My good mate Flick and I went to see Chappie last week and walked away impressed, and yet it’s been consistently rated as Blomkamp’s worst film by far. The following is a back and forth over email, trying to flesh out why that might be, and what it was about the film that we responded to.
Take it away, Flick.
I’ve been thinking a lot why maybe this movie hasn’t been critically well received.
I think it presents quite complex concepts in an easy to digest manner without scaring the shit out of people. Because what it presents is not out of the realm of possibility and not far off. It makes it enjoyable and tries to make it something hopeful, instead of all SHIT! THE MACHINES ARE TAKING OVER.
How is that not a good thing?
You’re right. I’d add that I think there’s a couple of factors at play.
- District 9 hangover. People’s expectations of his films are overblown given the response his first film engendered—it was unexpected, well executed, and original. Chappie isn’t as original, but it is well executed, but you don’t get great points for execution. People have called it Short Circuit meets Robocop, which is stupidly reductive.
- Sci-fi expectations. This, I think, is your argument. Have a look at Automata, which is a shitty, shitty Antonio Banderas vehicle dealing with much the same subject matter; hominid machines which become sentient. It’s bleak, humanity is wiped out, the machines use their intelligence poorly (if at all), and are dependent on humanity for any agency. The Metacritic score is only 4 points lower than Chappie (out of 100)
- Die Antwoord. I’ve seen a bit of chatter about critics being turned off by Die Antwoord, that their acting is atrocious, that they feel “scummy” watching them. (True story. Ugh.)
- World building. I’ve also seen a criticism that, unlike his other films, the world feels small and constrained. My counter is that it implies a lot, and that the dependence on world building in Elysium meant its story was bogged down in exposition.
Hopefully needless to say I disagree with almost all of these points. Chappie 4 lyf.
Yeah, I agree.
People have this tendency to compare to the directors last work, which is completely fine. Like, we all do it, but District 9 and Elysium explored very similar things which were sci-fi enhanced metaphors for Apartheid. Chappie is not that at all; he’s decided to explore something entirely different and not everyone is on board.
Sci-fi is a really difficult genre, and I typically critique it quite harshly because Blade Runner is my favourite film and it’s hard to outdo that. I think a lot of sci-fi gets bloated with explaining tech and then falling apart with continuity and fantastical science that does not exist, then with cheesy dialogue and explosions. What Chappie does is takes the actual possibilities of AI and makes it palatable for the lay man. Sure, there is cheese but it also makes the robot a likeable protagonist that you root for when, most people would be pretty upset if a robot took their job. I would say the transfer of consciousness was a reach but then I considered how a super AI could potentially figure out what a human never has been able to do.
I was worried about Die Antwoord to be honest, thinking that’s quite an odd choice of casting. And at first I was cringing because it just felt forced but over the course of the film I definitely felt they found their own. Yeah, their brand was slammed everywhere and it felt a bit… like product placement and that had me roll my eyes a couple times, also the fact they blasted their own music. But I could overlook it in favour of other more positive elements.
In terms of world building I don’t think he needed to build a world at all. What he did was set it in South Africa, a world he knows so well, a world that already exists, and then added actual plausible technology advancements to it. I’m not really sure what people wanted? They explained why there was a need for these scout robots, they explained how the AI was developed and implemented. Did they want to know why South Africa was so crime ridden? It has been for many, many, many years, it should be no shock.
Sci-Fi is super difficult—its just so hard to find the right balance between building a believable world and letting the characters get on with their stories. Like William Gibson often says, science fiction is really a way of viewing our present, and is never actually about the future. With that in mind, I think Chappie does a good job of capturing our hopes and fears for the future of artificial intelligence.
Blade Runner. Hoo boy, that is a hard film to top. I saw recently that it’s one of the few science fiction films with, y’know, weather. Everywhere else has these perfect noon paintings for their backgrounds—maybe because its easier to do the CGI and have the lighting match. Blomkamp’s South Africa is dusty, crime ridden, hot, and interesting; everywhere they shot felt real and lived in, which can barely be said for anything that came out last year, except for some moments in Interstellar.
I think that Die Antwoord were essential to my enjoyment of the film. Their aesthetic, language, and outlook all created a very different movie from having just another set of gangsters. Inherent in what I’ve seen of Blomkamp’s work to date is this real sense of redemption. That criminality is a construct of the state, and that individual actions require context and intent, rather than strict lawfulness.
