Michael Bay’s fifth round of relentless robot carnage is as noisy, incoherent and insulting as this franchise ever was. From its very first shot of fireballs hurling over the Paramount Pictures logo to the final speech of Optimus Prime that contradicts any shred of heroism or morality in the rest of the picture, its a consistent mess of terrible filmmaking. Believe me, I didn’t enter this picture with the intention of hating it. To be fair, this picture didn’t offend me as much as the previous Transformers film, Age of Extinction (2014). There’s no older gentlemen lusting after a teenage girl, keeping a laminated copy of Juliet’s Law in his pocket at all times to excuse his actions. There’s much less product placement, reserving the obligatory Budweiser shot for one bottle taken out of a fridge. I can see a little, but not a lot, of the action going on where I just barely have an idea of who is attacking who. The plot doesn’t seem as overly convoluted this time. There’s even a surprising element of female empowerment for young girls, a rarity of any Bay production. These minor improvements, however, do little to improve a movie where there is very little to care about.
The best and worst thing that can be said of the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is that it’s more of the same. If you liked the last movie, you’ll be delighted to hear that Vol. 2 is just as abundant with crass, crude, cute and kicking 70s tunes. Not only are these elements present, but they’ve been doubled and smashed into 138 minutes. More subplots, more characters, more music, more slow-motion shots, more end-credit scenes and more than enough starship battles to make Star Wars blush. It’s rather surprising that, for as much fun as this movie transfers over from the previous film, it forgets to add the originality that made it stand out so well against the competition of other superhero movies.
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To call Passengers junkie science fiction would be too kind. This is the slick Hollywood glaze of science fiction which is not about high-concept ideas for fun pulp, but an excuse to place A-list actors in a romantic space setting. I can only imagine that the producers were only thinking of the star power for having the big names of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, both of them no strangers to Marvel movies, would make a golden duo for a romance among the stars. Perhaps they believed so much in their charisma that they could carry such an immoral, uneven and shlocky script past its glaring flaws. Oh, how I wish they had such power.
Pratt plays Jim, an average engineer who finds himself awakened on a starship of 5000 passengers before having reached his destination. The ship will not arrive at the planet he is traveling towards for the next 90 years. There’s no way to get back into his cryo-sleep pod to avoid dying of old age, no means of awakening the ship’s crew and no way to ask Earth for help from such a distance. He is destined to die on this ship. But at least he has enough entertainment on the ship to pass away his remaining days with video games, fine dining, books, movies and a robot bartender. Of course, he’ll get bored with the isolation and become so depressed that he contemplates suicide.
A cure for his loneliness, he reasons, is to awake one of the passengers so that he can converse with a real human being. Perhaps he could research all the passengers and find one that has the closest of skills to an engineer that could fix his hibernation pod and, you know, maybe fix the crumbling ship. Nah, he’d much rather seek the hottest lady on board and condemn her to death so that he can find someone to love on a dying ship. And, of course, he picks the hottest looking dame on the ship who happens to look like a movie star. Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) is an author from New York City who dreams of having new experiences on a new planet to write some great stories. Too bad her life is going to be cut short so she can die of old age on a spaceship with Chris Pratt.
Because this situation is the worst possible event you could wish upon a human being, Pratt must naturally lie about having nothing to do with her premature awakening. He’ll keep that tucked away for the hill of their relationship so that the two can frolic, stare loving at each other during dinner dates, go on spacewalks and have passionate sex. Even when Pratt finally slips out the truth, she seems to be over it after a few jobs around the ship. After all, they can’t stay mad at each other. They’re top movie stars and need to be a couple for the big screen in this dopey piece of science fiction.
