Missing Link

Cast: (voiced by) Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Zach Galifianakis

Director: Chris Butler

Writer: Chris Butler

Laika doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. When Disney Animation chose to abandon the traditional hand-drawn style for their theatrical releases in favour of the 3D, computer-rendered form of animation that Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination and several more favour today, it marked a key turning point in the history of the craft. While the practice still lives on in some form at Disney, most recently in Mary Poppins Returns, the transition more or less confirmed that the old ways had died and that CGI was the new normal for modern animation. With so many studios favouring the form however, the films that they make, whether good or bad, can often feel quite samey in their video game aesthetics. This is what makes Laika, a studio that continues to employ the meticulous and distinct practice of stop-motion in their films (along with Aardman Animations), stand out all the more. It’s a form that requires thousands of hours of painstaking work and demands the kind of attention to detail and accomplished skill that all forms of handicraft demand. It isn’t a question of which format looks better or is more difficult to master, but with the knowledge of how much care and labour go into their creation and how uniquely physical such films as Coraline, ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings look in this contemporary digital age, one cannot help but be awed by Laika’s output.

Their latest offering tells the story of Sir Lionel Frost, a Victorian explorer who travels the world in search of mythical beasts such as the Loch Ness Monster, which he encounters in the opening scene. Lionel is revealed to be an outlier to his 19th century peers, an adventurer whose goal isn’t to track and hunt animals for sport but to find these strange, legendary creatures and learn from them so that he might unlock the mysteries of the world. This doesn’t mean that Lionel isn’t a man of his time however, nor is he a saint. He is still shown to be a rather chauvinistic and egotistical man who isn’t above using others to serve his own ends and can be dreadfully immature when things don’t go his way. Things kick off when Lionel receives a letter from the United States telling of an enormous, hairy creature lurking in the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. Lionel wastes not a second in heading straight there and it isn’t long before he encounters the Sasquatch himself. Mr. Link, as Lionel calls him at first, turns out to be a being of human-level intellect who learned English by observing humans and wrote the letter that brought the English explorer to him. Link, having recently learnt of the Yetis and believing them to be his distant relatives, asks Lionel for his help in travelling to the Himalayas and finding their hidden city so that he might finally be with his own people.

Thus Lionel and Susan, which is the name that the creature adopts (despite being voiced by Zach Galifianakis, the Bigfoot’s gender is an amusing source of some ambiguity), set off on a quest that leads them to all kinds of exotic locations. They first head to New Mexico where fiery Adelina Fortnight, an old flame of Lionel’s, holds the map they need to find their destination. She of course ends up joining them and so off they go on an ocean liner bound for Southeast Asia where they will then treck to the Himalayas in search of the secret Yeti sanctuary. Dogging them is the bloodthirsty Willard Stenk, a bounty hunter hired by Lord Piggot-Duncaby, the irrepressibly stuck-up president of an exclusive explorer’s society that Lionel longs to join. The main focus of the film throughout is the relationship between Lionel and Susan who find that despite the pomposity of the former and the witlessness of the latter (Susan is, for example, wont to takes things literally as when Lionel asks him to throw a rope over the wall he plans to climb), they make a pretty good team. The most enjoyable part of the film is watching the odd couple wind up in all manner of outlandish scrapes, stumbling their way out, and getting confused with each other at every turn through miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Missing Link, as directed by Laika regular Chris Butler, is less Kubo and the Two Strings this time and more Wallace & Gromit. The action is less pronounced, the stakes aren’t as critical and the tone is more tongue-in-cheek. While the fight scenes that do take place are inventively staged and great fun to watch, the film is far more interested in enjoying the journey as it unfolds and playing around with the characters along the way. This takes place in a time before there were planes and automobiles and so it is appropriate that the film never feels like it needs to rush things along so we can get to the endpoint that little bit sooner. We instead get to enjoy each splendidly designed setting and revel in their varying qualities and atmospheres at a pleasantly relaxed pace, allowing us to appreciate all the more the breadth of their voyage how animated each location feels. As a result, the film never feels like it’s trying too hard to keep things moving and hold our attention. The whole thing feels perfectly at ease with itself, never once resorting to eye-rollingly self-aware winks to the audience or out-of-place pop culture references, as if the children watching couldn’t appreciate an earnest, straightforward adventure such as this.

