TIME movies

Review: It’s Nature vs. Torture in Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie

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Columbia Sharlto Copley plays the voice of Chappie in Chappie

The director of the wondrous District 9 hatches a violent parenting parable starring a sci-fi robot that falls victim to the Jar Jar Jinx

Why did Neill Blomkamp decide to give the robot hero of his artsy-violent new sci-fi film the name Chappie? Because, as my brother Paul William Corliss Jr. could tell you, Chappie is an alternative nickname for a boy with the same name as his father — like Bud, Chip, Tad or Deuce.

The South African director’s movie, set in a grungy future Johannesburg, is also a descendent of his debut feature District 9, which in 2009 wowed the world of critics (like this one) and audiences ($211 million worldwide box office on a thrifty $30-million budget). An Apartheid parable disguised as a alien-settlement thriller, District 9 was both a wondrous achievement on its own and a promise of greater things from the 29-year-old Blomkamp.

It didn’t quite happen that way. He got lost in the political thickets with his second feature Elysium, an affectless tale of Obamacare in outer space that wasted the glamour of its stars, Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Now Blomkamp, back home in Joburg, finds new ways to go off the cinematic rails with Chappie.

In the very near future — 2016 — the law is enforced by a team of “Scouts,” police robots created by techno-genius Deon Wilson (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) for the TetraVaal company run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). When Michelle nixes his plan to extend the machines’ consciousness to human capacity, Deon steals a trashed robot, works his computer magic and, ta-daah! The creature comes to life with an infant’s readiness to assimilate experience and to become, perhaps, more human than human.

That was the phrase applied to the “replicants” from the 1982 Blade Runner, one of dozens of science fiction stories — Short Circuit, RoboCop, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, ad almost infinitum — that Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell (his wife) borrow from without managing to enrich their own story.

Chappie has the kernel of a good adventure in the interoffice rivalry of Neon and Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, in a rare pure-villain role), a TetraVaal employee who has proposed a rival force of huge, galumphing, man-operated tanks called Mooses. The bubbling of tension between the two men and their clashing views of policing — liberal vs. totalitarian — could inform a taut, brisk allegory punctuated by fabulous scenes of stuff blowing up and suppurating in the hallowed District 9 tradition.

Instead, Blomkamp handed over his picture to a couple of radically unappealing musicians: the tattoo-slathered Ninja (real name: Watkin Tudor Jones) and the grimy blond Yolandi ViSSer (Anri du Toit) of the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord (Afrikaans for The Answer). Using their stage names as their character names in the film, and playing a pair of gangstas in urgent need of big money, they hijack Neon and compel him to let them tutor his inchoate robot to fulfill their criminal schemes. The movie wants to explore a nature vs. nurture scenario, but it’s closer to nature vs. torture.

In submitting Chappie (voiced and performed by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley) to a rough form of surrogate parenting, Ninja is the cruel, ignorant stepfather figure — “You gave me a retarded robot,” he shouts at Deon — who outfits the creature in bling and teaches it the hostile arts of tossing knives and ninja stars. Yolandi is the borderline-doting mother who gives the creature its name when she notes, “You’re a happy chappie.” And where is Deon, Chappie’s loving, protective maker? Oh, he goes back to work and leaves his charge in the care of these miscreants.

This is just one of many plot implausibilities that occupy the movie’s middle hour and test the audience’s threshold of pain. Finally Blomkamp remembers that he has secured the services of Hugh Jackman, an actual movie star, and summons him to grace a climax that makes no more sense than the rest of Chappie but does have some redeeming explosions.

A few good things. First, there’s a scene set in the Ponte City Apartments (now called the Vodacom building), a 54-story cylinder that Blomkamp briefly transforms into Ninja’s own Thunderdome. That’s about it. On the weird side, the movie takes place in South Africa’s largest city, with a teeming multiracial population; yet it has fewer roles for black actors than Disney’s new live-action Cinderella. Blomkamp has reimposed Apartheid on his own movie.

The Chappie robot, designed without a face that could convey emotion to the viewer, tries to make up in chattiness what it lacks in winsomeness. “I can’t shoot peoples,” he protests to Ninja, in a moment that underlines the creature’s similarity to a certain bumbling Gungan from The Phantom Menace. Chappie might have been an E.T. or a WALL•E, but he falls victim to what even George Lucas might recognize as the Jar Jar Jinx.

