Tuesday, April 28, 2015


2014 Neill Blomkamp (Elysium) -- cinema

I really should be writing these around the days when the movie is still at its prime in the theatres, and in my head, instead of so long later that it has left your collective mind. And my head. But blog, not review site. Procrastination.

I like Blomkamp. I loved District 9 and I enjoyed Elysium despite it lacking something. I like his world, his vision much more than I like the stories he has created of late. OK, maybe not the stories themselves but the execution of them. I allow to give him time to work on that instead of having it so knife edged precise, that he burns out after a few good movies, like Shyamalan.

So far, Blomkamp also has a desire for a societal meaning to his movies. If you recall, District 9 was as much social satire as it was science fiction. The movie begins with a bureaucratic eviction notice served to aliens who may not even be able to read the contract they are shown. Sharlto Copley as low level (the program director's son in law), bumbling Wikus, is oblivious to the fact they were a slave race that may not even understand contracts, notices, etc. let alone read it. Its as comical as it is tragic. And once he is infected by the alien virus, he becomes as persona non grata as the aliens he refused to understand.

Chappie is rather heavy handed in the satire. Sometimes stumblingly so. To the point it sometimes seems unintentional.

Dev Patel is Deon, a robotics engineer with a desire to create the first self-aware AI. He has already had great success with his robot policemen, but they have a very narrow direction. We've seen these guys before, in his 2004 Tetra Vaal and also in Elysium. They are smooth moving CGI characters that seem more like traditional effects, they blend so seamlessly into their scenes. I love how Blomkamp is ever reusing his passion pieces, retooling them and expanding their repertoire. It parallels Deon as he retools one of his broken down police bots into Chappie, effectively the body being worn by the AI he hammers out on his home PC after he leaves work for the night.

Yes, another exploration of AI and the ramifications it has. But, no not really. The ramifications are rather glossed over until the movie reaches its climax. The movie is mostly a satirical look at how we react to the AI emergence. Deon is ecstatic at Chappie's birth but quickly annoyed when his place as surrogate father is overshadowed by the comical criminals that adopt him. Deon wants to be worshipped as creator, to have his creation stay rather innocent and perfect. But said criminals, played faithfully by South African punk/rap/whatever band Die Antwoord, have other plans for our steely main character.

Chappie emerges in a childlike state, ready for knowledge but with a rather confusing base state. Blomkamp seemed less interested in how a fresh AI would actually be and more interested in how we as humans could just mess things up for him. It could start its programmed life with so much downloaded but Deon has left him rather empty, maybe just dominated by a learning protocol. And seeing his born in the lair of the criminals, the first things Chappies learns are.... tainted.

Deon wants father-god worship, Ninja wants a working tough-guy machine to help him commit crimes and Yolandi (or ¥o-landi Vi$$er) sees Chappie as the newborn child, her child to be protected and coddled. Chappie seems to be the only one who gets what he is, how he has to emerge and how he deserves to live. Hell, Deon doesn't even seem to care that Chappie has a time-clock ticking, an irreplaceable battery that, when it dies, takes Chappie with it. I am sure Deon is already conceiving the next version, the one that will worship him. But Chappie has other ideas and the entire Internet of ideas is there at his disposal.

And of course, the rest of the world wants Chappie dead. A sentient robot scares them, not completely without validity considering its a gun-wielding cop bot. But Hugh Jackman's religion-bending, mullet wearing engineer in shorts really wants Chappie dead, but mainly because he wants his own personally designed cop bot to win out the contract for law enforcement in Joburg.  Jackman's bots are big, mean and full of weapons -- think ED-209 (Robocop) for a modern age. But with a remote control pilot.

I am pretty sure Jackman's character was meant to represent some social stereotype in South Africa, in his pseudo safari look, his mullet and religious fervour, but it is lost on us in NA. It still plays well into the satire, as Jackman sits only a few cubicles away from Deon but is so far away in design and success. The commentary of these  two geniuses sitting in cramped cubicles pumping out technology that sets the tone for an era made me snicker, with its commentary on the men who do the work and the suits in their offices making decisions. That Sigourney Weaver as the boss wants Chappie dead is more a matter of not understanding and not controlling whatever the hell Deon has created, than it is a real human reaction.

In the end Chappie lives, of course he does. But whereas Wikus ran off into the anonymity of the townships, now a full fledged alien, Chappie and Deon cannot be anonymous. They are the next stage in evolution of life on Earth. And yet, so very very dependant on their creators.

The satire was not entirely successful. I could not get over Ninja and Yolandi and their cartoonish presence. For them, Chappie was just the latest tech they couldn't understand but wished to exploit. I don't think they got much of a breakthrough this was. And we have to sit through so many comical interactions between them and Chappie, for a moment I really thought Blomkamp was fond of Short Circuit. But the movie is so much fun to watch, I forgave those aspects.