Laika demonstrates once again the breathtaking possibilities of stop-motion animation, a tradition that has been around for as long as cinema, with set-piece after set-piece featuring intricate detail, resplendent colours and wonderfully designed models, all of them lovingly crafted and positioned by hand. During the end-credits there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of all the work that went into accomplishing this one sweeping shot of Lionel, Susan and Adelina riding on the back of an elephant through an Indian jungle. Through an engaging time lapse we get see all the effort that went into moving each little detail, not just on the main characters as they traverse through the area but also the shuffling leaves in the greenery and the scrambling wildlife all around them so that the world they all inhabit might feel as rich and lived-in as our own. The only digital effect in the whole shot is the green-screened mountain range in the background. It all makes for a film that feels utterly immersive, as if the children in the audience were watching figures they could have built themselves out of papier-mâché and paint come to life and inhabit the world they conjured in their imaginations. Missing Link doesn’t reinvent the wheel nor are its themes as deep or profound as those in Kubo, but what it does do – create an exquisite world, present some delightful characters, and give the audience a good old time – it does well.



The Greatest Showman

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya

Director: Michael Gracey

Writers: Jenny Hicks, Bill Condon

The Greatest Showman is an upbeat, extravagant musical about love, diversity, and acceptance, centred on a man who was the antithesis of all those things. Far from the glitzy, broad-minded entertainer presented here, the real Barnum was a much more complex and questionable figure; someone who was known for being greedy, exploitative, opportunistic, dishonest, and cruel, and for having (at best) a problematic relationship with people of colour and ‘freaks’. This film brushes so much of Barnum’s darker side under the rug that it could only be called a biopic in the most liberal sense possible. But then, I think the filmmakers are aware of that. This film is so profusely romantic, fantastical, and sentimental that I don’t think any audience member is going to think of it as an accurate representation of Barnum any more than they would think of 300 as an accurate representation of Ancient Greece. Indeed, this story is so obviously phoney and is told in such a sensational way that, from that point of view, The Greatest Showman could be seen as the perfect representation of Barnum.

Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a dreamer living within his humble 19th century means but is waiting for a chance to shine. He is married to Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a wealthy family whom he’s known since childhood, and together they have two daughters. After losing his job as a clerk, Barnum takes out a loan to start a museum of wax figures, hoping to create a sensation that will take the world by storm. When sales prove meagre, he sets out to enlist individuals of unusual proportions, characteristics, and abilities, including the dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and African-American trapeze performing siblings Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), to add some life to the show. The show is a hit, despite negative press, and Barnum renames his museum ‘Barnum’s Circus’. Seeking to improve his reputation with the upper classes, Barnum recruits playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his business partner and famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) as his star performer. As his success grows however, Barnum starts to lose sight of his family, both literal and metaphorical.

The story is crap, to put it bluntly. It is wholeheartedly transparent, eye-rollingly schmaltzy, and every single second of it rings hollow and feels fake. However, it is the most spectacular, vivacious, entertaining crap I’ve seen in a long time. This movie may not be the greatest show, but every member of the cast and crew sincerely believes that it is and their earnestness and effort shine through. The whole thing feel phoney, but not a single person who worked on this film was phoning it in. Every single song is sung, choreographed and shot as if it is the show-stopping number of the musical and the images and sounds throughout are simply teeming with life, imagination and feeling. There is a sense of purpose and clarity behind every shot in every sequence, even when they get as frantic and intense as Moulin Rouge, and there is always a strong attempt being made to utilise the props and sets to their fullest potential, from the tables, glasses, and stools in the two musical scenes that take place in the bar to the knotted rope hanging in the centre of the ring in Efron and Zendaya’s romantic duet. I can scarcely dream what this team might have accomplished with a story of actual substance.

Even when the film is at its most silly and sappy, each performer from the main stars to the background singers and dancers are trying so hard and so sincerely that it’s hard to hold it against them. Jackman is every bit the showman the movie wants him to be and is so charming and likeable, you almost want to forgive the film for his thin characterisation and unearned climatic redemption. Williams, Efron and Zendaya are all bright-eyed and vibrant in their roles and hold nothing back in their full embrace of the film in all of its glorious splendour and fundamental misguidedness. They’re just so darn enchanting and heartfelt that their lack of self-awareness only adds to their appeal. Humphrey and Settle, the latter of whom is a magnificent singer, do wonders in their small roles, as does Sparks, whose theatre critic character serves as a pre-emptive surrogate for all those critics who don’t ‘get’ the film and denounce it for its gaudiness and cheapness.