Incidentally, the nickname for a boy with his grandfather’s name but not his father’s is Skip. Which is what Neill Blomkamp admirers, and my brother Paul Jr., should do with Chappie.

TIME movies

Remembering Albert Maysles, A Filmmaker Unafraid to Probe Darkness

"Made In NY" Awards Ceremony
John Lamparski—WireImage/Getty Images Albert Maysles attends the "Made In NY" Awards Ceremony at Weylin B. Seymour's on Nov. 10, 2014 in Brooklyn, New York.

The late filmmaker was best-known for Grey Gardens

Albert Maysles, one-half of the filmmaking team known as the Maysles brothers, has died at the age of 88. With his brother David, Maysles became particularly well-known for directing Grey Gardens, a 1976 documentary about the lives of two of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s relatives, living in a squalid mansion.

Grey Gardens has become a camp classic for “Little Edie,” Onassis’s first cousin, and her idiosyncratic speech patterns and fashions. But the film is, perhaps like all great camp, touched by real darkness; there’s a sense of palpable terror in the socialites’ withdrawal from the world. Before Gardens was Gimme Shelter, the 1970 concert documentary (directed with Charlotte Zwerin) that went far beyond valorizing the Rolling Stones. It, more than perhaps any other document, conveyed the apocalyptic mood of the early 1970s through its footage of the Altamont disaster. Salesman, the duo’s look at the lives of traveling Bible vendors, pursued an interest in the lives of these men to a painful place as raw, in its way, as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

In recent years, after David Maysles’s 1987 death, Albert had stayed productive; his latest documentary, Iris, about the nonagenarian style icon Iris Apfel, played at the New York Film Festival last fall. He will be remembered for his willingness to take subjects farther than was comfortable, to, through sheer observation with no fripperies, deliver discomfiting, frank dispatches from various corners of the American experience.

TIME movies

Watch Owen Wilson Run for His Life in the No Escape Trailer

The movie tells the story of an American businessman trying to escape a coup with his family

It’s clear from the trailer that Owen Wilson’s next movie is no Wes Anderson film. No Escape tells the story of an American businessman who has moved his family to Southeast Asia, but must try to get them all out alive after a violent coup erupts. Lake Bell plays his wife, while Pierce Brosnan plays a government operative who tries to help.

No Escape hits theaters in Sept. 2, 2015.

TIME Civil Rights

Selma Is Now? No, Not Really

We march with Selma!
Buyenlarge / Getty Images Marchers carrying banner lead way as 15,000 parade in Harlem; "We march with Selma!" in 1965

2014 ≠ 1965 or 1955 or the 1890s

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Many of us who teach History like to tell our students that if you look carefully, you can find history everywhere. Sometimes, it even turns up at the Oscar awards.

For many viewers, the highlight of this year’s awards show was the performance of the song “Glory.” Written for the movie Selma, the song evokes the civil rights movement’s themes of freedom and justice, and connects them to our time. At the Oscars, both lyrics and choreography made clear this intended connection between past and present. Rapper Lonnie Lynn (AKA: Common) sang: “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up,” while a choir representing the 1965 marchers assembled. The whole performance took place against the backdrop of a set depicting the Edmund Pettus Bridge and photos of the original marchers being projected on a giant screen.

Later, in his acceptance remarks after winning the Oscar for Best Original Song, co-writer John Legend again connected past and present. He tried to set straight any viewers who might be thinking that 1965 was a long time ago. “Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now.”

Statements similar to Legend’s “Selma is now” have been made many times in the months since Michael Brown’s tragic death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, Ferguson has become a Rorschach test – not just on the state of race relations today, but on the past as well through the power of historical analogy. Like John Legend, congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis has compared Ferguson to Selma in 1965. On college campuses, analogies comparing Ferguson to 1950s Little Rock and Michael Brown to Emmett Till have been heard.

