Chappie is no Jonny Five and that’s great

I liked Chappie. It’s a very solid contribution to the science fiction subgenre of robot and artificial intelligence movies. It may not appeal to folks who are not well versed in robot movies, and that’s ok.

It makes me sad to see the degree to which formal reviewers have been ripping this movie apart, calling it a tropy ripoff of other robot movies.  It’s a robot genre movie, people, come on! Anyone who insists on labeling Chappie as a ripoff of the 80’s classic Short Circuit hasn’t seen Short Circuit in 29 years.  As a science fiction loving child of the 80’s who owned a VHS copy of Short Circuit, which got pulled out anytime I was tired of She-Ra and couldn’t whine my parents into renting Gamera again, I can state with great authority that Chappie is no Johnny Five, and it’s a good thing.

Chappie and Johnny Five are both military robots who achieve consciousness, but that really is the one connecting plot device, a similar theme being explored.  Johnny Five wakes up sentient somewhat miraculously after basically being hit by lightning, while Chappie’s consciousness was the result of an intentionally installed experimental AI.  They both explore the question of what happens after said military robot becomes sentient and starts learning and interacting with people, but they do it in very different worlds, surrounded by very different characters and influences.  There are probably four shelves worth of books in the scifi section of my local library that explore this very theme, and they are not considered ripoffs of each other.

There is also the fact that pretty much no one who is more than five years younger than me has ever seen Short Circuit, and it really is ok to recycle old ideas for a modern audience.  We have a very different concept of Artificial Intelligence in 2015 than we did in 1986, and I am the sort of person who will probably enjoy any attempt to explore the consequences of AI consciousness in film.

Now that I have defended the hell out of this movie against what I think are empty criticisms, let’s really talk about it.

Chappie is a good science fiction movie.  It is not, however, a great piece of scifi, and it will have little or no appeal to people who aren’t really into science fiction.  It is possible that it won’t really appeal to anyone who doesn’t love almost any movie with a robot in it.

Neill Blomkamp delivers a disturbingly realistic future where a robotic police force is being tested in Johannesburg. The robots in and of themselves are magnificent works of art.  They are covered in minute details from being used in combat, and the way they move is just alien and fluid enough to communicate their status as walking, talking, uncaring weapons. It turns the subtle differences between the normally functioning robots and sentient Chappie into some of the greatest evidence of Chappie’s individuality and character arc.

For reasons I may never understand, Neil Blomkamp and cowriter Terri Tatchell decided to write the stage characters of the South African band Die Antwoord into the film as violent criminals.  It’s more than a little distracting to watch Ninja and Yo-Landi play themselves in this movie, and there are scenes that feel like some of their crazier music videos.  It does detract from the movie, and I would have enjoyed the story more if the gangster couple had been cast by actors inspired by the band instead of actual rockstars taking up much of the screen time.

Dr. Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, is a slightly crazy but well-intentioned scientist with some pretty intense naivety about the world.  He has some scenes where he’s trying to imbue Chappie with morals, and I can’t decide whether they were meant to be serious or funny, because they’re right on that line of comical but don’t quite make it there.  Other than that, he’s a great character with a different spin on the mad scientist/Dr. Frankenstein trope.

Hugh Jackman is in this movie, has no sideburns, and he’s evil!  Really, really evil, and the craziest person in this movie.  I found watching him play a different sort of character than I’m used to seeing him cast in to be a delightful treat.  Evil Hugh Jackman let me forgive the weirdness of Die Antwood.

To recap:

This is not a movie for everyone.  It is a movie for people who love scifi movies about robots and have a tolerance for ridiculousness. Two of the main characters are rock stars playing themselves. This is balanced out by Evil Hugh Jackman. Chappie is, in no uncertain times, in any way a ripoff of Johnny Five from Short Circuit, and the five year old version of me will kick anyone in the shin who keeps trying to argue about that.

Review: The Grim, Hard Scifi of Elysium

matt damon as a cyborg, running

matt damon as a cyborg, runningElysium is grimy, bloody, hard science fiction.  It’s the kind of believable dystopian vision of the future that could influence your decision to produce offspring. It is a cyberpunk nightmare made real. Go see it.  

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium does what science fiction is supposed to do; ask how the technologies of today will advance into solutions for the problems of tomorrow, and at what human cost.  The answers aren’t pretty.  Blomkamp reimagines many of the difficult issues of our time still being a struggle despite the existence of technologies that seem to offer miraculous solutions.  

As Max Da Costa, Matt Damon is bald, dirty, and oozing blood and ick from open sores after his exoskeleton is attached.  Max is smart and resourceful, and desperate.  He lets a back alley surgeon turn him into a cyborg in order to perform a heist on security information uploaded into a billionaire’s brain.  (That’s right, William Gibson fans and Shadowrun players, this movie was made for you!)

Earth is something of a living hell, overpopulated, no animals, everything from the air to the water generally filthy.  Elysium is, well, “A place or state of perfect happiness.”  It’s lush and green and looks like a rich neighborhood in California today.  They have machines up there that can heal pretty much any disease or injury, and the poor down on Earth know it.  There’s an entire black market dedicated to getting people up there, usually to use the Med Bays.  Enter Secretary Delacourt.

Evil Jodie Foster is a terrifying thing to behold.  As Secretary of Defense Delacourt, she is completely devoted to protecting Elysium from the squalling peasant horror that is Earth, and will stop at nothing to do her job.  She’s like a meld of the brains of Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney.  Chew on that bad dream for a minute.  I can’t speak too much to her character without spilling some unforgivable spoilers, so suffice to say that she is not afraid to use her power to protect what is hers.

And of course there is Delacourt’s mad pet dog, Agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley).  If you look past the beard, you may remember this guy; he played Wikus van der Merwe, the lead character in Blomkamp’s last scifi hit, District 9.  As Kruger, he is the most disturbing thing in this film. A raging psychopath, convicted rapist, and beefed up with the most advanced cyborg tech, he is a monster. A monster backed by the money and authority of Elysium, beefed up with the most advanced cyborg tech.  The fight scenes between Kruger and Max are basically cyborgs fighting an MMA match, and it is awesome.

The cheese factor in Elysium is actually pretty low.  The space station is believable, the cyborg tech will probably be here in a few years, and Los Angeles as urban desert in 2154 is not a stretch at all.  The only really cheesy points in the film are dialogue, which occasionally tries too hard.  Fortunately, it isn’t bad enough to distract from the movie, and is literally my only complaint.  Less than stellar dialogue is a very minor sin in the SF genre.  Overall, Elysium is a damn good science fiction film.