THEATRICAL REVIEW: Chappie
Produced by: Simon Kinberg
Screenplay by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Edited by: Julian Clarke
Cinematography by: Trent Opaloch
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Watkin Tudor Jones (“Ninja”), Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Auret
Based on the 2003 short film Tetra Vaal by Neill Blomkamp
Oh man. Chappie… I was so hoping this would be good. I absolutely love District 9 and think it’s still one of the best, most original sci-fi films in recent history, and I was thrilled that it was nominated for Best Picture, regardless of whether it was only because they had expanded the selection size. Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up, Elysium, wasn’t anywhere near as good, and its moralizing was clumsy as hell, but it was definitely an interesting and mostly entertaining film that also looked very nice. Chappie was an opportunity for Blomkamp to look at what worked and didn’t work from both films and deliver something truly special. Blomkamp himself even recognized the fact that Elysium was a step in the wrong direction in a refreshingly candid interview with Uproxx, wherein he points out “it was all resting on a somewhat not totally formed skeletal system, so the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.” That’s awesome, and all, but man… What happened, then, with Chappie?!
First off, let me tell you that the advertising is somewhat misleading. They make you think that Chappie, the sentient robot, is going to be some kind of Jesus Christ analog wherein he saves a prejudiced humanity from some kind of catastrophe, possibly helping them to learn that even robots have feelings and they should accept them into their hearts and such. After I thought about it for a while, I think I know where Blomkamp was probably trying to go, but discussing that would ultimately spoil the movie. What you do need to know now, going into this movie, is that Chappie isn’t the apocalypse with robots, like in Terminator or The Matrix, and it’s barely even I, Robot. So do not go in expecting that. This is a movie that’s surprisingly heavy on lightweight expositional and moralizing dialogue. It’s… it’s pretty migraine-inducing.
Chappie himself is rather charming, at least. He’s the result of a program going on in Johannesburg, South Africa where robotic police officers with advanced artificial intelligence are rapidly taking over law enforcement positions, particularly in situations where police lives would potentially be at high risk. The man responsible for heading up the program is Deon Wilson, who has, in his spare time, been developing an even more advanced artificial intelligence that might be the key to creating the world’s first artificial life, and he plans on using a damaged robot as his first test subject. Before he can do so, however, he’s kidnapped by gangsters who threaten to kill him if he does not provide them with a means of shutting off the police robots so that they can pull off a heist and pay back their debt to a much more powerful gangster, the frequently subtitled “Hippo.” Discovering his experiment, however, the group allows for him to upload the software to the damaged robot, intending to train him to work alongside them in their crimes. But the robot, whom they nickname “Chappie,” turns out to have the intelligence of a small child, leading to many charming moments where the naïve, bunny-eared robot learns how to talk, bond with his “family,” and learn right from wrong – a trait that Deon believes will allow for Chappie to become a symbol for all that is good and beautiful in the world but which Ninja, the group’s leader, intends to exploit for his own benefit.
The film presents a lot of different cautionary points and a lot of potentially interesting, if generic, speculative concepts, but the one I think we’re supposed to focus on the most is how Chappie’s upbringing causes him to naturally adopt the “Us vs. Them” survival-based ideology of the gangsters. This is a mentality that naturally puts them at odds with a justice system that simply sees them all as defectives, fit to be destroyed, as Chappie very nearly was before Deon, his creator, saved him. I should note that two of the gangsters are played by Yolandi Visser and Ninja of zef rave rap group Die Antwoord, who I hadn’t heard of before Chappie, and so I had to do some research. I have learned that 1) they do not make my kind of music, and 2) they are not meant to be taken too seriously, as a lot of their work is satirical in nature and serves as a commentary on South African culture. As such, their casting – as versions of themselves, no less – is a reinforcement of this idea of systematic oppression. The law enforcement part of the equation is represented by Hugh Jackman’s character, Vincent Moore – a jealous, religious, and violent jock whose competing law enforcement machine, MOOSE, was rejected in favor of Deon’s. MOOSE is a human-controlled ED-209-like unit that lacks Deon’s robots’ intelligence but makes up for it with the devastating firepower it puts into its users’ hands. The better to blow up desperate lowlifes with.