Some have gone deeper into America’s history of race relations looking for analogies. James Lawson, who during the 1950s and 1960s trained hundreds of young people in non-violence resistance, today calls “what happened in Ferguson lynching.” So too historian Jelani Cobb writes about “the long shadow of lynching” in Ferguson. Some protesters in St. Louis and Berkeley dramatized their frustration at events in Ferguson through mock lynchings.

These statements and actions are all rooted in the belief that little to nothing has changed in race relations from the Jim Crow era of the 1890s-1950s to the present day. If one of the tasks of History is to assess the complex relationship between change and continuity over time, these voices suggest that on the issue of race and race relations, the answer is pretty simple. 2014 = 1965 or 1955 or the 1890s.

But in looking at the past, it’s hard to make these claims hold up. The Jim Crow era stands as a distinctly grim, brutal period in America’s history for its Black citizens. After the end of Reconstruction, Black men who had recently won the franchise had it effectively taken away. The promise that Black Americans would own the product of their labor too became a bitter lie. All public spaces in the Jim Crow South became divided by the color line.

This racial code was enforced through lynchings and other forms of brutal violence. The Equal Justice Initiative has recently documented 3,959 African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. Lynch mobs cast a wide net. They targeted Black men accused of crimes, those accused or suspected of sexual relations with white women, and those seen as being “impudent to white man,” in the words of one lynching record. Lynchings were barbaric, often involving the ritualistic burning and dismemberment of dead bodies. Not for nothing do many historians refer to 1890-1920 as the nadir of African-American history.

The civil rights movement of the 1940s-1960s was remarkably successful in changing Jim Crow America. It ended legal segregation and mass disfranchisement. By 1950, it had exposed lynchings to the point that they’d almost become a thing of the past. This chapter of Black history is increasingly well-known, partly due to programming in schools and on college campuses during Black History Month, which recently drew to a close for another year. But there’s more to it than that. In our time, though, Black history isn’t confined to a single month. History courses at the high school and college level have been transformed by new findings and research in African-American history. Today’s students today are as familiar with Martin Luther King as with George Washington.

All this has given the civil rights movement a distinct place in Americans’ civic consciousness and language. It’s been sanctified—both religiously and politically. In the words of one-time freedom rider John Lewis, the movement was a “holy crusade.” Ever since, it has possessed a kind of moral capital in American public life. To draw on the history, themes, and individuals of the civil rights movement today is to give a cause greater significance and urgency. In the months since Ferguson, many activists have done so–at large protest gatherings, teach-ins, and even at the Oscars.

They see their motives are earnest. By their way of thinking, a continued insistence that little to nothing has changed in race relations will hold white Americans’ feet to the fire. This approach will confront and challenge them, and prevent them from becoming prideful or complacent. Some teachers and administrators on college campuses say that a focus on continuity in race relations will allow for “teaching opportunities.”

But what if such a determined focus on racial continuity from the 1890s to today doesn’t bring about these results? The discipline of History is based on a reasonable confidence about concrete, particular things, not just a fuzzy mood or spirit. Activists who tout continuity believe that their cause will result in “consciousness-raising” about a range of racial issues. But it’s just as likely to lead to cynicism and disengagement if it’s thought that events have been manipulated and comparisons over-drawn. It now seems clear that the media-driven dissemination of the “hands up don’t shoot” meme was just such a manipulation in the face of contradictory evidence. Young people today have grown up in a time of dramatic racial change in many areas. Over-broad and exaggerated historical analogies to the Jim Crow and civil rights eras threaten to divide students (and other Americans) between those who know that “race matters” and those who inclined to disengage from racial issues all together.

This risk of disengagement is particularly great for millennials. A recent Pew study of this generation, which includes today’s college students, found that they tend to lack confidence in institutions and authorities. They’re more cynical and skeptical about these than their elders. Today’s millennial college students are especially unlikely to be won over by excessive analogies between past and present.

None of this is to say that there aren’t real racial problems in America today–unemployment, inadequate education, and recidivism in the criminal justice system, among others. We don’t live in a post-racial America. But neither do we live in Jim Crow or 1950s America, despite what many recent analogies would suggest. Not every overbearing authority can be a Bull Connor, not every place of tension is Selma in 1965 or Little Rock in 1957. Not every mistreatment can be labeled a lynching. Otherwise, the power and influence of these historical people and places and practices may be lost.