As the story loses its sense of morality, it also loses its tone. I thought I was witnessing a romance among the stars, but the third act quickly turns into the most lame-brain of action movie cliches. All those malfunctions around the ships that the couple casually ignore come back to bite them when the ship is mere minutes away from being destroyed. And it’s no exaggeration when I say they put these repairs off to the very last minute, even going so far as to take a nap and have a swim when they finally reach the malfunctioning reactor. On and on the third act continues with one danger after another, mounting with such uninteresting inevitability. The reactor cannot be repaired unless they pull a switch, but the switch is outside. The switch outside isn’t working so they need to vent the chamber. The chamber can’t be vented unless someone stands in front of the vent to manually open them. Of course, the manual control for opening vents would be right next to the vent! Where else would it be?
It is so disappointing to see such a concept for great science fiction turn into the most vapid, immoral and stupid of stories. It’s a film that seems to have been sold on its cast, its special effects and its romance, without the slightest ounce of intelligence to its script. I will grant that Pratt and Lawrence look good as an onscreen couple and the designs of the starship are uniquely imagined and polished. But it’s all in service of such trashy writing better suited for that best-selling romance novel where readers care more about the kissy-faces of the leads than the dopey decisions they make. This is science fiction for those who don’t like science fiction, believing this junk will finally turn them over to the genre. Let’s hope this type of film, bereft of ideas and common sense, will fade away into a galaxy far, far away.
The Terminator franchise has reached a point of no return. After the thrilling neo-noir elements of the first film and the spectacular action bonanza of its sequel, the series has not progressed much since. It went for the typical summer vibe of including a sexy female Terminator for T3: Rise of the Machines and it tried to play with straight grit in Terminator Salvation. I’m not saying the PG-13 ratings of summer blockbusters hampered these films, but it sure didn’t help. And here we are back in the mode of Terminator acting more as campy summer fair with nostalgic banking. But there’s a bit of a twist this time in that Terminator: Genisys, the fifth movie in the franchise, takes a kamikaze approach.
All of the Terminator movies up to this point have been fairly faithful in sticking to the timeline of events as they unfold. This is not the case with Terminator: Genisys as it deliberately rips pages out of the original story and rewrites everything. It may be considered blasphemy towards the franchise and ludicrous for time-travel logic, but what more can we expect from Terminator at this point? Its story has been told in more ways than one. We know all about Skynet and the events that transpire before and after the rise of machines over man. It’s time to shake things up with a story we don’t entirely see coming a mile away.
The movie begins with the familiar scene of John Connor (Jason Clarke) preparing to send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to stop the machines. Even with the grand battle of humans versus robots in the opener, it’s all stuff we’ve seen before (and most likely better). But then something strange happens when John travels back to 1984. Some new sentient software dubbed Genysis and experiences new memories on his journey to the past attack John. When he arrives in 1984 to save Sarah Connor from the evil T-800 (younger Arnold Schwarzenegger), except the good T-800 (slightly younger Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrived early to help her. And the T-1000 shows up ahead of schedule as well. But, wait, there’s more! You also get more time travel where Connor and Reese travel into the modern present where they must stop Genysis in the form of a cloud application with the aged T-800 (present day Arnold Schwarzenegger). AND there’s a new Terminator that can heal faster and is allergic to magnets.
All of this sounds as though it were a Terminator fan-film come to life with its changing storyline, nostalgic callbacks and laughable means of making sense with time travel. The story is convoluted, the acting is not to scale and the action is comically overblown with flipping cars and explosions that are a hair short of matching an atomic bomb. And, yet, I didn’t mind this movie so much. Perhaps I am so enamored with Genysis‘ desire to trash the legacy of its lesser predecessors. If the Terminator movies want to continue being sequels or anything other than reboots, they can’t keep repeating themselves with the same old Skynet doom scenario. I could have done without the goofy franchise house cleaning to get to this new story of different evil robots, but this is the world we live in. You can’t completely do something new in a franchise without tossing in a few references or familiar characters.