But The Greatest Showman is gaudy and it is cheap. As stunning and enjoyable as the style and performances are, it’s all to serve the weakest and shallowest of plots. The film wants to celebrate the outcasts of society and the way that show business can create a home for those who have been rejected by all else so much that it happily overlooks the exploitative qualities of Barnam’s character, portraying him instead as a child of poverty who identifies with the struggles the ‘freaks’ face in their everyday lives. Thus, when his ambition and pride cause him to neglect his wife and children and the makeshift family he has built, he must then be reminded of what’s really important in life, after which everything is fine and they live happily ever after. It isn’t about being historically accurate, it’s about being true to the hardships being depicted and the morals being conveyed and this film is far too one-dimensional and clichéd to offer any insights of actual worth. The Greatest Showman is a spectacle well worth beholding, but the showmanship is all there is.



Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green

In Jackman’s final turn as the character that made him a star, Fox has finally delivered the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for. It’s probably significant that this movie was made with the intention of being Jackman’s final turn as the metal-clawed mutant. After having already seen him featured in two solo films, one terrible and one boring, I can imagine the filmmakers felt some pressure to use this one final chance to get it right. There will be other Wolverine movies I’m sure, but there may never be another actor who embodies this character as perfectly as Hugh Jackman did. With Logan he is finally allowed to fully realise this character he helped bring to life in a way he never he could in any of the prior X-Men films and it was well worth the wait. What makes Logan great is not just the way it portrays this iconic character, but also how it stands within the X-Men franchise and how it comments on the superhero genre that has dominated Hollywood for well over a decade.

Set far in the future where mutants are all but extinct, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has long since abandoned his calling as Wolverine. Now working as a limo driver, his healing factor has faltered and he has now become weaker and weary with age. With the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering from dementia and no longer in control of his telepathic abilities. At this time Logan is approached by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse on the run from a secretive government organisation, who begs him to take in and protect an eleven-year-old girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Hot on their trail is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cybernetically-enhanced security officer charged with the girl’s retrieval. After an encounter where Logan learns that Laura possesses abilities similar to his own, they must go on the run with Xavier in search of a place called Eden.

After Deadpool proved once and for all that superhero movies could go for an R rating and still be massively successful, Logan followed suit and fully embraces the liberties that became available. In the very first scene Logan is protecting his car from a gang of thugs intent on stealing his tires and the fight that ensues is unlike anything we’ve seen from Wolverine before. Skulls and bones are being sliced, blood is splattering all over the place, and Logan swears like a sailor with every blow he’s dealt. However what makes the action feel so different from what we’re used to extends far beyond the blood and gore. Here Mangold does away with the rapidly edited, distantly shot action that the Marvel blockbusters tend to favour. Here the fighting is up close, intensely choreographed and much more raw and organic. When Logan gets hit, he feels it.

What makes Logan truly special though is not just the action, but also the characters and the story they tell. Logan is an old man now and Jackman plays him as a wearied soul, haunted by past traumas and losses and reluctant to ever fight again (not unlike Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven). He has grown disillusioned with the ideals he once believed in, especially now that the man who originally inspired him is little more than a raving loony. Professor X has gone senile and Stewart is loving every second of it as he rants and raves about the place while Logan tries to care for him. Keen is also great in her turn as Laura, a silent role that requires her to be as expressive as she can with her looks and gestures. All three play their role with such resolve, comedy, pathos and humanity that Logan reaches beyond what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre and provides something altogether deeper and more stimulating.

Jackman was there when the cinematic superhero craze started, and now here he is 17 years later where the fatigue has set in for many audiences. Who better then to use as a model for the consideration and analysis of the genre and how it has evolved? There is a complex morality that comes with the superhero mythos, full of grey areas and contradictions, that goes largely unexplored (or perhaps underexplored) by superhero movies for the most part but which Logan fully embraces. The movie takes a fundamentally cynical view towards the superhero myth, establishing that the whole thing very much as a myth, the kind that only exists in children’s comic books or movies like Shane. Even after all the heroics he accomplished as Wolverine, Logan has gone on to lose everyone he cares about and none of the problems he solved or the people he’s saved have really mattered. Things have gone to hell and people have gotten hurt despite (and sometimes because) of what he’s done. And yet there are still some who believe in him and who believe that what he does is important and is for the better. The deconstruction of the genre is a fascinating one that at once dispels the myth of the superhero while also reaffirming it.

