the streets. Their creator Deon (Dev Patel) goes one better and develops the world’s first artificial intelligence, which he installs into a terminally damaged droid he’s stolen from his employers. However, the ‘bot is droid-napped by street thugs who want to use it to help them pull a heist, but don’t count on forming an emotional attachment to the sentient cyborg, which they name Chappie.

Street thugs Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) in Chappie

Street thugs Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) in Chappie

The social awareness that gave Blomkamp’s 2009 debut District 9 and the first half of Elysium its edge is nowhere to be seen here; rather the film paints with broad strokes (weapons manufacturers are bad and only care about money, in case you may have suspected otherwise) and lacks the satirical edge of his previous work.

Sections of the film simply make no sense, such as how on earth Deon is able to smuggle both a droid and the all-important ‘guard key’ out of a (supposedly) highly secure weapons firm without being spotted, and for it to take several days before someone finally realises it’s gone.

Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a surefire Best Hair 2016 Oscar winner, in Chappie

Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a surefire Best Hair 2016 Oscar winner, in Chappie

Likewise, it’s not clear exactly what Tetravaal employee Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, great hair) is doing at the company bearing in mind his attack robot ‘the MOOSE’ (a shameless homage to ED-209 from RoboCop, to which Chappie owes a huge debt) has been sidelined by the firm’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver, looking lost). He also strolls around the office with a gun, which one imagines would contravene health and safety guidelines.

The character of Chappie itself is vividly realised by Weta Digital and the motion capture blends seamlessly into the environment. Unfortunately, Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley delivers an exaggerated performance in the mo-cap suit that soon becomes annoying.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) goes all street

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) goes all street

However, it’s not nearly as aggravating as the turns put in by Ninja and Yolandi Visser as Chappie’s street outlaw ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. Resembling rejects from Mad Max, both (Ninja especially) are desperately out of their depth and struggle to register a single convincing emotion between them. A moment towards the end with Ninja on his knees, arms outstretched and screaming in anger (in slow motion no less), is already a low point in 2015 cinema.

The wooden spoon is reserved, though, for Brandon Auret, whose ludicrous performance as crimelord Hippo is so bad it’s almost passable. Served with awful dialogue (which is subtitled even though it’s perfectly understandable), Auret’s wild-eyed gurning provides the biggest laughs as he roars, on more than one occasion, “I want EVERYTHING!”.

A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony.

Review – Elysium

It’s ‘The Bourne Space Station’ as Matt Damon’s lowly factory worker tries to heal the world with the aid of a big computer game gun in Neill Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow-up to District 9.

Elysium Poster

Far from engendering a state of perfect happiness, Elysium is a real let down after the promise shown by Blomkamp in District 9

Made for a song compared to today’s mega-budget tent-poles, 2009’s District 9, wherein a ship containing insect-like aliens arrives above Johannesburg in South Africa, seemed to come out of nowhere and announced the presence of a major new talent in sci-fi filmmaking. A major strength of the film is its social themes of racism, segregation, illegal immigration and corruption, all of which carry a greater symbolism when considering the South African roots of the film and its writer-director.

The overpopulated ruins of a future Los Angeles in Elysium

The overpopulated ruins of a future Los Angeles in Elysium

Although handed a much heftier budget this time round, Blomkamp retains the social commentary in his script for Elysium, exploring as it does some of the same issues as District 9, while also touching on such pressing contemporary concerns as universal health care, class divide and the resentment felt towards the one percent-ers.

That it does so in such an unengaging and disappointing fashion, therefore, is a real shame for a film that promises much but, in the end, delivers little.

The unhinged mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) in Elysium

The unhinged mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) in Elysium

Damon plays ex-car thief Max Da Costa, who’s on parole and living in the ruins of a 2154 Los Angeles that more closely resembles a shanty town. Max has always dreamt of living on Elysium, a space station orbiting Earth for the super rich who (literally) look down on the poor, overpopulated and polluted ruins of the planet. However, he has to settle instead for a factory job and having run-ins with the draconian robo-cops who do the bidding of their wealthy masters. When Max suffers an industrial accident and finds his life hanging in the balance, he agrees to undertake a dangerous mission for smuggler and hacker Spider (Wagner Moura) in exchange for a ticket to the station. But Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has other ideas and sends her attack dog, unhinged mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), to track him down.

Smuggler/hacker Spider (Wagner Moura) checks on an exo-skeletal Max (Matt Damon) in Elysium

Smuggler/hacker Spider (Wagner Moura) checks on an exo-skeletal Max (Matt Damon) in Elysium

Blomkamp proves once again that he’s the equal of James Cameron when it comes to world-building. The production design and vision that’s gone into Elysium is superb; whether it be something as grandiose as the 2001-esque spinning wheel look of Elysium , or as down and dirty as the graffiti that adorns the robot parole officer that coldly threatens to extend Max’s parole because it senses he’s being sarcastic. As a vision of the future, it’s dystopic and entirely believable.

However, a film needs more than great production design to succeed and it’s when you look more closely at the script and some of the performances you notice the cracks.

The 2001-esque spinning wheel of Elysium

The 2001-esque spinning wheel of Elysium

After a promising start, the film begins to tail off in the middle section and by the time the action moves to Elysium itself it doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. The final 20-30 minutes are a mess and make you yearn for more successful sci-fi movies like Total Recall and The Terminator. Certain characters suddenly seem to go off in odd directions, leaving you scratching your head as to exactly what’s going on.

Devious Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt in Elysium

Devious Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt in Elysium

Normally as reliable as they come, Foster’s performance (and accent) is all over the place. She’s not helped by dialogue that’s as stilted as it is cringeworthy (she tells the President to “go off to a fundraiser or something” at one point) and her fate smacks of laziness by Blomkamp. Likewise, Copley must have winced at some of the lines he was forced to spit out, while his character starts off interestingly enough but ends up coming across like he’s in a different movie. And the less said about Moura’s screeching, overblown Spider the better.

Max De Costa (Matt Damon) and his Big F**king Gun in Elysium

Max De Costa (Matt Damon) and his Big F**king Gun in Elysium

Damon goes some way to counterbalancing the poor work of some of his co-stars with a gritty and engaging performance that sess him in Bourne-style kick-ass mode for chunks of the movie. Frankly, without Damon the film would have fallen flat on its face.

On the plus side, Blomkamp handles many of the action sequences well and indulges himself in the kind of splatter-tastic body dismemberment you don’t see too often in blockbusters.

However, far from engendering a state of perfect happiness, Elysium is a real let down after the promise shown by Blomkamp in District 9.