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.

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Great Films You Need To See – Dark Star (1974)

Before he became a master of horror, John Carpenter went where no hippie had gone before with his gloriously goofy sci-fi debut that put the space into spaced out.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star's slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star’s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre

In the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1972), science fiction had entered a new, grown up phase, one where contemplation and big ideas had replaced explosions and cheap entertainment.

For Carpenter and fellow University of Southern California student Dan O’Bannon, Kubrick’s masterpiece represented a summit they could never hope to reach. In response, they cobbled together $60,000 and made Dark Star, a film that may represent the mirror image of 2001, but has proved just as influential.

Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) - the crew of Dark Star

Pinback (Dan O’Bannon), Doolittle (Brian Narelle) and Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) – the crew of Dark Star

Without the budget to lavish on grand sets or grander special effects, Carpenter and fellow screenwriter O’Bannon came up with the inspired notion of injecting a dose of blue-collar mundanity to their vision of space travel.

Think about it for a moment; who would you expect to see being sent on a 20-year mission to blow up unstable planets in systems marked out for future human colonisation? Dark Star’s crew – Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Pinback (O’Bannon), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm) and Talby (Dre Pahich) – are the other guys; the ones who do the donkey work so that others more glamorous and well-paid than themselves can take all the credit.

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

State of the art special effects, ahem, in Dark Star

This ‘truckers in space’ approach has been used in numerous sci-fi movies since, most notably in the O’Bannon-scripted Alien (1979), while Carpenter himself has elaborated on the blue-collar Joe Schmoe concept in The Thing (1982). Anyone who’s watched Ghostbusters will also spot where that film got its idea for Murray and co’s jumpsuits.

The shorthand dialogue and bored, petty resentments between the crew, especially from the highly strung Pinback, are completely plausible, as is their unkempt appearance. After all, with only each other for company, why bother cutting your hair or trimming your beard?

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

The solitary Talby (Dre Pahich) in Dark Star

Shoulder-shrugging observations about the deteriorating state of the ship are another nice touch, such as Doolittle’s ship’s log report about the Dark Star’s stock of toilet rolls blowing up thanks to a computer malfunction; a previous explosion which has destroyed their sleeping quarters; and the ship’s complement of talking bombs, which have become increasingly unpredictable and are responsible for the film’s darkly humourous final act.

The mind-numbing length of their mission also suggests itself in nicely observed exchanges and asides (“chicken again!”), with Doolittle’s admission that he can no longer remember his own first name being an amusing case in point.

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

The cheeky alien beachball in Dark Star

With only a shoestring budget to play around with, the decision to use a beachball to represent a squeaky-voiced alien the crew have adopted as a mascot is brilliantly inspired. Pinback’s increasingly desperate efforts to first feed and then track down the mischievous creature is its own mini-movie; half-slapstick and half-dramatic that drives much of the film’s middle section.

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

Surfing on a space wave in Dark Star

The limited finances are also evident in Dark Star‘s wonky special effects, which have an old-school DIY aesthetic that gives the film an anti-establishment feel in keeping with its theme of sticking two fingers up to the Man. Meanwhile, Carpenter’s otherworldly score (a long-running constant throughout most of his oeuvre) harkens back to the sci-fi movies of his youth.

A cult classic in the truest sense, Dark Star‘s slacker sci-fi is smarter than its cheap and cheerful veneer lets on and deserves its place on the shelf alongside the greats of the genre.

Review – Ex Machina

The irony cannot be lost on Alex Garland that the release of his efficiently tense sci-fi parable about the dangers of playing god should follow Stephen Hawking’s apocalyptic warnings that mankind is ushering in its own doom with its unquenchable drive towards creating thinking machines.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon

While Hawking is more inclined to go down the road of judgement day when the moment of so-called ‘singularity’ arrives and machines finally gain conscious thought and the ability to reproduce, Garland has been quoted as saying that his sympathies ultimately lie with the robots rather than their creators.

It’s a philosophy that courses through the circuits of his low-key directorial debut Ex Machina, wherein computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a week with his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive billionaire owner of Bluebook, the world’s most popular search engine.

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Guns out: Nathan (Oscar Isaac) shows seven-stone weakling Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) how to do it in Ex Machina

Nathan has brought Caleb out to his wayward mountain estate in order to perform the Turing Test on his experimental humanoid cyborg Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she/it can exhibit intelligent behaviour and pass herself/itself off as human.

In spite of the glass wall between them, Caleb and Ava form a bond that both troubles and allures the young programmer and this soon evolves into something far more complicated as questions over Nathan’s real motives start to emerge.