Naturally, the biggest draw will be the action. Director Alan Taylor stages some big sequences of war-torn battlefields of the future, massive-sized research facilities for chase sequences and large enough buildings to demolish. There are car chases, gunfights, laser fights, Terminator fights and even a helicopter chase. From a technical standpoint, you can’t fault Genysis in the action department. Another surprising plus was the humor. While there are plenty of nostalgic nudges and winks that almost all fall flat, the more original and genuine comedy between Arnold, Emilia and Jai is actually rather amusing. If the character can’t be engaging on a dramatic level, there’s at least a twinge of cheesy amusement. The addition of J.K. Simmons as an eccentric conspiracy nut adds a little more levity to this doomsday plot.
Terminator Genysis is no ’84 Terminator or T2: Judgment Day, but why would it want to? Those movies were perfect and it’d be impossibly pointless to try to replicate them in the form of a reboot. I guess this is why I found Genysis more enjoyable than it should have been, as the divergence appears healthy. There’s a happy ending where crisis is averted and we don’t have to watch Schwarzenegger die yet again for the sake of humanity. That bit is as old as Schwarzenegger. This movie does its best to buff out the wrinkles of a franchise that is past its time. While it may not succeed entirely, it’s at least refreshing to watch the commitment to trying something new – even if it’s a mess of silly time travel and flawed characters.
If you’re familiar with the current crop of young adult novels turned movie franchises, you may find yourself with a bit of Deja vu while watching Insurgent. Didn’t I just see this movie a few months ago, and wasn’t it called The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1? They both feature scenes of running through the woods with gunfire following our fleeing characters. Wait a minute, that happened in The Maze Runner as well. These young adult heroes do so much running through the woods I’m surprised they all don’t run into each other at some point.
For as tired as I’m becoming of this formulaic subgenre, there was one aspect of Insurgent that brought me a small bit of relief. The movie sets up a society-changing MacGuffin that the corporate villains possess, but need our hero to activate it. It appears as too much of a game-changer that I was sure it would just be left on the shelf for the next movie. Thankfully, I was wrong. This story feels more complete in how it follows through on its premise by providing a beginning, middle and end to an event. After having seen so many of these young adult series that use their sequels as mere bridges of half-arcs to the final showdown, it was refreshing to watch a movie in a series that can stand on its own.
That is the good news. The bad news is that Insurgent can’t quite seem to shake those common young adult tropes. We find our hero Tris (Shailene Woodley) hiding out in the woods as the Divergent messiah in a world where roles are predestined. She bands together with the resistance that are doing their best to defend themselves from the evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) of the evil Erudites. As Jeanine struggles to open a mysterious box that is said to be a solution to the problem with Divergents, Tris becomes a prime target as the key. Assaults are waged, hostages are taken and lives are threatened unless Tris turns herself in to open the box. Good of the people, fight the oppressors, all the jazz.
The story itself proceeds rather straightforward as you’d expect, but with some strong performances by Woodley, Winslet and, surprisingly, Jai Courtney. For being another messiah of a dystopian future, Woodley plays the role with more emotion than I’d expect in how she tearfully resists a truth serum and darkly accepts responsibility for being a big target. She even gets some great moments of action in between all the escaping and hiding. The action scenes are not too shabby either with some well-staged shootouts and a memorable battle of the psyche in a crumbling metropolis.
But while Insurgent does provide in these areas, it still forgets to give a reason to be invested in its story. The plot is still just as simple and lacking in depths as much as it predecessor. I wanted some drama and a reason to care about the acting and design which has been paid much more attention. I appreciate that the director pulled off some decent style and acting in what is an otherwise bland clone of the young adult genre. Whatever inspired him to more, please slide some of it by the screenwriters as well.
The Divergent Series has improved with Insurgent and just needs an extra kick to stand out from the young adult competition. That kick happens to be an engaging script with more believable drama. Despite some improvements in the acting and design, I just can’t bring myself to recommend the picture on those merits alone. There are much worse young adult movies out there, but Insurgent still finds its stuck in the same box – desperately clawing its way to get out its by-the-book structure. If you never saw the first movie or it just did nothing for you, there’s no reason to get back into the Divergent series with this sequel.
