It Should Have Been Eminem: 3 Tips On How Neill Blomkamp Can Make Chappie Good
You and I both know it should have been Eminem.
The protagonist of director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, a strung-out, broken-down factory worker on the fringe of an on-the-edge society, was played by Matt Damon. We were supposed to believe that Matt Damon, who has mostly made a name for himself playing the winsome and flawless hero, would be savior to a planet of have-nots? Neill, it looked so wrong: Damon can’t ever fully shake the Harvard tinge. It was my beef with him in Good Will Hunting, and it would probably be my beef with him in We Bought A Zoo if I’d seen it.
Imagine a too-hood-for-this-bougie-bullshit Eminem tearing his way through a space station filled with rich people chased by Sharlto Copley. That would have been a spectacle. Imagine the kind of natural interplay that would have existed—the kind that so totally sucked me and countless others into the filthy and favela-ridden alien Johannesburg in District 9.
I’m genuinely bummed out about how excited the world would be for Blomkamp’s next offering, Chappie, a near-future sci-fi flick that follows a robot who is slowly learning to think and feel as he interacts with his human sidekicks, if Elysium had been good. Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic, but I, just like so many others, don’t want to have my heart broken again.
Elysium should have been a career crescendo. What we got was a sophomore slump, poorly stylized and carried by the then-played classist sub/supertext that carried District 9.
Neill, here’s what I’m going to need from Chappie to love you once again.
Play to Your Strength
What made District 9 crazy-cool in the first place —aside from the effects and the Prawns and the “Mulcher” gun and the enormous spaceship with the cracked engine block—was how the setting defined the movie. District 9 gave us a miserable, colorful pit to play around in and see destroyed, something for us to marvel at the flimsiness of, to gawk at as it was torn apart, and to secretly lead us to evaluate our own entitlements. It was claustrophobic, tight, messy and weak; his unfamiliarity with it gave our protagonist a running streak of fright and terror. It was the best use of action-setting-as-plot since Die Hard.
Elyisum gave us none of that. Instead, it tried to foist a schizophrenic plot wherein all of Earth—the whole thing—really sucked, and the 1 percent lived in a Benetton ad in low orbit.
Don’t Overdirect Sharlto Copley as Chappie
Copley, who’s done some solid work outside the Blomkamp-verse, was wasted in Elysium. As the freaked-out sweetheart of District 9, he was impeccable, but as the standard ruthless-cum-perverted-cum-unstoppable man-bear bad guy of Elysium, he seemed so out of place, so one-dimensional. His boiling weirdness and biker-gang psycho verve felt shouldered, grudgingly.
It felt like you were leaning hard on his safety blanket, Neill, and were convinced that Copley could carry any scene with his mighty chops. It felt like you felt that Copley could rock any dialogue or weird instance of villainous lunacy (read: stupid part where he sings a lullaby to protagonist’s girlfriend’s daughter).
It didn’t work.
Copley has to play the eponymous robot his way, or it won’t feel right.
Push the Weirdness
Thus we return to the Eminem-Dilemma.
Copley was cast brilliantly as the antagonist-turned-protagonist in District 9, and poorly in Elysium. Matt Damon was cast disastrously in Elysium, and his backups were 1. Ninja, from rap group Die Antwoord and 2. Eminem. Off the bat, you can see what you had in mind: skinny, white-thug freaks with intensity and seemingly way-fucked up world views. Casting these dudes would have brought the movie a not-quiet intensity.
District 9 was visceral and icky. Aliens eating cat food. Dudes exploding. Foreign, wretched environments, strange penchants; it felt like traveling through a strange, yet marginally recognizable land.
Die Antwoord are major characters in Chappie. They’re rough weirdos cut from largely a different cloth than you and me. They play surrogate brother and sister to Chappie, which is a warning sign to begin with. Removing them from their sour, bitter background hints at the over-directing that dampened Copley’s turn in Elysium. Give them a chance to breathe. Give them a chance to explore Johannesburg. Let them be brutally weird.
You know what? Make the whole movie brutally weird. Make it more Marshall Mathers than Matt Damon. Push us back into our seats one more time with a glib, frantic movie that leaves our jaws dropped and our classist curiosity subversively piqued.
Chappie hits theaters on March 6.
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