Choose the malevolent pop-up book over the South African "Short Circuit."
Images courtesy of Sony/IFC
While recently making the press rounds, director Neil Blomkamp apologized for his previous film Elysium and its myriad narrative deficiencies. I look forward to his next press tour in order to receive my apology for sitting through the massively tone-deaf and utterly stupid Chappie. Chappie (or as I will forever call it Die, Die Antwoord, Die!) is a misfire so wide of the mark that it accidentally claims his first film District 9 as collateral damage, leading you to question its Best Picture nomination as aberration. Here, he takes strands of DNA from Robocop (automated police force) and Short Circuit (whimsical, childlike robot) and turns this film’s two hour running time into his personal island of Dr. Moreau, splicing together a horrific lumbering beast in direct defiance of the cinematic gods. Returning to the Johannesburg setting of his first film, we follow the development of drones created to augment a heavily taxed police force though their creator (Dev Patel, trying) dreams of creating genuine artificial intelligence, in direct defiance of his supervisor (Sigourney Weaver, not trying) and a rival co-worker (Hugh Jackman, doing everything short of physically biting into the set around him). Deon and his creation are kidnapped by developmentally disabled local thugs (an embarrassing turn from South African music duo Die Antwoord), setting all parties on a collision course that can’t come soon enough.
Blomkamp is a master of integrating special effects into his films, blending computer generations seamlessly with live action, but he may be better suited to helming demo reels than crafting narrative cinema. Chappie himself (voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley) is a fully-realized marvel of design (a giant “REJECT” sticker is plastered across his forehead), unfortunately this soulful bot feels out of place in this gut-churning mélange of ultra-violence, ‘cool’ set design and completely inarticulate social commentary. Blomkamp flirts with the notion of having a point at numerous points (It’s about the military-industrial complex! No, nature vs, nurture! No, life after death!), but never settles on anything coherent, instead insistent on making us believe Die Antwoord is cool despite the film’s copious evidence to the contrary.
If you prefer thematic and narrative coherence from your cinema, let me point you to Jennifer Kent and her spectacular feature debut, The Babadook. A masterclass in omnipresent dread, it’s the best horror film to come out in years. Amelia (an amazing lead performance from Essie Davis) is trying her best to raise the emotionally scattered Samuel (Noah Wiseman, an equally great child performance) in the wake of her husband’s passing, but both are fraying at the edges. Samuel’s emotional precocity makes it so that she hasn’t a moment to herself, and the seams are beginning to show. The object that finally tugs at them is a pop-up book Samuel brings to her at bedtime that tells of the Babadook, a spindly monster in a top hat and overcoat that insinuates itself into your life (“If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”) and refuses to relinquish its hold. It isn’t long before the already tenuous emotional state of this home is being terrorized by this omnipresent apparition.
There’s something of a double-edged sword when dealing with horror cinema – part of what makes it so satisfying to watch and unpack is its ability to tackle social commentary by making the monster or malevolent force at the center stand in for society’s ills, the flipside of that being that almost every horror film becomes an exercise in determining the exact point at which the tensile strength of a central metaphor gives way and a film tears apart at the seams. One of the many miracles of The Babadook is how it doesn’t suffer from this malady, instead sprinting across this tight rope without ever making so much as a misstep. It functions perfectly as a white-knuckle tale of a mother doing battle with an evil force that has descended upon her single parent household while also excelling equally at portraying mental illness and the way all those who suffer from it have to reckon with that monster on a daily basis. Don’t let the overselling of the film as one of the scariest ever made oversell it to you, fear is a subjective truth and everyone’s pheromones are triggered differently, just know that this is an impeccably made film in every regard.