This is good stuff to explore, particularly in a film about artificial intelligence. The problem, apart from an unfocused script, is that the film is saddled with characters who, apart from Chappie himself, are largely uninteresting or, worse, downright aggravating. Dev Patel’s Deon is the typical altruistic scientist figure, but there’s not much more to him as a personality beyond what he’s invented and his outrage at the gangsters for corrupting his creation. Sigourney Weaver, as the head of the weapons company that manufactures the robots, seems to be there just because it’s every sci-fi movie director’s dream to cast Ellen Ripley in their movies, regardless of whether or not they can give her anything more than just read lines. (The fact that Blomkamp was revealed to be directing the next Alien film just prior to Chappie’s release seems mighty convenient now, too.)
However, the biggest offenses to the audience are villain, Vincent Moore, and the gangsters we spend so much time with, particularly the members of Die Antwoord. Hugh Jackman does the best he can as Vincent, but the character is such a cartoon, what with his mullet, reserved counter space in the men’s bathroom for his many manly toiletries, and a gun always holstered into his khaki short shorts, should he ever decide to “joke” around and threaten someone’s life at the office. He’s like the over-the-top villain of a bad comedy who’s been transplanted to the wrong genre. This is made all the more frustrating because, while he’s not portrayed as being all that nuanced, he actually has a lot of good reasons for not trusting an autonomous system of robotic law enforcement, but the film expects us to ignore that just based on the fact that Chappie’s cute and the bad man doesn’t like him.
The fact that we’re ultimately meant to be on the gangsters’ side just based on their family unit relationship with Chappie and their opposition of Vince isn’t enough. They’re still killers, they’re still liars who use Chappie for their own purposes. The film gives us very little reason to empathize with their economic situation, even. Had the film gone into their histories and further explored why they chose and perpetuate this lifestyle, even anecdotally, sympathy for them wouldn’t have been such a hard thing to conjure up, as it is now. All we see is their criminal behavior and nastiness. Ninja in particular is an unpleasant presence and cruel father figure to Chappie, and that’s all we see of him until the very end when he makes a sudden left turn into a caring hero. While their performances weren’t especially awful, I feel like the inclusion of Die Antwoord as themselves was mostly meant to give the group wider exposure through a major worldwide release, and I suspect Ninja and Yolandi probably just leapt at the idea of being portrayed as gun-toting badasses who make friends with a robot.
There are plenty of other themes I could talk about that Chappie touches upon but never really fully explores – though I could at least mention that it obviously asks whether artificial life is actual life and, if so, should we embrace it? The answers are, like the rest of the movie, pretty simplistic in nature: Yes, and yes. I’m not really spoiling anything since you probably gathered that from the trailers and the fact that Chappie is, again, so cute, we’re obviously meant to side with him. It’s not exactly something the film gives that much gravitas to until the very end, though, where we at least get to see how exactly Chappie will supposedly save humanity, which I won’t spoil here. It may possibly destroy any reason for you to see this, and I’m still torn on whether I would recommend it or not, given how down I am on the movie. It’s still a Neill Blomkamp movie, and he’s still a director with potential – one who is, again, directing the next Alien, so you might want to continue feeling out his movies until then.
Some have said Chappie is better than Elysium. They’re wrong, but if you’re as wrong as them, then you might want to check out Chappie, too, with expectations lowered. I guess I’d recommend a rental, unless you don’t mind paying theatre prices for disappointment. While the effects are pretty spectacular, with all of the CGI robots and Sharlto Copley’s motion captured performance blending seamlessly into reality, with the exception of the beginning and end, there’s not much action in this film, and what’s there isn’t all that exciting. I can’t imagine the impact of the film will be diminished by a home viewing. It really pains me to say that. I was really holding out some hope for this one, despite the fact that I knew it looked so unoriginal in concept… and then discovered that Yolandi Visser and Ninja were real people and not just actors playing characters. Chappie is a flatout mess of a film with a poorly thought out story and annoying characters spouting bad dialogue from a simple minded script.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5