The overall message of Tomorrowland is that it’s easy to tear down, but more impressive to build something in its place. If only the movie could take its own advice about trying to look forward to a brighter future. Rather than actually build, we hear an awful lot about how hard it is to build with a culture of doom and gloom. It’s important to discuss problems, but it’s hard to be optimistic for a future when we spend so much time drowning in a future that is grim and dark. Keep in mind that this was intended as a family picture with futuristic robots and gadgets.
The perfect question for this movie is asked by a plucky young inventor in the first few minutes. After his idea for a jetpack is shot down for not having a practical use for the betterment of humanity, he asks “why can’t it just be fun?” I wanted Tomorrowland to be fun and it had every opportunity to be such a picture. Director Brad Bird certainly has an eye for staging action sequences with real thrill and excitement. His influence is indeed present with such incredible scenes as a laser-gun shootout in a geeky merchandise shop and an intense escape from a futuristic house being attacked by androids. All of that is pure fun. What drags it all down is a script by Damon Lindelof which actually stops the movie for a rather long rant about humanity being terrible for desiring destruction.
The movie exists in three timelines. The 1954 World’s Fair presents a glowing reveals a glowing vision of the future. The present day features a declining of faith in humanity. The future is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a few bits of future-tech survive in the gloomy setting. For most of the picture, we follow the plucky Casey (Britt Robertson) in the present as the daughter of an engineer who is smart enough to sneak into a NASA launch pad and sabotage its dismantling. She still believes she can do some good in a world that seems obsessed with doom and gloom as her teachers drone on endlessly about 1984 and the incurable effects of global warming. Her ingenuity is what makes her a target of great interest for preventing mankind’s own destruction.
But Earth’s destruction is never directly addressed with a cause. It just seems to happen – presumably from a combination of nukes, global warming and environmental mistakes. But how do you stop it? It’s not so much about the specifics – you just have to want to change first. It inflates the baby steps of wanting to better the planet and its future. Now, granted, this is a logical path for a family picture meant to inspire the young ones to be bolder and pursue world-changing paths. But it’s tough to embrace that message when it’s presented so bluntly amid such a bleak plot. By comparison, Wall-E was incredibly subtle with its message about consumerism.
When Tomorrowland isn’t trying to beat you over the head with scary futures, there is a genuine sense of adventure. Casey has an amazing experience when she discovers a hologram vision of the wondrous future with jetpacks and robots litter a lavishly designed city of tomorrow. When she seeks the help of Tomorrowland member Frank (George Clooney), the angry old man shows off with all his dynamic tricks of hidden tech in the modern age for getting back to the future. Doc Brown’s DeLorean doesn’t have anything on a time-traveling pod that launches from the Eiffel Tower. And any scene where they flee the human-disintegrating androids with those artificial smiles has a nail-biting level of action.
But for every scene that has some sense of fun and excitement, it follows with another that is either too preachy or too blunt. The villain of the picture is the cold David Nix (Hugh Laurie), the leader of Tomorrowland who doesn’t want to destroy the world – merely believing it cannot and should not be saved. But when Casey disagrees, the future flickers to a better tomorrow. And as if that weren’t blunt enough, the ending is so forced and ridiculous that it could have doubled as the ad for a community college.
Tomorrowland has some segments of a great adventure, but it’s muddied up by a poor script. While its heart is in the right place, the movie just can’t bring itself to be entertainment before a message movie. I want to be there for this picture as it carries a much needed boost of optimism for a generation that could seriously use it. But rather than offer an inspirational allegory, it wallows too much in its horrifying omens that its ultimate message of “go out and find answers” just doesn’t feel fulfilling. The special effects don’t have any strings, but the script certainly does the way it binds under its own unconvincing nature. The goal of the picture is that it ultimately wants the adults of tomorrow to become the innovators of today. Hopefully it will inspire a few filmmakers to make a better science fiction picture that can push through a message without the force of a wreaking ball.
