The Martian has been out for a week, and it looks like it’s not just a box office success but a big one. It’s just what’s deserved for a film that marries Ridley Scott’s visual genius to a clever and intelligent (not the same thing) script, delivered via Matt Damon’s leading-man charisma and a stellar supporting cast. As popcorn entertainment, it’s the best thing since Mad Max: Fury Road (which, okay, wasn’t that long ago, but that will become an actual classic).
Most stories have a hero. Most also have a protagonist. The two roles aren’t mutually exclusive, but nor are they synonymous. The hero is almost always the protagonist. The protagonist is not always a hero. Following the latter course can lead to interesting places in the hands of a clever writer, but it also risks sacrificing the audience’s engagement in search of those interesting places.
Twice in the past few weeks, I’ve watched films that gave us protagonists who fell quite some way short of any definition of the word hero. Sadly, in neither case did the scriptwriters seem to acknowledge that this might be the case, let alone that it might be a problem.
The first case was the latest Will Smith vehicle, Focus. Smith plays the leader of a ring of conmen and criminals, a slick mastermind of innumerable crimes, both petty and serious. Into his world wanders the much less slick Margot Robbie, whom he takes first under his wing and then into his bed. So far so conventional, and in the manner of all criminal movies since The Sting, there are double crosses and fake outs aplenty to keep the audience guessing.
Sadly, the movie throws it all away early on, with a scene in which Robbie is taught to prey on sports fans at a championship game. Not high rollers, just ordinary fans and tourists, whose pockets are picked, valuables lifted and holidays ruined all so Smith’s crew can saunter off at the end of the weekend significantly richer, with no authorities any the wiser.
Films about criminals are common enough, and there are two main camps: the Robin Hood types, who prey upon the rich and greedy, and the hardened criminals, who tend to suffer just as much hardship as any of those whom they victimise. Focus seems quite happy to present its unrepentant criminals as heroes without making them suffer overmuch, content to coast on Smith’s slick personality and Robbie’s scantily clad charms (to be fair, Smith is scantily clad at least as often, and if I’d been working out as much as him, I would be too).
Skipping over whether any of the plot twists actually hang together (spoiler – they don’t), the fact that the film doesn’t bother making its characters sympathetic leaves the entire exercise hollow. Focus’s central romance never convinces, so the engine of the plot for the second half of the movie, centring around Smith’s efforts to get Robbie back, simply sputters and dies. The result is an impressively produced piece of nothing much at all.
More recently, I went to see Chappie, Neil Blompkamp’s latest offering. Unlike Smith, who lapsed into underperforming blockbuster mode a while back, Blomkamp has a 50-50 average so far, following up the impressively grungy District 9 with the unconvincing Elysium. With Chappie, the director and cowriter returns to the happier hunting grounds of Johannesburg, but he brings back with him some of the habits of Hollywood shallowness.
Actually, let’s be a little more direct here—Chappie is so shallow that if you dived in, you’d barely get wet before you broke your nose. The “Idiot Ball” is a common term in scriptwriting circles, denoting a character who does something stupid in order to advance the plot. The character doing so is said to be holding the Idiot Ball. In Chappie, it seems that they received a truckload of Idiot Balls, as the plot relies on everyone being stupid all of the time.
Mark Kermode summed up the film as Short Circuit meets Robocop, a description it’s hard to improve on. Dev Patel plays a genius robotics expert who never convincingly manages to explain how or why he wants to create a truly conscious artifical intelligence in the chassis of a police robot. Hugh Jackman plays a villain who’s just a moustache-twirl away from tying damsels to railway lines and cackling. Sigourney Weaver is … in the film. And the members of Die Antwoord play themselves pretending to be Jo’burger gangsters who adopt the titular Chappie by way of kidnap and some of the most half-baked scheming ever committed to celluloid.
That said schemes prove completely successful indicates that the scriptwriters had other things in mind. Quite what those things are, it’s hard to tell. Sharlto Copley does a decent job of portraying Chappie as a precocious infant, but his character’s intellectual growth spurts and stalls according to the needs of the plot. For all of Patel’s argument that this kind of AI could be “smarter than a human!”, the only bit of exceptional intelligence shown is a kind of reverse Idiot Ball, where Chappie’s AI brain provides a solution to a problem that enables the final denouement.
Amid all of the handwaving explanations and unconvincing twists, the arms corporation that everyone apart from the gangsters works for proves the least convincing element of all. Despite being solely responsible for the company’s success, Patel has a cubicle in the same open-plan office as Jackman, who has a barely concealed, quasi-religious objection to his AI products. Sigourney Weaver is the boss whose only role is to say yes or no to each of her underlings at plot-significant moments, and the security guards are only there to be conspicuous by their absence whenever Patel or Jackman want to do something underhand. Which accounts for about two thirds of their working hours, by my calculations. Performance reviews at that company must be amazingly lax.
Amid all of this, if you root for anyone, it has to be Chappie himself by default. This is despite the fact that his personality is limited to say the least. He defaults to obeying/remaining devoted to Patel, who doesn’t do much for him beyond creating him and bossing him about. He likewise mimics and obeys his gangster foster parents without learning much from either of them. There are a few scenes in which you sympathise with his plight, notably early on, but tonally the film jumps all over the place, right up until that ending.
Still, of the two films, Chappie is easily the better. That it retains some of the beautifully scrungy appeal of District 9 and a few imaginative and emotive scenes fails to hide the fact that it’s also wildly inconsistent, shallow and ultimately pointless. Despite this, it remains a long way ahead of Focus, which never stretches itself beyond shallow and self-satisfied.
Edit: In an interview, Blomkamp notes that unlike his other films, Chappie has no socio-political context. Which tallies with my feelings about the film – shorn of that context, it falls back on the infant AI and its implications for meaning but never follows through on that possibility with any conviction.