DVD & Digital

DVD review: Chappie

When South African science fiction filmmaker Neill Blomkamp burst onto the cinema scene with District 9 in 2009, he was hailed as one of the most promising directors in the industry. His mainstream follow-up was dystopian epic Elysium, which was met with a contrastingly frosty reception. Is he a one trick pony or was his second feature a mere hiccup in his path to further critical acclaim? His third film, titled ‘Chappie’ continues the sci-fi pattern and returns to Johannesburg, the setting of his debut. Set in a future where a robotic police force known as ‘scouts’ have been introduced to reduce high crime rates and regain order on the chaotic streets of Joburg, the narrative follows the inventor of these law enforcement machines, Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel. Against the orders of his boss Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) and angering office rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman), he tests his home-made AI program on a disused robot, his experiment resulting in the birth of Chappie, voiced by regular Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley. However, when he and Chappie are forced into forming an alliance with a local gang of criminals, the potential threat of his conception is unveiled. Can he raise his creation to fight crime rather than commit it?
  Like his previous efforts, the premise of Chappie is one with real promise and as a director, Blomkamp expresses his striking visual style which is well suited to the genre he continues to place himself in. The opening sequence sets the scene in a documentarian manner, much like District 9 did with footage of news channels and talking heads thrown together. The similarities with what we’ve seen from him before drives home his lack of creativity, and it is almost as if he is trying to redo his past films to improve them rather than attack a new idea with a fresh approach. The problems lie mainly in the heavy-handed storytelling as the story becomes cluttered with one-dimensional, motiveless characters. The triumphs in scientific achievement are glossed over by lazy montages more than once, with just a combination of one energy drink and taking off your glasses for a quick think resulting in the most significant of breakthroughs. When he finally arrives, the eponymous android is a joy to watch as he finds his robotic feet in the world but not enough screen time is spent between him and his beloved ‘maker’, which belittles the attempted father/son connection between the two when the conclusion nears.
  Dev Patel is probably the only actor who comes away unscathed from the project, making the best of the material he has to work with and maintaining his likeable image. Hugh Jackman’s character is given the back-story of a devoted, decorated military man but is quickly reduced to a snivelling snitch who carries around a rugby ball for the whole film as a symbol of his masculinity. The aforementioned thugs that try to take advantage of Deon’s intellect are weirdly played by South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord, going by the aliases Ninja and Yolandi both on-screen and off. Devoid of acting talent, their personality traits change drastically from scene to scene, and they appear far more interested in their distractingly fluorescent image and the promotion of their back catalogue, than adding any depth to their villainous alter-egos.
  For a film about intelligence, artificial or not, ‘Chappie’ is really rather dumb and the narrative shortcuts lessen the value and the impact of the initial idea, which is interesting in the first instance. As a filmmaker, Blomkamp has obvious strengths in building intelligent plot foundations and also in the way he directs and constructs big-budget action set pieces. We see signs of this in Chappie but the lethargic script proves to be his downfall. Surely now it’s time to draw the line under the man/machine sub-genre that he’s tried so desperately to master and move onto another strand of science-fiction. Director Alex Garland already topped his attempts in that area with the thought-provoking Ex Machina earlier this year. Not to be swayed from the field completely, Blomkamp is set to undertake the unenviable but nevertheless exciting challenge of directing the next chapter of the cult sci-fi horror Alien franchise. No pressure.


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DVD & Digital

DVD review: Elysium


After the success of District 9, advert-maker turned filmmaker Neill Blomkamp is back with sci-fi action thriller ‘Elysium’, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Set over a century in the future, or 2154 to be precise, Earth is a diseased and overpopulated wasteland. The rich and fabulous have upped and left to a new planet which resembles a halo in the sky called Elysium with strict regulations and a med bay in every beautiful home, healing inhabitants of any illness or injury. Max Da Costa (Damon) is a former car thief gone straight working in a droid manufacturing plant within the ruins of Los Angeles. After an industrial accident exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation, leaving him with just five days to live, he is forced to come up with a plan of action to reach Elysium to cure himself, bringing him up against the severe Elysian Secretary of Defence, Jessica Delacourt (Foster) who will stop at nothing to prevent this.

Although set in a science fiction environment, it can be argued that Elysium represents an exaggeration of the state of the world in the present day, highlighting the class system and the gaping divides between the lifestyles of the rich and poor. Director Blomkamp has spoken about this viewpoint, stating that the film is less of a prediction of the future and more an ‘allegory about wealth discrepancy’. It is refreshing to see a cinematic tackle on such current issues, and it has been done exceptionally by a relatively inexperienced filmmaker. To explore an idea in a unique way, building from a strong opening and developing the plot impressively, there is a lot to admire here and the fight sequences towards the end are colossal, particularly between Max and Delacourt’s sadistic mercenary Kruger, who is an effective villain, brilliantly portrayed by Sharlto Copley who starred in the aforementioned District 9. His wicked exterior and thick South African accent make him one of the most watchable baddies of the year so far. The commercial background is clear in the striking aesthetics of the picture, taking notable influence from previous sci-fi blockbusters, Damon appearing a cool but twisted modern interpretation of Terminator after being fitted with a body brace known as an exoskeleton to increase his strength. With so much focus towards the visuals, which are worthy of seeing on the big screen, the script falters a little with the dialogue coming across stilted occasionally, though this is a minor criticism within so many positives.

Matt Damon is sublime in the lead role, and has won me over with what I would boldly claim is one of the best performances of his career. I was yet to be convinced of his star quality, putting his Bourne trilogy down as a poor mans Bond, and I remain unmoved by the majority of his work. I’ve never quite been able to root for him until now, and surprisingly found myself on the edge of my seat, egging him on in the final showdown as if it was a Rocky Balboa bout. His everyman attitude worked perfectly for the role, and the relationship with childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) was touching and believable. Jodie Foster has a return to form as the cold power hungry Delacourt, a role that feels as though it could have been written for Foster’s ice queen demeanour. I should mention Wagner Moura who is an exciting presence as gangster hacker Spider who tries to illegally smuggle people from Earth up to the haven of immortality, and who Max looks to for help in his time of need. William Fichtner and Diego Luna also make an impact in their smaller supporting roles.

In bringing his bold theories to the big screen in exceptional fashion, could Blomkamp be an auteur in the making? He certainly has an eye for design as the picture is magnificently pleasing on the eye, and he appears to know how to get the best out of his stars. Whether that is due to enforcing his vision or letting them get on with it, I am not so sure but either way he has managed to create a Matt Damon character that I got on board with so I am grateful for that if nothing else. With stunning CGI, an interesting premise and a menacing villain on top, ‘Elysium’ was without a doubt my blockbuster of summer 2013.

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