Robot Carnival acts as a deluxe sampler for the best of Japanese animation. Developed by some of the freshest talent of the late-80’s – most being animators just starting to direct – it’s an anthology film with shorts centering around robots. Some are humanoid androids that interact with humans on dates. Some are human-controlled giants that do battle. And, in the case of the opening titles, some are in giant collectives that plow through towns to announce a movie.
What I found most unique was how Katsuhiro Otomo – one of the most notable names of his anime for directing the landmark animation AKIRA – saddles himself with directing the opening and ending credit sequences. He transforms the title of the movie into a grand machine that roams the lands with an arsenal of robots and explosions. As one of his early animation directing projects, you see his style take shape that would lay the groundwork for his anime future animated features of epic carnage. A robot orchestra provides the soundtrack with musical instruments – the trumpets shooting exploding rockets. A gaggle of robotic ballerinas twirl and descend to the ground where they bow to the populace before exploding. It’s strangely detailed and hauntingly amusing as per Otomo’s trademark style for violence. And that’s just the bookend segments.
Koji Morimoto, an animator who would later work with Otomo as well, takes a stab at robotizing the classic monster story of Frankenstein with “Franken’s Gears”. Through the power of lightning, a mad scientist brings his robotic creation to life with a result both tragic and hilarious. Hidetoshi Omori directs “Deprive”, a heroic tale of one android trying to save his human counterpart from an alien invasion. It’s a decent tale of rescuing the girl with a Terminator-style twist, but it’s more admirable for boiling down its story into a few short minutes. It hits all the right beats for just long enough as not to bore those who have seen this story before.
One element I haven’t mentioned yet is that most of these shorts have zero dialogue. One of the first to actually have some speaking roles is “Presence”, a period romance of a man trying to build female robot to escape his wife and family. And even though there is some dialogue, director Yasuomi Umetsu thankfully doesn’t rely on it as he keeps the short more visual than expositional. This is also a blessing for the sake of the English dub script and voices which are surprisingly lackluster for being produced by Streamline Pictures way back in the early 90’s. You can see this at its worst in the most dialogue-heavy short “A Tale of Two Robots” which adds in too much for the English script. There might be some vindictiveness given how the short appears as World War 2 propaganda with the Japanese and English facing off in a 19th century setting with rickety giant robots. Despite the national leaning, it is rather hilarious for its limitations of technology, the amusing English dialogue recorded in Japanese and that this short is staged as third part of a trilogy that does not exist.
There are some more light and artistic additions as well in the form of “Cloud”, Mao Lambo’s segment about a robot walking through time to eventually become a real human. It’s beautifully rendered the way the rise and fall of humanity is portrayed through flowing clouds. This is a sweet and somber short that helps break up the frenetic energy of other shorts.
The most stereotypically 80’s of all the shorts would be “Star Light Angel” (even the title sounds very 80’s). A teenage girl after recently experiencing a breakup finds herself getting lost in an amusement park where a robot employee begins falling in love with her. Complete with laser-light shows and bright neon colors, I can’t think of any other Japanese animation that encapsulates the decade so perfectly with its bubblegum tone of a music video. There’s even a shameless plug for Coke included which could only be more 80’s if Max Headroom was drinking it.
Last and certainly not least is “Nightmare”, a post-apocalyptic vision of the future where robots rule and one drunken human finds himself escaping death. There’s a tremendous amount of inspiration from the likes of Fantasia and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s the most noteworthy of the batch not just for its stunningly intricate animation, but for touching on serious tones of robotization in a playful manner. This is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of anime that can achieve a thoughtfulness to darker subjects and find a way to transform them into unique works of art.
As far as anthology films go, Robot Carnival offers a lot of bang for the buck with a large number of shorts from tremendously talented artists. There are so many styles and tones present that there’s a little something for anyone seeking an animated sci-fi experience. With its operatic presentation and breathtaking animation, it’s the anime equal of Fantasia. And I’m aware that’s a lofty mantle to bestow, but it’s deservingly so as a unique experiment and a springboard for the talented anime directors of the 1990’s.
