The Films of Neill Blomkamp
District 9 (August 11/09)
Though it does boast a few admittedly impressive action sequences within its third act, District 9 suffers from an opening half hour that's almost oppressive in its unpleasantness - as filmmaker Neill Blomkamp offers up a pervasively low-rent atmosphere that's exacerbated by a total and utter lack of compelling characters. The storyline follows a twitchy bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley's Wikus Van De Merwe) as he attempts to evict thousands of aliens from a Johannesburg-based shanty town, with problems ensuing after Wikus accidentally ingests a foreign substance and is subsequently forced to go on the run with one of the outer-space visitors. Screenwriters Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell essentially drop the viewer into the movie's gritty environs with little by way of context, which - when coupled with Copley's competent yet far-from-sympathetic turn as the central character - ensures that one's initial efforts at wholeheartedly connecting with the material fall flat. Such concerns are compounded by special effects that look like special effects, with the almost cartoonish appearance of the various creatures certainly ranking high on the film's list of unconvincing elements. It's not until it morphs into a full-bore chase movie that District 9 starts to slowly-but-surely win back the viewer's flagging interest, as Blomkamp augments the brutal fight sequences with a frenetic pace that temporarily compensates for the inherently unappealing nature of the world in which the film transpires. There's little doubt, however, that the movie - even during its more overtly high-octane interludes - never quite becomes the intense, balls-to-the-wall thriller one imagines Blomkamp was striving for, with the final result a marginally entertaining endeavor that's sure to leave most viewers wondering what all the fuss is about.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium follows Matt Damon's Max, a futuristic blue-collar type, as he attempts to make his way to an opulent space station that's inhabited solely by the affluent. Though it boasts many similarities to Blomkamp's entertaining but uneven debut, 2009's District 9, Elysium comes off as a far more successful sci-fi outing that's been hard-wired with unexpectedly hypnotic sequences - as the movie contains a larger-than-life and downright epic feel that does, by and large, prove impossible to resist. Writer/director Blomkamp offers up a progressively absorbing storyline that's heightened by a host of compelling characters, with Damon's expectedly solid turn as the film's sympathetic protagonist matched by a strong supporting cast that includes Jodie Foster, William Fichtner, and Sharlto Copley. (The latter's scene-stealing turn is all-the-more impressive given that most of his dialogue is obscured by an unreasonably thick accent.) Elysium's only real misstep lies in Blomkamp's handling of the action sequences, as the filmmaker's use of shaky camerawork and lightning-quick editing diminishes the excitement inherent within such moments (and, worse still, renders them largely incoherent). This is, thankfully, a minor issue that remains easy enough to overlook, with the eye-popping special effects and perpetual motion of the narrative carrying the proceedings through to its engrossing climax. The end result is a contemporary blockbuster that only grows more and more compelling as it progresses, as the film's innovative sci-fi landscape instantly earns it a place among bona fide classics of the genre.
Chappie (April 25/16)
Chappie follows the title creation, a sentient robot, as he's stolen and forced to help a criminal gang pull off a daring heist, with the character's sense of self-discovery eventually putting him at odds with his felonious new owners. It's perhaps not surprising to note that Chappie boasts (or suffers from) a gritty, grimy visual sensibility that's reminiscent of both District 9 and Elysium, as director Neill Blomkamp rarely makes an attempt to stray far from the science fiction landscapes of his first two movies - to the extent that it's not difficult to imagine all three films transpiring within the same universe. The lack of innovation in terms of set design (ie everything's dirty and rundown) is, at the outset, alleviated by the novelty of the premise, with the movie's initial emphasis on Chappie's post-"birth" exploration of his new surroundings certainly as entertaining and engaging as one might've hoped. There's little doubt, then, that the movie begins its steady downhill trajectory as it enters its astonishingly flabby midsection, as Blomkamp's tiresome emphasis on Chappie's various lessons (ie a single montage could've conveyed this information perfectly) is exacerbated by the increasingly prominent presence of two thugs that've kidnapped the sympathetic robot (played by real-life musicians Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser). Both actors are making their feature-length debut here, and while Ninja and Visser do possess a fair amount of charisma, it becomes progressively clear that their acting abilities are virtually non-existent. The padded-out, hopelessly overlong atmosphere paves the way for an action-packed finale that is, to say the least, anti-climactic, and it's ultimately clear that Chappie, despite Blomkamp's best intentions, comes off as a fairly substantial misfire that pales in comparison to, especially, 2013's Elysium.