Tag Archives: Neill Blomkamp

Movie Review: Chappie (2015)


My experiences with South African director Neill Blomkamp have been quite different to most others. I thought his much-lauded debut smash, District 9, was good but a little overrated, while I thought his widely-panned sophomore effort, Elysium, was flawed but still pretty damn entertaining.

Blomkamp’s third film, Chappie, is also quite flawed and inconsistent, but it’s also very bold, clever, funny and exciting. When it’s all said and done, Chappie could very well be my favourite of the lot.

The film is an unspecified time in South Africa, where a tech arms company has begun supplying the police force with droids. Think Robocop, basically, except they are pure machines with no human controls or elements. The brainchild behind the revolution, British engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), is not satisfied with just AI droids and continues to work on a side project that purports to create consciousness. I’ll skip the details from here, but suffice it to say that the titular Chappie (voice and performance capture from long-time collaborator Sharlto Copley) ends up being the droid that brings this project to fruition, and naturally things go pear shaped when the droid ends up in the hands of criminals played by the duo from real-life rap-rave group Die Antwoord — Yolandi Visser and Ninja — who use the same names in the film.

It’s a high concept film with a lot of interesting ideas. First of all, from the moment of his “awakening”, Chappie is essentially a baby who cannot speak and is seeing the world for the very first time. His development, therefore, is completely dependent on what humans teach him, and the message at the heart of the film is about how we influence and shape our children into who they become. The way Blomkamp brings out this message is not exactly subtle, but it’s fascinating to watch as it unfolds and I was surprised that it had such an emotional impact on me.

I also liked how Chappie, the droid, is the central protagonist, rather than his creator or his “parents”. Copley is very good in convincing us that he is both a machine and a naive, impressionable child, and it’s also helped by the typically impressive photo-realistic special effects from Blomkamp in making Chappie look and feel as real as can be.

It’s also fun to see Hugh Jackman, the human everyone loves, play a baddie. Not just any baddie, but a jealous, conniving, douchey Australian baddie with a superb mullet. Sure, his character is completely one-dimensional, but it’s Hugh Jackman!

The ending of the film will polarise a lot of viewers as it takes the AI vs consciousness debate to the next level, but while I don’t exactly like where it headed I liked that Blomkamp was willing to take risks and take the film in a direction I doubt many people would have foreseen. It asks big questions without answering them compellingly, but at least it asks.

To be fair though, Chappie does have its fair share of problems. Whenever you talk about AI and super-intelligent robots you run into problems with logic and common sense. If Chappie is so clever then why would this happen? Why would he make these mistakes? And if he not as clever as we thought then why would he be able to do such intelligent things? My issues with problematic motivations extend beyond the robot to the human characters too. Sometimes what they do don’t make all that much sense, and it can be perplexing if you think about their thought processes too much.

Also, the film’s tone and pacing is a little all over the place. At times its dead serious, while other times its comical and even farcical, and sometimes the quick turns get confusing. The action comes and goes and can get super violent out of nowhere, and on top of that, Ninja and Yolandi are not the best actors in the world. They look their parts, but their characters feel more like caricatures than real people.

Having said all that, I still liked Chappie a lot. Notwithstanding all the rough edges, the film is always interesting, entertaining and unpredictable, and I think its heart is in the right place. And I haven’t even mentioned how hilarious it at times, even though the timing isn’t always impeccable. It’s not perfect by any means, and from certain angles — coherence, depth, visuals, etc — you might even say it’s Blomkamp’s weakest film, but there’s just something about this strange mix of AI: Artificial Intelligence, I Robot, Robocop and Short Circuit that struck a chord with me.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Elysium (2013) (IMAX)


Elysium is a thrilling sci-fi action blockbuster with a thought-provoking premise, but it also requires you to partly switch of your brain to fully enjoy it.

I was expecting an intelligent thriller as Elysium is director Neill Blomkamp’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed District 9, which you might recall was a clever and cheeky 2009 sleeper hit inspired by South Africa’s apartheid era. But if you watch Elysium looking forward to the same sharp wit and veiled political commentary you will probably come away disappointed. On the other hand, if all you want is exciting popcorn entertainment, then Elysium will surely satisfy as a violent, white-knuckle thrill ride with a suped-up Jason Bourne.

Towards the end of the 21st century, Earth is overpopulated, polluted and practically in ruins. The wealthy don’t have anything to worry about, because they live on a luxurious man-made community floating above the planet’s atmosphere called Elysium, where there is no poverty, no disease, and presumably, no need for people to commit any crime.

Matt Damon plays Max, an Earthling who dreamed of one day making it to Elysium as a kid but instead grew up to be a crafty criminal — well, ex-criminal, because he now works at a factory manufacturing the same androids that police their sad, wretched, pathetic lives.