As the grand finale to Marvel’s second phase of their cinematic universe, the Avengers sequel aims to cram as much content as it can to deliver the biggest of bangs. But even at two and a half hours, it’s a picture that feels very cramped for all that it wedges into the script. There’s too many heroes, villains and murderous robots on screen that it becomes a rather complicated juggling act for writer/director Joss Whedon. The good news is that Whedon not only manages to maintain a certain level of balance, but also delivers more character development than I would expect for a superhero ensemble picture.
The Avengers have assembled once more with every returning character accounted for. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) continues to helm the tech of Iron Man, now more fearful of alien invasions from his previous Avengers mission. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as Captain America maintains his noble spirit after dealing with the corruption of SHIELD. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is just sort of there as the dimensional-traveling warrior, wielding his magic hammer and blithering on about prophecies in his poetic talk. They all carry a little something with them from their previous movies, but it’s the characters without their continuing series that take a bigger chunk of the screen time (and for good reason). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has developed a relationship with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but they’re both frightened of each other and worry about their relationship. But it’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who steals the movie this time as the slick-talking archer who gets the best lines and most unique life outside saving the world.
On their latest adventure, the group finds themselves combating the evil robot Ultron (voiced by James Spader) that wants to destroy humanity after Stark programmed him to protect it. Though relegated to just a voice, the motion capture performance of Ultron showcases him as more expressive than your usual movie robot bent on destroying planet Earth. This brings about a surprising amount of personality and charisma to a walking, talking machine that wants to kill us all. His philosophy is rather base given how often he talks about it and his method for wiping out the human race is pretty standard. All that intelligence and character ultimately leads to his master plan of chucking a rock at the Earth. Additionally, he build an army of robots to defend his project and give all our heroes something to hit.
In between this simple plot of murderous robots, several new characters and plot lines are introduced. We’re introduced to the Maximoff twins as escaped experiments of HYDRA – known from the comics as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – acting as ambiguous superheroes choosing sides. Though they were technically mutants (children of Magneto), there’s not mutants to turn to in this universe so they find themselves very cautious of who to trust. There’s the introduction of Vision (Paul Bettany), Stark’s computer program turned 90’s-looking superhero with the classic cape and painted face. There’s a hefty supply of Easter eggs wedged inside the script in the form of future villains (Andy Serkis as The Claw) and artifacts still on the self (the Infinity Gems to be used by Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet). And let’s not forget a seemingly endless stream of secondary characters the pop up from Nick Fury to War Machine to Falcon and so on. The only character who seems curiously absent is Loki. He wouldn’t add much of anything to the picture, but at least he would give Thor a little something more to do.
Even with a massive running time, the movie just doesn’t have a lot of time to explore all these areas in between the action. Whereas the first Avengers movie found enough in the script for every character to be involved, the expanded cast makes this picture far too crowded. There are a handful of scenes where Whedon relies far too heavily on exposition dialogue to drive the plot rather than visuals. If the Maximoff twins have a tragic past, why not show those evnets? If the people of New York are angered by the actions of the Avengers, why not give us that scene rather than hear a verbal report?
Several characters are shoved into a corner for many scenes simply because we don’t have time for them. Thankfully, the characters we do focus on the most have engaging arcs and are a thrill to follow. The complicated romance of Black Widow/Hulk and the secret life of Hawkeye are far more interesting than Captain America’s distrust of national security or Iron Man’s concerns for intergalactic insecurity. The big names have had their movies and politely step aside for most of this picture.