Between Logan and Deadpool, it looks like the game is very much changing for the superhero movie. As much as I enjoy the popcorn quality of the Marvel and DC movies, there is an undeniable fatigue that has set in. These franchises have adopted a certain business as usual sensibility that hasn’t exactly made them less enjoyable to watch (not for me anyway) but somewhat less fulfilling. It is for example difficult to feel that anything is really at stake in the Marvel and DC films when all of their actors are contracted to appear in future titles. It’s also true that these movies often spend so much time setting up future stories that you never really feel like you’re watching an actual story unfold. The superhero films are also falling victim to their conventions which, unless done very well, can feel tired and predictable (as it can with any genre). This is why movies like Logan are needed to shake up the genre, explore new directions and possibilities, and go deeper than any has gone before. What’s more, Logan is quite simply a great film with a profound story, excellent action, and a marvellous performance by Jackman.


Eddie the Eagle

Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Iris Berben, Christopher Walken

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writers: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton

We Brits love a good underdog story. We all love to root for the everyman that we can see ourselves in as they overcome adversities and obstacles on the road to victory. Britain in particular has an enthusiasm for the David vs. Goliath types of stories that can be traced back to her small island mentality and ‘the Dunkirk spirit’. It is a romantic sensibility that has often been featured in British sports films from Chariots of Fire to Bend It Like Beckham. It’s why Eddie Edwards was so popular with the crowd when he competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Edwards was an amateur skier who, without sponsorship or promotion, was able to earn his place amongst the champions of the world at the single greatest sporting event on the planet. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect concept for a British underdog film.

Growing up in a working-class household, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has dreamed of competing in the Olympics since he was 10-years-old. His mother Janette (Jo Hartley) wants her son to dream and to have great ambitions while his father Terry (Keith Allen) wants to bring Eddie back down to Earth. Even after becoming a proficient skier, Eddie is refused so much as a chance to try for the Olympics due to his unsophisticated manner and lack of a ‘proper’ upbringing. Determined not to give up on his dream, Eddie finds that he can improve his chances of qualifying for the Olympics if he competes in a sport without any current British competitors, opting for the ski jump. He sets off for the training facility in Germany where he is mocked and ridiculed by those who are more practised and seasoned than him. There he falls into the company of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former American ski jump champion, who agrees to train him in the sport.

Although the story in this film is largely fictionalised (Jackman’s character isn’t real, Eddie was a more accomplished sportsman than the film suggests, etc.) the film very much captures the underdog spirit that Eddie Edwards inspired. Eddie is portrayed as an awkward and clumsy person who lacks class and style but makes up for it in heart and determination. He adamantly refuses to be daunted by the challenges he faces or to be disheartened by the ridicule of others to the point that he will suffer great pain and indignity in order to realise his ambition. He isn’t after fame or fortune or even prestige. All he wants is a chance to prove himself and to participate in an event that celebrates achievement, hard work and fortitude. When he finally makes it to Calgary he doesn’t care about winning or breaking records, he is just so grateful to even be there that he displays a fervent enthusiasm that proves to be contagious to the world watching him. In many ways Eddie Edwards is the greatest fulfilment of the Olympic motto which holds that the most important thing is “not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle”.

As admirable as the story is though, I’m afraid there isn’t much to set it apart from the line-up of sports films that have come before. The underdog’s journey is very much by the numbers and the underdog himself isn’t exactly the most compelling of protagonists despite Egerton’s efforts. The portrayal of the British Olympic officials as a pompous and sneering bunch who villainously set out to prevent Eddie from succeeding also seemed rather generic to me (although if you do have to cast someone in that part, you certainly can’t do much better than Captain Darling). Jackman however provides the film with many highlights as a cynical, drunken trainer who sees in Eddie a passion and a respect for the sport and the Olympics that he had never possessed himself as a young champion. There is also much style in the film’s visuals as well as a variety of enjoyable montages depicting Eddie’s training.

In spite of the standard, even formulaic, approach that the film applies towards its story I was still very rooting for Eddie in his journey. As implausibly childish as his character could be, his zeal and perseverance were still soundly felt. As transparently fabricated as some elements could be, the film was still able to capture the spirit of the underdog story that Eddie Edwards lived in an affective way. It isn’t a film that takes risks and that never surprises, but it also isn’t a film that feels tired or that falls flat. It is sentimental, it is clichéd and it is schmaltzy, but those who aren’t put off by those qualities could very well find it to be affectionate, charming and even inspirational. Eddie the Eagle is not going to break any boundaries the way that Eddie Edwards did, but for the right viewer it will prove to be an enjoyable feel-good British underdog movie.



Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Jason Fuchs

Whenever a film attempts to create a sequel/prequel/reboot of a franchise I know and love I tend to be pretty ambivalent about it. While I’m open to the prospect of someone bringing a new spin to an old story and old characters, I’m always afraid they’ll tarnish them in some way. As I’ve grown up I have come to accept that liberties are always going to be taken with the mythology of a story in order for it to be modernised and updated. Sometimes it works well (Star Trek, Mad Max: Fury Road) and sometimes it doesn’t (Planet of the Apes, Terminator Genisys). There are however some things so sacred and so inviolate that you simply don’t mess with them. The Force in Star Wars is a mystical, intangible energy field, not the product of microscopic life forms in the blood stream. Wonderland is a world that defies all forms of rationality and sense, not a realm of prophecies and civil wars. The Batsuit does not have fucking nipples. By failing to follow the pre-established rules and traditions of these franchises, these sequels/prequels/reboots effectively betray the stories that the originals were trying to tell. Pan tells the story of a boy called Peter that takes place in a world called Neverland, but very little of it resembles the universe or the story of J. M. Barrie’s novels.

This incarnation of Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan boy living in London during the Second World War. He lives in a world of oppression, injustice and fear until one fateful night when he is kidnapped by pirates on a flying ship. The ship sets course to Neverland where Peter is subjected under the rule of the pirate king Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and is forced to mine for fairy dust. After an encounter with Blackbeard that leads to the discovery of Peter’s ability to fly, Peter escapes the pirates with the help of fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). During his escape Peter learns of a prophecy that could lead to the truth about himself and his parents, a truth he seeks to uncover with the aid of Hook and the warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

I don’t want to turn this review into an essay on what liberties this film took with the Peter Pan lore and why they don’t work because I think to do so might be to miss the point. There is certainly more than one way to tell a single story and not all the deviancies to the original source material are necessarily going to be bad just because they’re different. However, as I said earlier, there are some things you simply don’t mess with. The story of Peter Pan is first and foremost a story about growing up, Peter himself is a mischievous, cocky troublemaker and Neverland is a world of imagination and adventure. Barrie’s universe is and always has been open to variation and interpretation but the core ingredients have to be there if his story is to be conveyed. In Pan however the theme of growing up is not at all featured and Peter is a timid, whiny messiah who now has some great destiny that he must fulfil. I do think that Neverland itself is quite well done (with some grossly egregious missteps here and there) but it isn’t nearly enough to excuse the severe lack of regard held towards J. M. Barrie’s work. What aggravates me about this film is not only that it tried to change something that was already fun and wonderful to begin with but that what it offers instead is so weak and insipid in comparison.

Thus Pan is not only a bad film because it betrays the spirit of Barrie’s work, it’s also a bad film because it’s a bad film. The protagonist is about as bland and forgettable as a protagonist can get. The whole idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy foretelling Peter’s great destiny is the same cheap narrative trick we’ve seen in a hundred other films. The rules and laws of this universe are not adequately established or explained, leading to much confusion and many unanswered questions. And then some things are just plain silly. Between watching a dogfight between a flying pirate ship and WW2 fighter jets, seeing hundreds of pirates singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and witnessing a trampoline fight between Hook and a native, there were many instances when I had to stop and ask myself what the bloody hell I was watching. The forced inside jokes and winks to the audience (“We’ll always be friends Hook”) were also so obnoxious and in your face that I felt like I was watching Bojack Horseman’s stand up routine (“Get it? Do you get it? Do you understand the joke?”).

As frustrating as I found this film to watch there were some pleasantries I quite enjoyed. Neverland for one looks pretty stunning, with the exception of those monstrous CGI birds (you’ll know them when you see them). The setting is rich in colour and texture and many of the visuals are quite imaginative. Some aspects like the giant bubbles surrounding Neverland or the puffs of colourful smoke emitted by the pirates’ pistols may not be part of Barrie’s lore but I still thought they looked nice. Again some licence with the material is permissible when it comes to visually representing them and I thought Pan did an adequate job of illustrating Neverland as a world of imagination and wonder. I also liked the music composed by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. At the end of the day though the visuals and music cannot save this film from its shortcomings in story, character and sensation any more than it could with the Star Wars prequels.

