Neill Blomkamp is a director with a bright future. Thanks to his stellar CV, he has taken the reigns on the upcoming ‘Aliens 5’ and I for one am very excited. His past work has impressed me greatly, starting with his 2006 short, Alive in Joburg. It is readily available on YouTube and signaled the heights Blomkamp could attain. This experience moved straight into his first full feature, fully realising this potential.
District 9 (2009)
“Baby, I might have crapped my pants.”
District 9 is extremely smart sci-fi on a small scale. The distinctly courageous debut feature from Neill Blomkamp is a wonder to behold. Blomkamp did not try to create huge distant worlds in his opening salvo, but made a film driven by story and premise in a very accessible quasi-reality.
Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) undergoes a gripping physical transformation after unique contact with the alien beings, leading him into a fight for survival and freedom. His story is spellbinding and Copley is phenomenal. District 9 is the epitome of the phrase ‘a desperate man is a dangerous man’.
The film, though centred on aliens on earth, is important through its real world parallels: otherness, immigration, treatment of refugees and a reflection of South Africa’s troubled past are all present. The film shows a dominant majority exerting its will over an alien minority, whom are unaware of their place or rights. The insensitive nature of corporation is attacked, and though you may feel that the ideas are similar to those you have seen before, District 9 is a distinct triumph.
“Oh, that’s a real comfort.”
Retaining some of the same parallels as District 9, it is easy to see Elysium as a continuation. Yet, it is better not to.
Blomkamp has recently stated that he “f*cked” Elysium up “a little bit.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it is clear that Elysium is not the film District 9 is. Again set in the same world, Elysium lacks some of the same scope, message or inventive film-making as District 9.
It does however, signal that Blomkamp can produce good grandiose film-making. He builds on the quasi-reality of his first picture, creating an idyllic second world that hangs over the old one.
The characters are not as strong in Elysium as District 9, but the actions flows faster. Whereas Wickus traverses the fine line between hero and villain, Damon’s Max is much more one-dimensional. He is consistently the hero despite his actions. The trauma Max suffers is not as transformative as that of Wikus, but it is just as visceral. It follows a more ambitious and inspiring path with more action and features Copley as a katana-wielding antithesis of his District 9 self.
People have disliked Elysium. I am not one of those people. Elysium is a very good film.
“You’re making me angrier than a frog in a sock.”
Chappie is the worst of the three. Chappie hasn’t the message or dramatic tension of District 9, nor the dirty action of Elysium. What Chappie does do is blend elements of both these films into a lighter ‘popcorn’ picture that isn’t quite as impressive as either predecessor.
This isn’t to say that Chappie is a bad film. I think that the comparison with District 9 and Elysium has weighed heavily on early Chappie reviews. Do not go into Chappie expecting a follow on from either of Blomkamp’s past films. Though the film is again set in a similar world to its siblings, Blomkamp has chosen to make a more light-hearted film, with more focus on enjoyment than meaning.
Its beginning is straight out of District 9, with documentary style narration of the film’s place in history. The film again initially focusses on an office worker, Patel’s engineer, and the dramatic situation he gets himself into. Dev Wilson (Patel) manages to creates the world’s first A.I. but is forced to import it into a faulty model. His ambition to create a robot that can “think and feel” is charming and retains Patel’s innate magnetism.
Retaining the same deteriorated location and many of the same side characters, one feels very comfortable watching Chappie. The addition of Die Antwoord is seamless amongst Blomkamp’s human furniture, whilst the marvelously-mullet-ed Jackson and ‘Ripley’ Weaver are nice to see, if somewhat underutilised.
The story is slightly convoluted, as several characters’ issues intertwine. However, these aren’t as full as those in District 9 or Elysium. Their streamlined stories are easy to attach oneself to as one does not have to keep changing focus onto each part of the film. The lines the film follows are still very enjoyable and transfixing. Chappie’s strained family relationship is both jovial and serious, whilst the perils Patel and Ninja face are occasionally thrilling. Though this isn’t as action-friendly as Elysium, it will be the only Neill Blomkamp feature that you will laugh at.
Furthermore, the film brings up issues of the use of A.I. in the modern world, but in the aftermath of Ex Machina, these issues felt somewhat childish. This is the nature of ‘popcorn’ movies; as well-thought out as their messages may be, the gravitas is missing.
The film’s saving grace is Chappie himself. His childlike curiosity, boyish humour and instinctive humanity makes him a truly endearing A.I.. Sharlto Copley’s voice work is the perfect finish to the robot, giving him a nativity and a vulnerable strength that is only a joy to watch.
Chappie is far from being District 9, but that is a good thing. There is plenty not to like about Blomkamp’s latest picture, but as a standalone picture, Chappie is not a bad film. Still, that isn’t much of an endorsement so I will say this: I enjoyed Chappie, I loved the film’s characters and I enjoyed being back in the very familiar world. Yet, as I said at the start, it is the worse of Blomkamp’s pictures, and for that reason, many will be left underwhelmed.
And there you have it. Blomkamp done. Don’t forget to vote in the poll below and let me know your thoughts!