Tag Archives: Neill Blomkamp

Driver Education

Gran Turismo

by George Wolf

When I used to coach youth baseball, I would sometimes encourage the use of video games to teach the young ones about rules, game situations and strategy.

And then one day the Major Leagues called up one of my best players!

Nah, that would be crazy. Almost as crazy as the true story at the heart of Gran Turismo, a trope-laden but surprisingly engaging mix of product placements and underdog sports heroics.

Orlando Bloom is Danny Moore, a UK marketing exec for Nissan who worries that young people are caring less about driving cars and more about driving simulators, specifically Gran Turismo on PlayStation. So, Danny proposes a contest that would fuel excitement for real driving.

Find the 10 best “sim” racers in the world and send them to GT Academy boot camp. The academy champion will join Team Nismo and compete in actual races against seasoned pros who will hate them.

The fact that this actually happened to Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) in 2011 is mind-blowing, and director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) presents the racing action with an engaging fantasy/reality mix of burning rubber and game graphics that seems fitting.

Madekwe (Midsommar, Heart of Stone) gives Jann a sense of wounded determination that is easy to root for, but it’s David Harbour’s turn as no-nonsense driving instructor Jack Salter that consistently comes up a winner. Harbour’s chemistry with Bloom is antagonistic and amusing, while Jack and Jann eventually develop a bond of respect and affection that carries some warmth.

But getting there is a long 135-minute road, with some hazards.

Screenwriters Jason Hall, Zach Baylin and Alex Tse hamper Blomkamp’s foot-on-the-gas highlights with cliches, manufactured rivalries and the overwrought dramatics of Jann’s struggle to connect with his father (Djimon Hounsou). And while the constant instructions to Jann and his fellow drivers are a nicely organic way to keep the rest of us updated on the stakes, mounting distractions kill the buzz too often.

The hook here is a gamer earning his racing stripes, and the attempts at some Rocky-esque search for dignity aren’t strong enough to support it. But – much like Jann himself – when Gran Turismo is free to fully embrace what it is, the film can shine with a thrill of unexpected victory.

RoboCop Meets Short Circuit


by Hope Madden

In what amounts to RoboCop meets Short Circuit, Neill Blomkamp’s latest, Chappie, celebrates the outsider.

Chappie is the first sentient robot, his consciousness a program crafted by the engineer behind Johannesburg’s “scout” police force. The scout robots – a simple form of artificial intelligence assisting the Jo’burg po po – have all but eliminated urban crime.

Two problems. 1) A handful of the city’s remaining thugs want one to help them pull a heist, and 2) a weirdly coiffured rival engineer (Hugh Jackman) believes AI is an abomination and thinks his own robot – controlled by a human brain – is superior.

Imagine how pissed he gets when he finds that his rival Deon (Dev Patel – everywhere this weekend) has taken the body for one of his scouts and given it life.

Blomkamp’s third film proves that he is kind of entrenched in a single story: the corrupt wealthy versus the damaged poor with an innocent outsider hero to bring it all together. But in Blomkamp’s hands, the story always feels wildly, deeply his own. The fact that he tells it through richly imagined characters doesn’t hurt.

Chappie tells this tale with more heart and enthusiasm than the director’s last effort, the middling Elysium, but it lacks the originality (obviously) and much of the tension of his impressive debut effort, District 9.

His film suffers from an abundance of sentimentality and attention-seeking. Jackman’s over-the-top aggression and bizarre costuming are almost overshadowed by the often fascinating (though sometimes cloying) oddity that is the duo of Nija and Yo-Landi Visser (South African rappers cast as Chappi’s thug-life parents).

Blomkamp favorite Sharlto Copley performs admirably as the maturing robot-child Chappie, though you can’t help but feel abused by the manipulative child-mind/adult-world theme.

Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay with District 9 collaborator (and wife) Terri Tatchell, finds fertile ground in the images of Johannesburg’s criminal population, and when he can keep the sentimentality in check he does a nice job of balancing drama, comedy and action.

His real aim – as is usually the case with decent SciFi – is social commentary. The consequences he leaves unexplored in his film are so big and complex they are often the entire storyline of other films, but Blomkamp has his muse to follow. Chappie is true to his creator’s intention, and though it’s certainly a flawed and limited image, the experiment is not a complete failure.





Half Damon, Half Ironman


by George Wolf


Already this summer, a futuristic Earth in decline has had to deal with Tom Cruise and the team of Will Smith and son. Now it’s Matt Damon’s turn, but after a strong setup, Elysium finishes with mixed results.

Writer/director Neil Blomkamp , the visionary behind 2009’s excellent  District 9 , again crafts a futureworld that seems perfectly logical. It is 2154, and wealth inequality has finally led to complete segregation. The rich have fled Earth for Elysium, a man-made environment offering a pristine lifestyle free of overpopulation, disease, and the inconvenience of dealing with “non-citizens.” The poor masses stay behind, kept in check by Homeland security and its team of droids.

One of those left behind is Max (Damon, solid as always), an ex- con working in the droid factory. A tragic turn of events leaves him the perfect candidate to undertake a dangerous mission cooked up by the leaders of Earth’s rebellion, and in short order he becomes half Damon, half Ironman, battling assassins under orders from Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, laying it on a bit thick).

The parallels to current events are frequent and unmistakeable. From Occupy Wall Street to Obamacare, from Blackwater to immigration reform, Elysium will no doubt provide easy targets for “Hollywood Elite” finger pointing. Truth is, these are some of the same basic tenants Blomkamp explored in District 9, but this time he can’t find a subtle way out.

The visuals are impressive and the premise is well set, as Blomkamp again displays solid storytelling skills and a good grasp on pacing. Things break down when contrivance sets in (to guard against spoilers, that’s all I’ll say) and the film forgoes larger questions for easy, feel good answers.

It’s disappointing, because Blomkamp was on to something. Still, there are tense, exciting moments (with a bit of grisly violence), and, though it remains conflicted, enough smarts in Elysium to keep faith in Blomkamp as a leader in the future of science fiction.