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

I Robot: Ava (Alicia Vikander) learns more about herself in Ex Machina

Ever since Dr Frankenstein brought life to his creation in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by the dangers and enticements of playing god. This took the form of robots in Fritz Lang’s masterful Metropolis (1927) and has been spelling our doom ever since, most notably in The Terminator (1984); the film Hawking possibly most thinks reflects where we’re headed.

While acknowledging the tech fear of The Terminator et al, Garland’s chamber piece is more concerned with exploring the impact Ava’s behaviour has on the two men. When Ava subtly flirts with Caleb, he cannot help responding in kind in spite of himself. Likewise, when Caleb asks his boss why he’s sexualised his robot, Nathan the computer scientist gives a suitably technical response, while Nathan the red-blooded male follows it up with a playful shrug and an explanation that sex serves a primary purpose.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) - not replacing a contact lens - in Ex Machina

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) – not replacing a contact lens – in Ex Machina

Cooped up for all intents and purposes in a glass prison, we inevitably start to feel sympathy for Ava and it’s to the film’s credit that as it morphs into a tech-thriller and tries to throw us off the scent, that emotional engagement is maintained.

Vikander gives a wholly convincing performance as Ava and invests the cyborg with a complexity befitting such a well-rounded character. Her movement is both graceful and artificial and brings to mind Haley Joel Osment’s underrated turn as David, the robot who just wants to be a boy in A.I: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) bond in Ex Machina

The chameleonic Isaac is typically excellent as Nathan, whose arrogance and petulance are matched by his pathetic weirdness, not least during a drunken disco dance with his mute servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) which is as odd as it is amusing. Meanwhile, Gleeson (who will be teaming up again with Isaac in that other sci-fi movie later this year) builds upon his recent good work in Frank and Unbroken with another solid turn as the somewhat overwhelmed programmer who starts to question his own humanity as the truth of what is happening takes hold.

Although hardly original, Ex Machina asks enough of the right questions to make it an enticing and worthy addition to the sci-fi canon.

Review – Transcendence

The argument that Hollywood should be making movies that aspire to something smarter than big dumb action hasn’t been well served by this misguided sci-fi disappointment.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director's chair

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Wally Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut was among the most highly anticipated films of the year. Certainly the pedigree was there; Pfister’s work as Christopher Nolan’s DoP on such striking works as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy set pulses racing, while the mouth-watering cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Nolan veterans Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy promised much.

What a shame then that such promise has been squandered on a movie that fails to turn an interesting central concept into a logical and engaging viewing experience.

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius in artificial intelligence whose work to create a sentient computer – a tipping point he calls transcendence – rubs up against an extremist group who shoot Caster and launch a series of terror attacks against tech labs. As Will slowly dies from his wound, his wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) work on a radical plan to upload his consciousness into a super computer.

Now free to roam online, Will-A.Im (sorry) promises technological nirvana and a better world, but invites suspicion among even those closest to him, including scientist Joseph Tagger (Freeman), as well as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy).

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

The thrust of Pfister’s film, based on a script rescued from the Black List, is both intriguing and prescient – have we becomes slaves to technology that’s now moving so fast we can’t control it? Will the ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines achieve the ability to think for themselves – be a defining moment in mankind’s technological revolution or spell our doom, a la Skynet?

However, a sound idea does not a great script make and the cracks quickly start to show. The film takes odd leaps of logic; characters make decisions that aren’t properly explained; and dialogue gets bogged down in expository ramblings that make conversations sound stilted.

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

As you’d expect from Pfister’s background, the film looks great. His use of stark lighting is especially impressive and gives the impression of a cold intelligence at work, while the dead-end town of Brightwood, which is turned into Will’s HQ, is an effective location; all be it one Pfister isn’t able to take full advantage of, especially in the film’s lackadaisical final act.

Depp, who must be wondering if his box office magic is on the wane in light of Transcendence‘s and The Lone Ranger‘s disastrous performances, never looks comfortable, least of all when he’s playing a less sardonic version of Holly from Red Dwarf. The further Depp walks away from his more interesting ‘indie’ career choices, the less interested he looks.

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Hall and Bettany are fine actors and do their best, but as the movie goes on they start to look less convinced of the material, while Freeman (whose terrible line – “It will be the end of mankind as we know it” – from the trailer was a stupid marketing decision rather than a Pfister-ism apparently and doesn’t appear in the finished movie) and Murphy are given next to nothing to do.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair. Oh well, at least we have Interstellar to look forward to, right?

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.