Hardcore Henry

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It seems to me that the action genre has been maligned in recent years, probably because at least ninety percent of it consists of creatively bankrupt, pitifully vapid, painfully generic dross. When I first saw the trailer for Hardcore Henry, I admit that my first reaction was a pretentious sneer at the blazing neon lights blatantly forming the words “Gimmick! Gimmick! Look at me!” 

So no-one was more surprised than I at the fact that Hardcore Henry turned out to be one of the most raucous joyrides that I’ve had the pleasure to experience all year.

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CHAPPiE

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You know, even after three feature films I still can’t decide if Neill Blomkamp is actually a good director. From a conceptual level, he works wonders; the worlds he creates are rich and vibrant, and his 3D motion capture and visual work are second to none. The problem, however, is that significantly less consideration is afforded to how all those different pieces ought to fit together and, as far as his films are concerned, I’m kind of let down by how much the seams seem to show, as it were, as he tries to fit all the parts together.

I’d like to tell you that Chappie is a hard sci-fi exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and its implications in a quickly changing and increasingly modernized world—but I can’t, because that would be lying. The actual film is about a robot adopting a thuggish affectation and then shooting up other robots. So forgive me if I sound bitter, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been sold a lie here. Even the trailer boasted promises of uncommon substance, including a voice-over of the film’s title character proclaiming, “I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Suffice it to say the reality of the situation is that what we ultimately got was a much shallower and garish production, unfortunately devoid of any real substance.

As I mentioned before, the 3D animation in all of Blomkamp’s films, not just Chappie, is unrivaled, owing chiefly to the fact that Blomkamp’s background before he entered the film industry was, in fact, animation. Much like Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, their backgrounds are in visual design, not writing, meaning that they generally have gorgeous-looking films that are riddled with plot holes and sloppy development. There are a lot of instances when the film just sort of glosses over the details only to move rapidly on to the next major point, hoping that the audience didn’t notice; and although I sometimes don’t mind the “artful dodge” technique (like in Looper, for example), in this instance it really took me out of the experience.

It seems strange, but in each of Blomkamp’s films, I can almost point to the exact moment when the story takes just slightly too large a leap, which ultimately ends up losing me. In District 9 it was the fact that the allegorical drama I’d been watching suddenly turned into an action movie apropos of nothing; In Elysium (probably my favorite of the three) it was the magi-technological wonder-machines that instantly repaired Sharlto Copley’s mangled neck-stump; and in Chappie, it was the inexplicable discovery of human consciousness uploading—mere days after the invention of a primitive AI, mind—that was somehow attained thanks to the computing power of, like, six PlayStation 4s stacked on top of one another.

In all honesty, the film’s ending devolves into narrative gibberish. It’s like listening to a five year-old kid recount his imaginary adventures during playtime. Any pretense of realism is dropped so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, nice bow, which was a weird shift of tone that really threw me for a loop. Blomkamp is a fan of what you might call ‘soft’ sci-fi, and indeed, the science in Chappie is so soft that you could spread it on your toast and have it for breakfast.

Even without the more substantial plot elements and thematic exploration that I would have like to have seen, the film wasn’t all bad. The always-excellent Sharlto Copley does a lot of the mo-cap and voice action work for the character of Chappie, and to his and Blomkamps’s credit, it’s all pulled off beautifully. Likewise, it’s always a joy when you get to hear some genuine accents in a Hollywood movie, and Blomkamp’s dedication to his South African heritage is genuinely praiseworthy.

After having given it a bit of thought, I think I’d really like to see Blomkamp team up with someone like Dan O’Bannon, or with Ridely Scott to a lesser extent, to function in a sort of “ideas-man” capacity, much like George Lucas was the ideas-man during his collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. Either that, or Blomkamp really needs someone who can fill in the gaps that are missing in his stories, as well as the general world building.

Blomkamp’s movies are generally fun, and Chappie, at the very least, holds interest, but I was really quite disappointed that the film turned out to be just another slick, Hollywood action movie with the central conceit: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a robot acted like a gangster?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Elysium Review

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In a summer that’s been dominated by sequels and adaptations, it’s always nice to see a new IP like Elysium hit theaters. Disguised as a sci-fi thriller, the film attempts to intertwine sweeping social commentary with colorful, interstellar action amid a rich and visually stunning backdrop. The film’s predecessor, District 9, set the bar high with it’s thematically strong yet engaging story. So much so, in fact, that many now wonder if Elysium will be able to live up to the hype.

Coming to us from South African director Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is the sophomore entry in this skilled director’s resumé. As with District 9, Blomkamp attempts to present a somewhat realistic portrayal of a diseased and war-torn Earth, which contrasts impressively with the sleek futuristic design of the space station. Admittedly, the film incorporates some genuinely impressive visuals, and with Blomkamp’s own extensive experience in 3D animation and design, it’s no surprise that his work reaches the zenith as far as aesthetics and CG are concerned.

Starring Matt Damon and including cameo appearances by Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley, Elysium follows the story of Max (Damon) who, due to an industrial accident, finds himself with only a few days left to live. Out of desperation, Max teams up with a hacker and attempts con his way into Elysium in order to receive the medical treatment necessary to heal him. Naturally, mayhem ensues and Max is ultimately embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Elysium. The acting here is more or less solid all the way around with the standout being Sharlto Copley as the deranged sleeper agent Kruger. Copley, you may remember, was the standout star of District 9 as the goofy yet earnest Wikus Van Der Merwe, and his transformation here is not only jolting but extremely impressive, especially considering his relative newness to the industry. More interesting still is the fact that Eminem was originally offered the role of Max De Costa, though he insisted that the film be shot in Detroit which ended up being disagreeable to some of the studios involved in production.

Despite the many things that the film does well, it still has its share of problems. For instance, I’ve heard it said that some of the scenes intended to be a commentary on societal issues are obnoxiously heavy handed and obvious. While I can say that the masses on Earth are a rather obvious metaphor for immigrants (Spanish being the preferred language, individuals being referred to as ‘undocumented’- that kind of thing) I didn’t think that it detracted from the film to any significant degree. What did detract from the film, however, were the weird, unexplained plot elements. In short, the film suffers from a severe case of Super Blood Syndrome. What I mean to say is that a hugely important, plot critical piece of technology is introduced, but no effort is made to explain how it works or how it can feasibly exist within the confines of the narrative. Like the inexplicable “super blood” found in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Elysium introduces a kind of vita chamber or med bay which can cure any illness or malady instantly. This technology is ostensibly cheap and efficient but is nonetheless kept out of the reach of Earthbound citizens for no other reason than pure, unadulterated greed. Honestly, the simple truth is that it doesn’t make any sense, and unfortunately, my engagement in the story suffered as a result.

It’s abundantly clear that Blomkamp and his creative team put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating the deep and complex world of Elysium. Like District 9, the world in which the story takes place feels alive and actually populated with thinking, feeling beings struggling on their respective paths amid the chaos. It’s for this reason that Joe and I both agreed that we would have like to see the narrative a little more fleshed out and the characters and their motivations explored a little more deeply. I simply think it’s a missed connection to not expand upon the universe that Blomkamp has  worked so hard to create. Personally, I wouldn’t mind turing this concept into a mini-series or a full fledged television show. Not that that would ever happen in a million years, but, to quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

All in all, Elysium is a beautiful looking, well acted exercise in sci-fi, let down by some unfortunate plot issues and character motivations. Though it doesn’t quite live up to the wold-shattering success of District 9, it remains a pretty enjoyable experience mixed with a poignant message about those who have and those who have not.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5