(US - 2015)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Jason Cope, Johnny Selema, Maurice Carpede. (R, 120 mins)
When DISTRICT 9 opened to rave reviews in 2009 and eventually landed a Best Picture Oscar nomination, it appeared as if South African writer/director and Peter Jackson protege Neill Blomkamp, making his feature debut, was going to be the next major name in sci-fi/fantasy cinema. His long-delayed sophomore effort ELYSIUM bowed in summer 2013 to mixed reviews and has seen its reputation plummet in the ensuing year and a half. ELYSIUM was heavy-handed in its politicizing, but flaws and all, it generally worked for me, and it's entirely possible that the scorn it received was just a matter of balancing out some of the overabundance of praise heaped on DISTRICT 9--a fine film, but one with plenty of its own problems. It was a situation reminiscent of Neil Marshall, feted as horror's latest wunderkind after THE DESCENT in 2005, but whose 2008 follow-up DOOMSDAY, an entertaining, John Carpenter and George Miller-inspired mix tape of '80s cult action and horror, ended up being an expensive flop dismissed and despised by fans who just didn't seem to get it. Not to sound all "haters gonna hate," but I'm still not sure what the DOOMSDAY audiences wanted that Marshall failed to deliver. The situation is similar to what Blomkamp got with ELYSIUM: some gripes and complaints that snowballed into a borderline irrational pile-on.
Johnny Five from SHORT CIRCUIT, and after cribbing from everything from BLADE RUNNER to PINOCCHIO, Blomkamp finally cashes out and ends up ripping off himself by turning it into a revamp of DISTRICT 9 with robots. There's precious little to praise and there's no way to sugarcoat it: CHAPPIE is incredibly and aggressively terrible.
Die Antwoord duo who earn the top acting dishonors. A little of these two goes a long way, and Blomkamp grants them entirely too much wiggle room. It's one thing to have their songs throughout the film, and another to have them playing characters who share their own names, but why is Ninja wearing a Ninja shirt with his own image and "Die Antwoord" on it? I can see that kind of self-aggrandizing nonsense happening in a no-budget Albert Pyun movie where Big Pun plays a gangsta wearing a Big Pun shirt, but here? And Yo-Landi's bedroom--the criminals live in what looks like a partially demolished building--has Die Antwoord publicity shots all over the wall. If Blomkamp is a Die Antwoord superfan and wants to hang with them, that's great. But putting them front and center in a $50 million Hollywood movie--surprisingly low-budget by today's standards--is distracting stunt-casting at its most ill-conceived. Blomkamp presumably learned his lesson, as reports surfaced that Ninja was nothing short of an abrasive, uncooperative asshole during production--clashing the most with Cantillo, a veteran, professional actor--prompting Blomkamp to retool the script to reduce Ninja's role and the need for his presence on set. By the end of the shoot, Blomkamp reached his breaking point with Ninja and was quoted as saying "I don't ever want to be in the same room with him again." Frankly, the idea of Blomkamp and Ninja having a combative Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski working relationship is fascinating. Let's hope some behind-the-scenes meltdowns were caught by the making-of crew, because that's certain to be better than anything that ended up in CHAPPIE. It's difficult to ascertain right now if Blomkamp is a one-trick pony just three films in, but CHAPPIE is so alarmingly bad that perhaps we should hold off on getting too excited about his being handed the ALIEN franchise.