Overview: Neill Blomkamp admits to the faults of Elysium by amplifying what doesn’t work in every possible way with a robot that spends too much time with Die Antwoord. 2015; Columbia Pictures; R; 120 minutes.
Past: I might be out of my depth, but I think of District 9 is a modern science fiction classic. Some might argue D9 sort of fumbles its core conceit with the action heavy third act. I don’t find the conflict being solved with violence as problematic as others, but I can see where they’re coming from. D9 floored me with its admittedly heavy handed symbolism for apartheid and indicated Neill Blomkamp is a director worth looking out for. His world-building felt unprecedented for a blockbuster with a price tag of 30 million dollars. Had we found our next great director? Elysium would force us to question this conclusion for a number of reasons, all of which (and more) can be seen in CHAPPiE.
Present: CHAPPiE is exhibit A in determining whether or not Blomkamp should write his own material. There are ideas at play but they’re all handled wrong from the jump. You should know the movie showing in theaters is not the movie promised in the trailers. I’m all for misdirection, but the main selling point for Chapsies is the idea that we’ll see a growing mind through artificial intelligence. As with all artificial intelligence in movies, there are many philosophical issues presented by this. Only here, the issues sprout from a writing standpoint. If this creation learned so much, why not just have Chappo understand emotions or basic human empathy? I’m not a stickler for movie logic, but what exactly are the ground rules here? Chapstick is allowed to learn how to use weapons and even throwing stars, but he can’t gain intelligence beyond a general child mindset? Perhaps it’s because Blomkamp’s ideas and scripts feel robotic in themselves. The truth is that with a highly learned, sophisticated robot, Blomkamp couldn’t easily manipulate the audience into liking the character.
CRAPPiE spends so much time smashing us into submission with Chumbo’s innocence, it becomes an emotional chore to sit through. Oh, we’re supposed to feel bad for this construct because of his innocence, which is corrupted by his foster mother and father, two gangbangers played by Die Antwoord, playing themselves (yup). Their acting is decent, but Blomkamp wants to have it both ways with these characters. They’re morally decrepit but Yolandi is painted as a loving mother figure and Ninja is a protective father. It’s all bullshit since they’re leading Chumbo into a life of crime.
To further the issues, the sheer disregard for tone is beyond frustrating. Hugh Jackman’s villain is a cartoonish high-school bully from an 80s teen comedy. He’s obtuse in this world, with supposed inspiration from Ricky Gervais as David Brent, lacking any characterization besides “angry gun guy.” At one point he even threatens Dev Patel’s character in an office full of people by pointing his gun at him. Nobody does or says anything so you know he’s a serious bad guy, I guess. Having Jackman’s character be such an unrelenting angry brick wall with a mini-mullet is further amateur manipulation to get the audience on the side of ChunkY. But don’t worry, Blomkamp homages (steals) the design of ED-209 from the original RoboCop and has Jackman pilot it against Gumby to stop artificial intelligence from putting him out of a job, or something.
Everyone minus Dev Patel’s Deon character is so inept and duplicitous, we’re forced to agree with Yolandi and Ninja as “heroes” for some odd reason. But not me. I wanted Hugh Jackman to just kill everyone. This is already an ugly movie. I’d go as far as to call it “morally decrepit.” Blomkamp should have just gone all the way. But that would need to be intentional. I’m just not sure Blomkamp knows how to close off a story or thematic through line without resorting to “let’s blow it up.”
Future: Neill Blomkamp isn’t a lost cause, and I certainly don’t hold any disdain towards him. He’s 1 for 3 and for a filmmaker that’s not bad. He’s nowhere near the path M. Night Shyamalan finds himself on. He can still design worlds that inspire visual awe, with Captcha being perhaps his most visually impressive work to date. The WETA artists have crafted something truly remarkable in Chumpy’s seamless integration into the foreground. Sharlto Copley gives a good motion capture performance. That’s pretty much the only quality Blomkamp seems to consistently have a good grasp on. Maybe if he gets a strong producer and have someone else hand him better scripts, we might have another good Blomkamp movie. Until then, we’ve got a serious stinker on our hands. Let’s hope his next one can wash this off.