In what seems to be a knee jerk backwards step after receiving criticism for the heavy handed social commentary in Elysium, Neill Blomkamp has apparently decided to avoid any serious attempt at moral messages and create a straight up schlock fest, with cartoonish figures fighting with and against the title character, which is itself a blue and orange robo-child. There are a handful of minor references to religion versus science and a couple of lines about machines having souls, but these are so fleeting that it might have been better to cut them out entirely. But I have a hard time disliking the guy even if the promise shown in District 9 seems like a long time ago. This remains someone that thinks in terms of 'what if illegal aliens were aliens' and 'what if the rich-poor divide as visible from spaaace' while throwing in the best of Weta Digital. The action spectacle and production design work is pretty stellar as usual and while I have a lot of complaints this is still an entertaining film. But to get into those issues will take me some explaining, so let's get to it.
Not content just to create a big screen translation of the short film Tetra Vaal, Blomkamp has a whole lot of other ideas being thrown into the mix, not always in equal measures. It's a balancing act of action comedy, Jo'burg heist story and Robocop remake, and the influences are very apparent. Straight away there are synthesized voices that sound like Peter Weller, with a big corporation waiting to bring out a symbol of mechanised overkill. This is a pretty open homage right down to the company in-fighting. But whatever the problems here at least this is never has bad as the actual remake of Paul Verhoven's classic. The rest of the ideas are all over the place without much balance, sometimes jumping from what feels like one genre to another as the faux documentary scenes are dropped for a story about the possibilities of A.I. emotion and then another about an underdog gang of car thieves desperate for one last score. These are all interesting concepts but they don't gel together a great deal despite the entertainment value. They've also been done better elsewhere in the past, perhaps with less graffiti and gang dialects.
Holding things together are a cast which varies in effectiveness. These characters have no depth whatsoever, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. The same can be said for Elysium which is probably better purely in terms of high tech gadgets and imagination - although the depth levels are similar. Hugh Jackman tries to sell his military grade killing machine to the local police who already have perfectly good help on the streets, and he occasionally exclaims 'what in the name of the Lord!' and other ridiculous things about church and 'godless creations'. His opponent and the man responsible for the successful scout robots is pretty flat and lacks even a one dimensional type of charisma. I thought at several points it would be so much more interesting to have Sharlto Copley play both Chappie and his creator for thematic and acting reasons. Sigourney Weaver just sits in a chair most of the time as the company manager, and could have been combined with the antagonist to achieve a stronger dynamic. And let's not forgot the rap group Die Antwoord who are not nearly as bad as you might think as actors, but over do it at times teaching Chappie about life and crime; and push things a bit far when listening to their own real world music in some scenes.
All these people highlight the main issue - though it's about a robot learning to be human that element isn't central enough. Chappie himself should have been given a greater focus rather than just learning so fast that he's cracked the problem of computer-human neural interfaces within a few short scenes. It's kind of a big mess with plot issues like that coming up frequently without much discussion, yet at the same time it just about works. At least it's a watchable mess. But can they get things together and make a serious screen version of Yellow next time?
Onto another giant mess and one is less successful by a long way, The Wachowski's attempt at space opera and sci-fi fantasy stumbles so much that it's difficult to sit through. With a plot about dissolving entire races one planet at a time to create an eternal youth potion, things should have been fun. It should have had quirky humour and offbeat characters, but this is the kind of thing which made people think Guardians of the Galaxy was a risky idea. The action spectacle is a CG drenched over saturated disaster, far from the slick Hong Kong cinema inspire Matrix battles, and the performances range from hammy to dead eyed sleepwalking. Jupiter Jones, heir to a space empire thanks to what is apparently random genetics, finds herself being kidnapped and rescued so many times it becomes funny when a scene is set and the same thing happens all over again. Kidnapping, falling off high things, forced marriage, blackmail - all just in time to be rescued by a lifeless fashion model hero. One glimpse of what might have been appears in a scene straight out of Brazil or even The Fifth Element but it's over so fast that it might have well been an editing mistake left in from a different project. I thought at the time the Cloud Atlas needed some work but this is an entirely different problem.