The moral capital of the civil rights movement risks going bankrupt if it’s drawn on excessively and unconvincingly. I hope that when future Black History Months come around, my students (and all Americans) will have retained the capacity to look at the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement with the accuracy needed for genuine knowledge and informed passion.

James B. LaGrand teaches History at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.


Look at This Crazy $825 Avengers Iron Man Toy

Iron Man Hulkbuster Avengers Toy

There's a stunning Iron Man Hulkmaster figure coming next year

Hot Toys has been slowly unveiling its stunning, upcoming Iron Man Hulkbuster figure from Avengers: Age of Ultron—and fans just got their biggest surprise yet.

The 21-in. figure, a super-detailed 1:6 scale of Marvel’s superhero, has a removable helmet that reveals a tiny Iron Man Mark XLIII bust with LED light-up eyes and an arc reactor on his chest, according to Hot Toys’ Facebook page, which posted pictures revealing the bust Friday.

And that’s not it: There are a total of 16 LED light-up areas located in the eyes, chest, repulsor palms, back, and legs, according to the toymaker, renowned for the level of detail in their figures. There are also more than 30 points of articulations (i.e. joints), and the figure’s metallic red, gold and silver armor even has a weathering effect.

The figure is scheduled for an early 2016 release at a price of $825.

TIME movies

Toy Story 4 Will Be a Love Story, Not a Sequel

Toy Story

Pixar's president says the movie won't focus as much on the humans this time

The next installment of Toy Story will not be a direct sequel to the third film, and will instead focus on a love story.

Pixar President Jim Morris told Disney Latino’s blog that Toy Story 4is not a continuation of the end of the story of Toy Story 3,” which sees Andy’s toys dropped off a little girl’s house for her to enjoy while he goes off to college. This time, Morris says, “It will be a romantic comedy. It will not focus much on the interaction between the characters and children.” With Tom Hanks as the voice of Woody, maybe Meg Ryan can sign on to recreate their rom-com magic in toy form.

The third film in the franchise grossed $1.1 billion, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Toy Story 4 is due to hit theaters June 16, 2017.

Disney Latino

TIME movies

We Need Good Sci-Fi Movies, and Chappie Isn’t One of Them

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Columbia Sharlto Copley plays the voice of Chappie in Chappie

Neill Blomkamp disappoints again — and who's out there to deliver?

Neill Blomkamp has spent the press tour for his new film Chappie promoting his next film, an installment of the Alien franchise. It’s not even underway yet, but its existence is a terrible sign. There’s never been a time at which the public was more excited about fantastical storytelling—and, simultaneously, never been a time at which the set of ideas animating the sci-fi genre has been so moribund.

Chappie, for instance, takes an interesting and provocative subject, the potential role of artificial intelligence in society, and saps it of any charge it might have. The titular Chappie, designed to be a peace-keeping police robot but uploaded with A.I. created by a genius whose intelligence we cannot access, is unambiguously good; his primary antagonist, a weapons contractor who wants to wipe out all the police robots in order to ensure funding for his massive war machine, is dully evil. There’s a great movie to be made about a society that cedes its police operations to robots, but Chappie falls wildly short. The film hasn’t even bothered to figure out how its human protagonist invented artificial intelligence. (He just types on a computer for a while until he realizes that he succeeded.)

This film is one sort of missed opportunity, the sort Blomkamp’s Elysium was too. (A movie about class divisions writ large in a dystopian future could be great; a movie outlandishly unconcerned with teasing out any of those ideas, preferring simplistic action sequences, was far from it.) Blomkamp’s first film, 2009’s District 9, was a sensation precisely because it applied verve and brio to a set of ideas in a way that got audiences legitimately excited. By contrast, Elysium and Chappie have both seemed close to collapsing under the weight of their ideas, and zig away from them at the last minute in favor of broad villains and big explosions.