It’s worth remembering that he’s a young director with huge expectations. Chappie is only his third feature film. He’s 36 years old, with a hopefully long career ahead of him. I don’t think Chappie is perfect, but it has enough in it for it to be enjoyable.
I think a lot of directors who tackle sci-fi get swept up in, a grand future, with unbelievable technology and then a dystopian feel. Which is only really a small fraction of what it should be. That is why I love Gibson so much; even if you dive into a world like in Neuromancer that at first feels foreign to you, because you don’t understand the jargon, and he doesn’t spend time explaining the tech or the science (which I love), you eventually start comparing and contextualising it in association to the world you know and live in. You begin to understand his tech as adaptations of what already exists and it’s never about that, it’s always about the people and how they interact with it, and how it’s changing interactions within the world we know, for better and worse.
Same can be said for Philip K Dick. Sure many of his short stories take place on other planets but it’s not really about that, it’s more about society and the people, which is where a lot of sci-fi falls flat. But that’s what I think Blomkamp is getting a feel for, I wouldn’t say he’s got it right but he definitely understands that it’s about the people in the world we’re in, not a fake glorified world. Each of his movies have been recognisable, maybe people don’t like being confronted with real poverty and crime on screen but unfortunately that’s the reality.
On that note, I would say Her is a pretty good sci-fi film (though many people didn’t view it as such).
And, yeah, Blade Runner is a high bar to set sci-fi to but it’s there.
Yeah, Die Antwoord made it enjoyable, and I think it’s essential that they were South African and they had that background. Maybe it’s because I know too much about them outside of the film, that made me just roll my eyes a little. And I think a lot of people don’t like to believe that criminality is a problem caused by the system, and not just people being bad for the sake of it, they don’t like being confronted with these issues and Blomkamp constantly shoves it in our face, which is good.
I hope he can do something amazing with Alien, it will be very interesting to see how he tackles what is beloved. I mean Alien and Aliens are very very good movies.
There are only a couple of writers, Gibson among them, that have managed to capture the feeling of the Future for me. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I think it comes down to the idea that the really drastic changes we experience are not technological but social. Imagine for a moment that you could take an Airbus A380 back to when the Wright brothers first invented powered flight—they’d get it. They may not understand exactly how it works, but they would understand that it was a gigantic version of the technology they were working on.
What they wouldn’t understand is the effect of that technology on the society around them. The condensing and eventual evaporation of distance that comes with the ability to reach the other side of the world in 24 hours. The ability for the middle class to travel for leisure. The change in migration patterns this causes. The change in infrastructure and jobs.
These are all unforeseeable consequences built on the back of a technical innovation.
Sci-fi maybe shouldn’t be much different from any other story telling; it should ask “Well, what if this situation happened—how would people react?” The worst of it gets focused on the situations, and not on the reactions. Or the reactions lack context and weight.
I’m actually a little sad that the Hollywood machinery has swallowed Blomkamp up—I’m much more interested in what he’s doing with his original work than in anything set in the Alien universe. If he can bring the best part of Alien and Aliens to the fore, and focus again on what this universe can tell us about the human condition, then I think it will be a success.
He does have a clarity to his story telling that is probably helpful for that context; it seemed like the last two movies in that franchise got a little too convoluted.
Yes, I think sci-fi a lot of the time gets too caught up in the technology and what could be and the imagination. That is cool but it’s a small part of it all I find. For me, why I love it so much is that it’s actually just sociology with science and technology mixed in, in a future that could happen and how people could be. When done well it (for me anyway) makes me look at things and question people’s motives and how it reflects on current society.
In film it’s quite clear they get so carried away with CGI and making things look futuristic. But some of my most favourite more recent sci-fi films are quite low budget and not at all about trying to show off futuristic tech. Like Under The Skin, or Another Earth (one of my favs of the last 10 years), it’s far more about how society is interacting with these changes. Ridley Scott has an understanding of this relationship, and very few more recent directors know how to get it right.
Blomkamp definitely has the potential. I do agree that his more original storytelling is what he should be focusing on but he is a sci-fi enthusiast and he’s been given a huge honour to direct one of the greats. I would be hard pressed to turn something like that down if I’d been offered that. It also might give him more future wiggle room, if it is a success then he might have more freedoms within Hollywood to d the projects he wants, I’m not really sure. But I think for many directors Hollywood is a stifling environment to grow the way you want.