As expected for a $200 million picture, the action sequences are loud, detailed and gorgeous. Shot around the world, Whedon picks some great locations for a battle with Hydra or an Iron Man versus Hulk duel. And while he does go for the big moments of destroying buildings and smashing cities, there’s still a sense of heroism and consequence. While Iron Man and the Hulk end up causing a massive amount of damage to an African city, the movie doesn’t shy away from the folly of their ways. There’s still a level of distrust the public has after the events in New York City from the previous big battle. But the Avengers aim to do better with more scenes of them saving those caught in the crossfire from a family in a crumbling villain to a woman’s car toppling off a cliff. It’s a pleasant reminder that these superheroes are more than just powerful warriors that smash bad guys and blow stuff up.
While Avengers: Age of Ultron is rather overstuffed, it still manages to be a solid followup. The character chemistry is all still present and the villains have some wit and grit. Despite the laundry list of developing content to keep these Marvel movies more as serials, it doesn’t take away from being able to enjoy the movie on its own. You don’t have to know all about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the activities of SHILED or the secret operations of HYDRA to have a great time with the picture. It certainly adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not a requirement.
Director Neil Blomkamp seem to be stuck in a time loop. While he initially displayed fresh talent with his 2009 sci-fi hit District 9, he fumbled with Elysium in 2013. Both movies took place in South Africa though Elysium was much more heavy-handed with its blunt message of a corrupt future. I was willing to write that picture off as studio meddling given the increased budget along with bigger names in the cast. Even Blomkamp admits that film was a misfires. And now I find myself regretting such forgiveness with Blomkamp’s Chappie, yet another blunt allegory taking place in South Africa. You fooled me once, Neil.
In this version of South Africa, robot policemen have been implemented to control the crime of Johannesburg. The robots are pre-programmed thanks to the coding of Deon (Dev Patel), but frowned upon by military developer Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who would rather have the machines be controlled by human beings ala drones. While Vincent’s concerns are more than valid, he’s the bad guy in all this in that he wants bigger robots. Deon, by comparison, is a kinder soul favoring artificial intelligence over weapons. He finally creates an A.I. which he considers a big achievement while the brass won’t even humor his experiment. Deciding to proceed without them, Deon swipes one of the robot cops to upload his new creation of life. The problem is that Deon only does so under the threat of criminal Ninja and Yolandi (the South African rappers playing more-or-less themselves). They want the robot to help them commit crimes. Deon just wants him to exist.
When the artificial intelligence dubbed Chappie (Sharlto Copley) finally comes to life, he acts as a curious and frightened child. He takes his first steps, learns to recognize objects, starts to speak English and familiar himself with his new family at a progressive rate. At first, Chappie is a cute character that is lovable in the way he reacts with enthusiasm for painting a picture and fear after being damaged. But rather than bring Chappie to a unique level of intelligence and deciding what to do with the gift of life, he’s stuck on cliché route of trying to do good in a world where he doesn’t understand humans. And if the plot replication of Pinocchio wasn’t clear from the first appearance of Chappie, it’s smashed into the brain of every viewer by him reading the actual book.
What starts out with promise quickly turns into an irritating experience. Chappie is likable with childish ways of learning about life, but grates on the nerves as he continues to act cute and mimic the mannerisms of a gangster. Ninja and Yolandi have a decent dynamic and dilemma, but there was only so much I could take of Ninja’s street accent and Yolandi’s squeaky baby voice. Deon does little more than try to teach with his engineering mindset, Vincent just growls at those who despise his giant robot and Sigourney Weaver is just sort of there as the boss of the technology company.
By the time Chappie arrives at the third act, the script grows desperate with trying to turn Chappie into a real boy. Out of seemingly nowhere, Chappie somehow gains the ability to transfer the coding of the human brain into robots. That’s a rather big jump for a robot that went from giddily reading children’s book to writing advanced programming on the most mysterious human organ. And what he does with this newly acquired knowledge in the climax becomes almost laughable for how off-the-rails the story warps to fit its own narrative.
