Holy shit it’s been a while…
When you think about Niel Blomkamp’s most successful films (District 9 and to a lesser extent Elysium), you think of large-scale action movies set in run-down dystopias that strike closer to home than most. You think of poignant social commentary and South African accents. You think of ambitious movies that hit the mark they seek.
Chappie is a much smaller film in many ways. It’s done on a much smaller scale, it’s set in a future that’s closer than most and the social commentary is less relevant.
The last two of the aforementioned criteria are even smaller. The ambition isn’t huge when compared to his previous works, and the film is essentially a jazzed-up, grittier version of Short Circuit.
I suppose Chappie hits the mark that it seeks, but instead of hitting it with impact, it bounces off meekly and plops on the floor like a wet sponge.
The concept isn’t an original one – a scientist has made a bunch of militant robots for the police, and one of them develops consciousness and realises that violence isn’t the answer. I’ll say it again – THIS MOVIE IS SHORT CIRCUIT.
Instead of developing the relationship with his maker, or being adopted by Steve Gutenberg, Chappie finds himself stuck with the members of South African hip-hop crew Die Antwoord, playing themselves. All they do is sit in their abandoned building of a home all day, listening to their own music. Oh and in between bouts of sitting around doing nothing they occasionally steal cars. Call me pedantic but I find that highly unbelievable, and if it’s true then it’s even worse.
Anyway where was I? Hugh Jackman plays an angry Australian who has one of the worst movie mullets of the modern age and likes to hold a rugby ball while making evil plans. He’s there to personify the issue of police using robots and the potential for malevolence, but it’s barely dealt with. This movie does that a lot.
It touches on crime and poverty, parenthood, childhood development, the development of a conscience, whether certain attributes of humanity are ingrained or learned, technology and society and more, but wades through each of them, barely up to its knees. If the film had dived under and really explored one or two of these issues deeply then it might have more to give than a press kit for Die Antwoord.
The worst thing about this movie, without a doubt, is the script. The dialogue is clunky and often unnecessary – a problem Blomkamp never had to worry about in District 9 (Sharlto Copley improvised all of his dialogue).
If you haven’t seen the 1986 classic Short Circuit before, you’ll probably think Chappie is a good film based on an interesting premise. But I have seen it before. I know which one I prefer. 5/10
EX MACHINA (2015)
The inadequacy of the script in Chappie is even clearer when you watch a movie like Ex Machina, released at a similar time and covering similar subject matter in a far more interesting and comprehensive fashion.
The film features three characters; the employee we meet straight away who, in the opening scene, has just won a company-wide competition to go to the house of the CEO, who is our second character.
He’s obviously revered by his staff and has developed a kind of mysticism. He’s a recluse who lives in an electronic fortress of a house that seems to be built into the mountains out in the middle of nowhere. While he may be smart, he’s also a massive douchebag who has picked the life of isolation and has developed the narcissism and alcoholism that go along with it. He’s a bro, with no friends.
It turns out the employee isn’t just there to pick the brains of someone he perceives as a genius, he’s there to take part in an experiment — a Turing test on our third character, Ava, who is… (dun dun DUNNNN) a robot. She’s sexier than Chappie.
A Turing test is a test of artificial intelligence which, to be successful, needs a human to be unable to differentiate between the machine and a person. We’re subsequently taken through a host of interactions between Ava and the employee. Yes, I can’t remember the character name, and yes I could just Google it right here while I’m writing – BUT THIS IS A BLOG NOT FREAKING EMPIRE MAGAZINE.
Of course there’s an awkward sexuality between them in the film, but it’s kept as tension with a slight air of manipulation and uncertainty that holds your attention so much more than any vulgar robot kink. I mean, she’s got a face and whatnot but those arms are all metal.
This movie doesn’t waste time with background. We meet Ada early in the film and it’s a good thing, because it allows the story and the script to really focus on the Turing test and the interactions between Ava and employee. It asks the question of humanity, like Chappie does, but it really explores the ideas of consciousness and technology, with a bit of lust and morality thrown in there too, and it explores them well. Setting it out in the middle of nowhere, in isolation, really helps the film to narrow down and focus on its ideas too.
One thing working against this film (although it could just be me) is the fact that it feels like it will inevitably lead to a big twist at the end, and I had up to four different endings planned in my head throughout. Thankfully some of them are explored in the story, like the character is crossing them off the list at the same time you are. I warn you against over-imagination throughout as it could lead to you being underwhelmed with the ending, like I was. I’ll even help you out with a big one – THE EMPLOYEE IS NOT A ROBOT TOO, SO STOP THINKING IT.
I found little to dislike about Ex Machina. There are a bucketload of films out there that explore the ideas of robotic consciousness and morality, but this one feels a little different. Maybe it’s because it focuses on such a small world of singular relationships without societal context, maybe it’s because I’m comparing it to farken Chappie. Either way. 7.5/10