Perhaps the most common defence for this film is that it was made for children and therefore doesn’t have to meet the standards of films made for grown ups, an argument that simply doesn’t hold water. Making a film for children is not a licence to be stupid, undistinguished or lazy. Bright colours and movement might be enough to keep younger children amused for a couple of hours but it isn’t enough for a film like this to stand the test of time. Children are smarter than some adults give them credit for and if a film actually offers something of substance they will respond to it. Disney’s Peter Pan as well as Barrie’s original novels have lasted because they both have timeless characters, incredible imagination, a compelling story and a profound moral for children to take away. Pan offers none of these things. In this day and age where studios like Pixar are able to produce wildly successful films that can challenge and entertain children and adults alike, Pan offers nothing of worth to its audience and will be forgotten once they’ve moved on to whatever comes next.


Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

People seem really unsure about what to make of Neill Blomkamp these days. The South African writer/director has made two major films prior to this one. The first, District 9, was critically praised and the second, Elysium, was critically panned. Therefore, with the release of his third major film, critics and audiences are curious to see where it will fall. Personally I think this film is ok. Not great but not terrible either. I do think that Blomkamp has the potential to make great films, but there are certain fatal flaws that are holding him back. Chappie has the makings of a great, insightful film with big themes and ideas but it ends up falling flat due to the characters and the narrative.

Blomkamp introduces us to a future Johannesburg in which robots have been introduced into the police force. They prove highly successful due to their state-of-the-art armour plating and their semi-AI programs that make them highly effective in combat situations. These robots are the inventions of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who is lauded for providing the weapons manufacturer Tetravaal with his creation much to the derision of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a former soldier with his own alternative machine that was rejected. When Deon finishes compiling a program of what he claims will be the world’s first true artificial intelligence, he decides to test it on a damaged robot despite his request being disapproved by his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). As he attempts to smuggle the robot out of the facility he is kidnapped by a team of gangsters who demand that he provide them with a failsafe for his machines that they can use for a large heist. When Deon reasons that such a task is impossible he instead offers them an artificially intelligent robot that they may use as they please. Deon is therefore allowed to continue his experiment and thus we are introduced to Chappie (Sharlto Copley).

Chappie is effectively a child, mentally and emotionally, but possesses a highly advanced mind that can learn and adapt at an exponential level. He comes into the world completely innocent of its ways and it falls down to Deon and the gangsters Yolandi and Ninja (played quite unconvincingly by the members of Die Antwoord) to raise him by offering their three different perspectives. Deon encourages Chappie to embrace his full creativity and potential, insisting that he can do anything he sets his mind to. Yolandi nurtures Chappie and forms a motherly bond with him. Ninja wants to use Chappie for his heist and tries to raise him as a gangster, teaching him how to shoot, fight and swear. Through Chappie’s upbringing the film tries to explore such themes as love, growth, the virtue of innocence, the potential of technology, and the imperfection of man, but fails to offer anything particularly new or insightful on these topics.

The characters of this film are its greatest weakness. Many of the characters, particularly the film’s main villain Vincent Moore, are unimaginative clichés who prove to be inconsistent in their motivations. The Hugh Jackman character was a wildly erratic engineer who used to be a soldier (which I guess is why he’s allowed to carry a gun in his office?) who appears to possess some sort of fanatical religious devotion that is never really elaborated and who constantly changes at the flip of a coin. He really is as nonsensical as he sounds. In addition are the South African gangsters who are very one-dimensional and who are similarly inconsistent in their motivations. Inconstancy is fine with a character like Chappie who is constantly learning new things and constantly evolving, but is annoying coming from these other characters. The rest are simply bland one-note characters played by talented, under-used actors (this film was a complete waste of Sigourney Weaver’s time).

The film has plenty of good qualities. The special effects, much like District 9, are excellent and authentically unpolished. The action and the humour are decent. Chappie himself is an interesting enough character that I was invested in his journey. He possesses a charming innocence that allows the audience to empathise with him. It therefore becomes distressing (in a good way) for the audience to watch the other characters taking advantage of Chappie’s childish naivety and to watch him become all too aware of the harsh realities of the world he lives in. Blomkamp has proven to everyone that he does have good ideas; his problem is in their application. He is clearly making a bold attempt to tackle grand, complex themes but whatever insights he might have to offer end up getting lost in the muddled plot and the illogical characters. The ending, again like District 9, is left open with the story left somewhat unresolved, presumably because Blomkamp is setting the scene for a sequel. It is my hope that Blomkamp can learn to overcome his weaknesses and return to the heights of District 9.