I would mention how fantastic the special effects are at displaying the title character, but does that even mean anything for being so seamless? Computer graphics have advanced to the point where we can have any creature of any texture appear on-screen as a believable character. There’s rarely a moment where you don’t believe you are watching a real robot walk, talk and interact with the human cast. But so what? It’s not like this is outside Blomkamp’s visual focus in how every film he’s done features a robot at some point. He’s perfected the art of directing a CGI robot in a live-action picture. So why not give us a story with surprise and characters that are not ripped from a cookie-cutter template?
Chappie may have some heart, but it needs a massive upgrade of ideas and originality. Neil Blomkamp borrows from the likes of Short Circuit and Robocop quite liberally that it made me wonder if he actually had a script or just a cobbling of visual ideas he wanted to see materialize. During the climax, Chappie does battle with a giant robot that looks almost exactly like ED-209 from Robocop – it even moves in the same jerky way. Throughout the picture, I was never all that interested in Chappie becoming a real boy. I was more concerned if Blomkamp will become a real director of hard science fiction.
There’s a strange gentleness and a warmth to something as dark and unsettling as Ex Machina. A man sits behind glass and watches as a female robot cautiously enters into the room. She sits down and talks to the man with a curiously inquisitive nature. It’s one of many moments in this little sci-fi picture that feels like a breath of fresh air in its ambiance and script that challenges the viewer more than it does the special effects budget.
The plucky young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by his search engine company to be one of the few to visit its CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). He’s flown out to Nathan’s secluded mansion deep within the jungle and located underground. Once he passes through the security, Nathan’s home is quite cozy and uniquely designed with just enough room for his science lab. It’s a stylish interior, but it becomes apparent to Caleb after spending a few days with Nathan that the isolation has taken its toll. Nathan places words in Caleb’s mouth as if it were a conversation with a biographical ghostwriter.
But Caleb wasn’t just invited out to the secret hideaway for booze and dancing (as Nathan prefers). Believing that he is on the cusp of perfecting the world’s first artificially intelligent robot, Nathan sets up interview sessions with Caleb and the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). With her flesh face and transparent circuitry, she cautiously enters a room and sits down to talk with Caleb behind glass. Tasked with finding flaws in the creation, Caleb treads lightly through his conversations with Ava. He asks questions that challenge her own originality which in turn makes her question Caleb. But there’s something more sinister to Ava’s conception and her developing thoughts that she only shares with Caleb. And with Nathan being both aloof and a drunk, there’s nowhere safe in this trap of an experiment.
Through its simple premise with a likely conclusion, Ex Machina leaves itself plenty of time to ask the big questions and challenge perceptions. Caleb’s sessions with Ava are intelligent and thought-provoking the way both attempt to probe each other. There are no stupid questions or answers such as “can you love?” and “what is love?” The subject of romance is approached maturely as when Caleb asks where Ava would like to go on a date if she were let loose in society. She remarks that she’d like to visit a traffic intersection to observe the behaviors of passing patrons. Sitting for hours watching people go about their lives is of endless fascination to Ava. Whereas others just see a common presence of a city, Ava spots a playground of psychology.
This is what makes Ex Machina such a brilliant piece of science fiction. It finds the perfect moments of beauty, intelligence and fear in a story of isolated frustration among technological breakthrough. Writer/director Alex Garland is able to both craft and express these ideas with real tone and atmosphere that rewards the viewer who wants more. I’ve seen movies where computer-generated robots smash through glass or crush cars like tin cans. Rarely do I ever see a film so decadent in its special effects and uses them to tell a human story with real character. Only after its slow-burn of unease does the climactic showdown actually have weight and substance. It feels good to finally be writing about a science fiction film like this that doesn’t feel the need to dip its toes too deep into the realm action.
Ex Machina is that infatuating bit of hard science fiction which begs for repeat viewings. It’s smart without being dry and thrilling without being simple. Everything about this film – from design to script – is intelligently crafted with an amazing atmosphere of innocence and tension. This is an exceptional purchase without question. It’s one that I’ll certainly be coming back to again and again, stacked close to my copy of Blade Runner and Dark City.