Where is the next great sci-fi movie? A.I., the very timely subject Chappie doesn’t capitalize on, is present in both The Avengers and The Terminator sequels out this summer, but the appearance lent by each film’s trailer is that the movies use omniscient robotic villains to set into motion a bunch of well-drawn fight scenes — not insights about technology and the future. (In fairness, no moviegoer would expect anything different.) We’re at a time when technology defines our lives to the degree that sci-fi films feel necessary, but that same technology has made photorealistic CGI of anything so attainable that good ideas aren’t really necessary. Franchises like Marvel, Terminator, Star Wars, and, yes, Alien are consuming creative talent and funding that could go to the next Minority Report. It’s not just that Blomkamp is the one behind the camera that makes the revival of Alien dispiriting. It’s that a genre that’s supposed to be the one that looks to the future is re-spinning the same yarn that began in 1979.

What else is on the horizon? Avatar‘s sequels have been delayed, and delayed again, and again—and, really, even if they were to come out tomorrow, wouldn’t most feel a tinge of sadness that this story, about which no one but James Cameron is passionate, is the project to which Cameron has put so much effort? And the sequel to Prometheus, a deeply flawed yet imaginative riff on the Alien universe that dared to have original characters and big, messy ideas that it followed through on, is slow in coming, in favor of another reprisal of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in space.

There’s nothing wrong with sequels as such, but they’ve become so de rigeur that studios seem unclear on what constitutes a good original property. In another era, Blomkamp might have been given the resources he needed to get out whatever ideas he thought he was trying to express with Chappie. Alternately, in another time, the audiences wouldn’t have been so starved for thoughtful science fiction as to hang a viable long-term career on the simple “What if the monsters… are us?” ideas of District 9.

But not all is lost, perhaps. Chappie‘s opposite measure came out last fall: While Chappie takes innovative subject matter and makes it as bland as possible, Interstellar is the most idiosyncratic potential framing of an old story, of leaving earth to survive elsewhere in the universe. Its oddities aren’t, necessarily, in what it had to say about the future of space travel, but in its insistence on dwelling on ideas about human nature and family. For all its faults, it had a soul—something that Chappie and endless sequels to huge hits all lack. A film with a wildly creative statement to make about the future is a lot to ask, but one with a good story to tell would be a start.

Read next: Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME movies

See the Most Iconic Examples of Artificial Intelligence in Film

With the release of Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, take a look back at some of the most iconic examples of artificial intelligence in film history, from R2-D2 to The Terminator

TIME United Kingdom

Boy Excluded From School For Dressing Up As Christian Grey

Teachers didn't see the humor in the 11-year-old's costume for World Book Day

Eleven-year-old Liam Scholes faced punishment at his British high school when he showed up for class dressed as the title character from Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sale High School, in northern England, was celebrating World Book Day on Wednesday and students were encouraged to dress up as characters from books. Taking his cue from the worldwide best-seller by EL James, which famously features a lot of explicit sex and bondage, Scholes dressed up as Christian Grey, wearing a gray suit and carrying cable ties and an eye mask. The school reportedly deemed the get-up “inappropriate” and kept the boy out of the class photo.

Yet the boy’s mother, Nicola Scholes, feels the school’s stance is hypocritical, as she explained to the BBC that the school felt it was “appropriate for a teacher to dress up as a serial killer” and “acceptable for kids to dress up as people that kill others” and “come in with [toy] guns.”

“Liam was advised to dress as James Bond, but he was promiscuous and a murderer,” she said. “Personally, I’m more offended by a murderer.”

She also said that her son’s friends “all talk about sex” and the costume “has been massively blown out of proportion. It was meant as a laugh and tongue in cheek.”

TIME movies

Watch Cara Delevingne in New Amanda Knox Movie Trailer The Face of an Angel

The film explores the public and media’s obsession with gruesome stories

Cara Delevingne makes her big screen debut in Michael Winterbottom’s new psychological thriller The Face of an Angel.

The movie was inspired by Barbie Latza Nadeau’s book Angel Face, which was set around the real life trial of Amanda Knox, who was convicted and later cleared of murdering her flatmate, the Independent reports.

Supermodel Delevingne plays a British student called Melanie who works in a bar in Siena, Italy.

She befriends a crew of journalists and filmmakers, including protagonist Thomas (Daniel Brühl) and Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) as they cover the appeal of a murder conviction of an American student.

Winterbottom draws heavily on the case of British exchange student Meredith Kercher who was found murdered in her apartment in Perugia, Italy, in 2007.

The Face of an Angel hits U.S. theaters June 30.

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