Trying out something a bit different here.
Neil Blomkamp's breakout movie District 9 is likely one of, if not "the" best science fiction movies of the 21st century so far. 30 years ago, a city-sized alien ship appeared over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa and ever since the relationship between the aliens and humans has deteriorated. A middle manager of the corporation tasked with handling the transition of the aliens to a new, cleaner, smaller home becomes infected with a contagion that slowly transforms him into one of the aliens; and is then hunted for his genetic code when it's discovered he is able to use the alien's advanced technology. It was nominated for several academy awards including best picture.
Blomkamp's followed that up with Elysium, attempting to capitalize on his promise of intelligent science fiction in a movie with a barely subtextual message about socioeconomic dichotomies between the United States and Mexico regarding the needs of the impoverished for healthcare; wherein Matt Damon shoots a bunch of people in the face and Sharlto Copley murders illegal immigrants. It was met with mixed reviews, not quite able to match the success of District 9, but by no means in itself a bad movie.
Chappie takes Blomkamp back to his home in Johannesburg for the story of a self-aware robot, torn between the parenting of the engineer who made him and the gangsters who need him to pull off a series of robberies. It's a modernized version of Frankenstein, jettisoning the whole "no tampering in GOD'S DOMAIN" and instead replacing it with "is the average person smart enough to not screw up something so important?" I'll admit, I have a hard time figuring out what the movie's answer even is, or if it has one when all is said and done. But it's a fascinating attempt, for better or worse.
The movie overcomplicates itself into a spider's web of confusion with extraneous characters, subplots, and motivations; with several moments of huh? going through your brain before the harder questions are even asked. The smart people are clueless, the dumb people are ignorant, and Hugh Jackman's character exists to act as the obvious counter to the smart people because he's a lumbering sociopath who plays with a rugby ball in the office and talks about going to church. Also Sigourney Weaver's around to manage a company manufacturing weapons that doesn't seem to ever have anyone watching the security cameras.
Because the movie is in such a rush to get to the meat and potatoes of the story, many things are either rushed or completely brushed over. To an extent, it's acceptable because there are some really good bits in Chappie; the motion capture effects for Sharlto Copley as the titular robot are superb. The ending is something I was not expecting and after it happened I had to check that this movie wasn't actually directed by Edgar Wright. But unfortunately, there's not enough glue holding the movie together.
If you remember the movie Transcendence from last April, where Johnny Depp runs an Apple store in the desert with his computer brain, then you might think this isn't much of a competition. You'd be surprised. Both movies run into a lot of the same problems, so much so that in the battlefield of ideas, both come up short of a full epiphany. As a means to test my new idea for this blog, I'm going to take these two movies, which have similar themes throughout, and see which one does it better for the purposes of their story. What I hope it'll do is not only give you a better insight into the movies themselves, with minimal spoilers, but also make it clearer how movies try to tell their stories, what tools they use, and how effective they can be when done right or very, incredibly, wrong.
1. Unanswered Questions
This can be intentional or unintentional, but it's easy to see the difference. The movie may be trying to tell the audience something about themselves or the world, it may leave certain things open to interpretation as a means of posing philosophical questions or new ideas. Chappie rushes through so many plot points in the first fifteen minutes and the last thirty minutes that the dangling threads at the end could be used to sew a sweatshirt together.
Transcendence poses middle school questions like, "Is technology good?", and gets away with it at the end, by establishing early on that aside from the scientists, everyone in the world is a complete moron. So when (spoiler warning), Johnny Depp's character turns off the world's technology and suddenly hydroelectric dams stop producing electricity, one can simply chalk that up to people no longer knowing how to do technology good no more.
Transcendence gets the win.
2. What the Hell am I Looking At?
This isn't so much about the cinematography as the subject of the images themselves. That is to say, the new Robocop might have better special effects than the old one, but the 1987 version still told a better story through its visuals than the 2014 one did.
The director of Transcendence was Christopher Nolan's director of photography, Wally Pfister. That means, aesthetically speaking, a lot of the movie looks interesting. Looks. Johnny Depp's computer-brain-science-lab-place has a lot of interesting stuff going on, even if he himself is just sitting behind a TV screen for most of it. Tentacles injecting a blind man with sight goo, growing body parts, and a hive-mind of super people. If only any of it led to any larger ideas.
Chappie is all about the battle of nature vs. nurture in the first conscious artificial intelligence, created by a guy who uses Robbie the Robot as a roomba. The main character is rendered sympathetic; Disney style, with clearly exaggerated features to imply emotional state (big ears that go down when frightened like a bunny, big eyes to signal trustworthiness). But it all takes place in two or three abandoned industrial sites. The big bad antagonist robot is recycled out of the District 9, and doesn’t add anything to the story except the ole’ ultraviolence. The movie ends with some of the most out of place ultra-violence for a movie that was built up as a child's adventure through a hard life.
Transcendence, I hate to say it, gets the win.
3. Wait, Why Are You Doing That?
"Oh, you have an idea that could potentially revolutionize the world and what we perceive as the natural order? And it won't cost anything? Meh, doesn't seem very important."
"Oh, you just jokingly pulled a gun on someone in the middle of the office and threatened to blow their jaw off? I'll just cut your funding."
"Oh, are my employees coming to and fro at work, stealing supplies, weapons, and committing corporate espionage while very politely logging their information alongside looking directly at the various cameras capturing their illegal activity? Too bad I apparently fired all my security and didn't even replace them with the robots we spend the movie promoting as excellent officers of the law."
The characters in Transcendence had some dumb reasons for doing what they did, but at least they had actual reasons.
4. But Nothing Has Exploded in the last 15 Seconds and I'm Bored Now...
Transcendence's middle half was Johnny Depp building solar panels while a bunch of idiots talked about how he's the antichrist for curing cancer with science.
Chappie took it's time with the moments between shootouts to explore its themes and ideas. For all the "huh?" moments in Chappie, at least there was plot progression.
5. Honestly, Who Gives a Crap?
Transcendence does the stupidest thing a movie with a message can do, and that's cop out on giving a definitive answer to the questions it raises. When you spend two hours with characters arguing about stuff, you’d like to know what their solution is, not some thumb twiddling middle ground “maybe they’re both right” lunacy. Even then, Johnny Depp’s character was consistently, boringly right because while everyone else was arguing he was curing cancer.
There were no characters in Chappie, every important character was representative of an idea, and it was up to Chappie throughout the film to figure out which one was the best for him to emulate. Ironically, that also means, for all the scenes Chappie isn't in, characters interact with each other in ways that seem much more robotic. But at least by the end, even if there wasn't a real character among them, I cared enough about Chappie to actually want him to beat up the bad guys. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.
This isn't a means of trying to decide which film is better (sorry if that's a bit anticlimactic). One movie could do everything in the above categories better than another but still come up short of something substantial. Chappie is still a better movie than Transcendence. But it's disappointingly flawed in the same way Elysium was. Wearing its message on its sleeve from the start, and creating characters who only serve to support those positions in the worst ways. In Elysium, it was the one white guy being the main character of this story about illegal immigration. Here, its Chappie’s maker, a scientist with a god complex, who does not follow logic, despite evidently being the smartest person in every room. But I’ll hold out hope that Blomkamp won’t be writing his next movie (which is a new Alien movie, the kind with xenomorphs), and instead using his very capable skill for directing.