Short Reviews: Chappie (2015)

chappieCredit where credit’s due, Neil Blomkamp is inventive enough with his ideas to be able to do something different with an established trope. Into the oeuvre of highly intelligent robots combating their human overseers who want to shut them down, we enter Chappie, a case of Johnny 5 not so much being alive, as he is born and put through an existential storm of crime warfare.

However, as plagued District 9 before it, Blomkamp is a creator of light ideas that don’t support themselves for the run of an entire film. The initial interest generated by the concept peters out and the film is left to devolve into fairly standard fare. In Chappie’s case specifically, the issue is perhaps that there are too many conflicting ideas that interfere with each other, where as delving into one and exploring it – both plotwise and thematically – would have been more beneficial overall.

The concept is that Johannesburg has introduced a robotic police force of “scouts” that have been overwhelmingly successful in assisting police to reduce the rates of crime and established criminal gangs in the city. The scouts’ developer Deon (Dev Patel) is kidnapped by a small gang (led by Die Antwoord, playing odd versions of their outlandish personalities) and forced to program a damaged scout to be at their service, however he programs it with his new AI which enables it to think, feel and learn like a human – the titular Chappie.

The idea is novel, and the execution of Chappie is fantastic, with Sharlto Copley lending a childlike naïveté and tenderness to the advanced AI that quickly endears him as a character, and makes scenes of his battles against the harsh realities of criminal life in Johannesburg very affecting. The juxtaposition of Chappie’s innocence against his gritty surroundings is the movie’s biggest – and perhaps only – strength.

The problem is that the movie tries to do too much – an existential study of what it means to be human with the difference between a soul and a consciousness, the interplay of small gang vs. large gang vs a very efficient police force, the battle between an artistic creator in Deon and the rivalry he faces from a moralistic military man (Hugh Jackman, sporting an awful mullet), and a character study of the dysfunctional “family” Chappie is raised by. The film never adequately explores the ideas presented in these scenarios as it trades off against giving each narrative thread as much time as possible, and it would’ve been a far smarter idea to pick one thread and roll with it deeply, rather than trying to keep too many narrative plates spinning.

Overall it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t better serve its title character, because the potential is there, and he’s a fascinating character in the first two acts, before the film inevitably runs out of narrative steam and devolves into an overplayed shootout. Chappie deserves better than that.

Short Reviews: Maleficent (2014)

maleficent

The movie is really really pretty, and Angelina Jolie is fucking fantastic in the title role. Everything else is up for debate.

If you cherish Eleanor Audley’s undeniably badass rendition of the character from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (she is after all the only Disney villain to go all the way and invoke the powers of Hell) then there’s plenty to enjoy in Jolie’s performance, but it’s likely to be an unsatisfactory whole – simply put, for a villain as impressive and commanding as the original Maleficent, Maleficent’s origins as presented here are somewhat lacklustre.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy perspective flip stories, then you may be in luck with this alternate take on her history – there’s reason and weight behind her cursing Aurora here, more so than simply being snubbed from a christening.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that it is, after all, a movie made for families and younger audiences, and that perhaps a descent into the twisted mind of one of the Disney canon’s most formidable villains is a little darker than their intended viewers are capable of, so those expecting a cynical world of despair that adequately fits our star character should maybe readjust their expectations.

Jolie is divine as Maleficent, embodying the role and clearly having a ball hamming it up as much as she can. Elle Fanning is serviceable as Aurora, but isn’t really tasked with much more than smiling in insipid wonderment at the magical realm Maleficent inhabits. Sharlto Copley makes a slimy villain out of Stefan (though what’s with the accent?) and Sam Riley makes a good snarky foil as Maleficent’s raven-cum-manservant.

It’s fun as a different take on the Maleficent character, and I really appreciated that they didn’t put the origins of her villainy down to “heartbroken by a man” – that it was an act of actual betrayal that deserved revenge was much appreciated, even if the scene itself did seem just a little date-rapey.

The greatest misgiving I have about the film is that here, Maleficent is a purely reactionary character, acting on impulse to the world around her and its slings and arrows, whereas the original character was cold, calculating and gloriously evil. Maleficent’s Maleficent is a presence to behold, but in the same way that a tornado causes a lot of damage and then blows itself out, so to does this modern incarnation; not so much a force of Hell as she is a magical tantrum.

I recognise I’m in no target demographic of the movie, and I admit I saw it in obligation to my Angelina Jolie fanboy duties. It could have been much worse, and for what it’s worth, it’s a good fun film, it’s just that it feels it could have been more.

As a showcase of Jolie’s ability to embody any role, it’s fantastic, and even if you’re still questioning whether you should see it or not, you should definitely see it if only for her alone.