I’ll try to tread around spoilers, but of course, Max needs to make it to Elysium at all costs. Standing in his way is Jodie Foster, the defense minister on Elysium, and the crazy South African mad dog she hired to do her dirty work on Earth, played by Sharlto Copley (the protagonist from District 9).

I was surprised that Elysium turned out to be such a straightforward sci-fi action flick (complete with the typical cliches), which may not have been a bad thing had the premise not held so much potential. Yes, there are obvious moral themes that emerge out of the premise, but most of these are only touched upon on the surface.

There are a lot of things left unexplained: How did the world get like this? How did Elysium get built? What’s the political or legal system there and on Earth and between the two? How is it possible that every house on Elysium has a miraculous machine that can cure all diseases (including cancer), perform instant surgeries and even reconstruct body parts — and Earth not even have a single one? Are there no altruistic rich people anymore? I’m not talking about a comprehensive explanation, just some hints. Oh, and I would have loved to have seen more of what people actually do on Elysium — apart from high society afternoon parties and dips in the pool.

And those are just the questions about the background. Elysium also raises many other in-film questions that, if left unanswered, result in Prometheus-sized plot holes. Perhaps I’m being picky, but I had so many questions about what was happening that it became a distraction at times.

If you can put these issues aside and just go along for the ride, however, then you might find Elysium a highly entertaining film powered by near-seamless special effects and inventive sci-fi creations. Watching Matt Damon run around, getting smashed and smashing people and being Matt Damon is never a bad thing anyway.

Elysium has plenty of graphic violence that could shock viewers unfamiliar with Blomkamp’s style, but personally I don’t have a problem with some visceral stimulation every now and then. What I did have a problem with was some of the intentionally shaky camera movements and quick cuts during some of the action sequences, especially the hand-to-hand combat scenes. I just prefer clarity.

The performances were interesting. Matt Damon was his usual steady self, focused and charming and dedicated to the task. He was believable and probably the only character to experience any development throughout the whole movie. Sharlto Copley got to play the cool villain by being a complete nutjob, albeit an extremely dangerous and lethal one. Strangely, it was the dual Academy Award winner, Jodie Foster, who ended up as the weak link. I think she what she could with her flimsy lines, but she couldn’t help that her character was a cardboard cutout who was never as important as we thought she was.

Final word: Viewers expecting Elysium to be Blomkamp’s allegorical portrayal of the world’s growing wealth gap in the same way he tackled apartheid in District 9 might be disappointed. But who says all of his movies need to have a potent political message? In many ways, I actually enjoyed Elysium more than District 9. With a considerably bigger budget (US$115 million vs US$30 million), enhanced star power and an enlarged scale (seeing it on IMAX was particularly stunning), Elysium is one of the year’s more exciting and aesthetically impressive action blockbusters. It might not tick all the boxes, but the film is never boring and should keep audiences completely engaged for its apt 109-minute running time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)


District 9 is a film that I really liked but wish I liked more.

Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp (previously best known for his 3D animations), the film has an original and fascinating premise with a political message – aliens stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa and segregated by an apartheid government into the titular District 9 (a reference to the infamous South African ‘whites only’ District Six of 1966).

However, the film was not as political as I expected – while it may have started off that way, before long it morphed into your more typical action sci-fi film, complete with an impossible mission, robots and alien blasters.

Stylistically, the movie was also somewhat uneven.  It commenced with a documentary-infused style which utilises a mixture of news footage, interviews and a ‘live’, nausea-inducing hand-held cam (which made my wife ill).  It was fresh but after half-an hour of it I was beginning to get sick of it (both mentally and physically).  But as the film started to become more personal and action-oriented (and for where news cameras would not have been available), it started to return to more traditional film-making and story-telling techniques.  Strangely, it was at this point that I began to really enjoy the movie.  Perhaps it was because characters finally started emerging and plot started moving.  Regardless, it was fun.

Speaking of characters, the human actors are largely unknowns (to me anyway), and they put in credible performances.  The lead actor, Sharlto Copley who plays Wikus van de Merwe, really annoyed me at the beginning but he grows on you as the film progresses.

Needless to say, the special effects were seamless.  So was the make-up.  I especially liked the alien design, a far cry from your slim, grey-skinned extra-terrestrial with the big black eyes.  They were funny (and provided much comic relief) but human enough for audiences to relate when required.

So overall, an unusual, solid film – one that I’m likely to remember a few years from now.  There were some glaring plot holes and inconsistencies, but District 9 is impressive enough in most other areas for me to recommend it.

3.5 stars out of 5!