Chappie (dir. Neil Blomkamp)

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Chappie” is first and foremost a film with a lot of potential that is hopelessly and frustratingly hampered by a ton of script issues.  The film sets itself up to say something about drone warfare, artificial intelligence, singularity, or maybe even open carry laws. In the end, it doesn’t really say anything about anything.  On top of this, the film has issues dealing with its characters, their motivations and actions, and especially Chappie the robot’s rate of mental development.  Also, while I know every science fiction film will have to deal with a little bit of junk science in order to function, “Chappie” is unusual in how completely unconvincing it portrays its junk science to be.  The willing suspension of disbelief cannot abide by a robot with the intelligence of maybe a 9-year-old boy who suddenly learns to drive a car without being taught to do so.

A quick plot summary: A joint U.S./South African weapons manufacturer called Tetravaal has created titanium robots to supplement the Johannesburg police force in dealing with street crime.  The creator of these robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) goes home late at night and attempts to create artificial intelligence while fueled by Red Bull until, after 900 or so days, he does.  This is big step up from the Nintendo robot he has cleaning his house when he’s gone.  When he brings his AI breakthrough to the company’s owner (a wasted Sigourney Weaver) she scoffs at his major scientific breakthrough by telling him that Tetravaal is a weapons company and she has no use for it. Regardless of what type of company it is, you’d think any business executive worth their salt would see the potential to make money, or at least garner good press, from a scientific achievement, but alas, she does not.  This could potentially be a comment on how the United States isn’t interested in science unless it can be used to kill enemy combatants, but “Chappie” fails as a satire on the United States because it takes place in South Africa, and the only reason we as viewers is aware that Tetravaal is also a U.S. company is because of a blink-or-you’ll-miss but of production design: an American Flag next to a South African flag are painted on the wall of one of Tetravaal’s big workshop hangers.

In any event, Deon decides to defy his boss and in an unrealistically easy process manages to take the company’s major piece of security software home, as well as take a robot ready to be destroyed after receiving damage in the line of duty, and uploads his AI software to it.  Of course, when he does this, it is after a three person street gang had kidnapped him, thinking Deon has the power to “turn off” the robots, because they want to be able to commit a heist to pay off another gangster they owe money to (Brandon Auret, whose English dialogue the filmmakers felt it necessary to subtitle).

The gang that kidnaps Deon is made up of Ninja (Watkin Jones, a South African rapper), Yolandi (Yolandi Vissar, another rapper), and Yankie (Jose Cantillo).  They live in an abandoned factory that looks like it was decorated by a mix of scratcher tattoo artists and the guy who draws “Tank Girl”.  Yankie is your traditional Hispanic gangster, but Ninja and Yolandi are odd characters.  Yolandi dresses like she stepped out of “Blade Runner” or the late 90s rave scene and at times seems to have the intelligence of Milla Jovovich’s character from “The Fifth Element”. Ninja, well, his character is a mess.  At times, he is an evil man who is willing to shoot anyone who annoys him.  Then after he tries to shoot Deon and misses, he lets Deon drive off from no reason when he could have easily fired again and killed him.  Later, he treats Chappie the way an abusive and overbearing father would treat his child, but then seemingly develops warm feelings for him though the film gives us no reason for this.  Towards the end, Ninja decides to make a selfless sacrifice without his character earning it, or the film giving him any sort of character arc or teaching moment or anything to make us even like this guy.  The film seems to want us to like Ninja or at least find him interesting.  I’d guess that he and Yolandi get more screen time than any other human character in the film, but he’s too goddamn all over the map to feel like anything more than what he is: a rapper the director likes.

So Deon disappears for almost an entire act of the film and we’re treated to Chappie, now alive, being raised by the gang as Ninja wants him to eventually help him with a big heist (and maybe steal a few cars).  Since Ninja is essentially a wannabe white gangster, Chappie starts acting like a 9-year-old attempting to emulate gangsta rap, and is occasionally funny.  Of course, Johnny 5 already kind of did this in “Short Circuit 2”when he’s tricked into stealing car radios by a Latino gang in that film, but whatever.  Chappie as a character is likeable enough and humorous, but the film never makes up its mind as to how smart, or naïve, or grown up, or childish it wants him to be, and never gives us a solid rate of trajectory as to how he grows and evolves mentally and behaviorally.  He childishly makes a doll, calls Yolandi “Mommy” and Ninja “Daddy” (Deon is “Maker”), his understanding of vocabulary and phrases is whatever the screenplay decides it wants him to understand. At least “Short Circuit” showed us Johnny getting “imput”.  I wonder if there are reams of deleted scenes from the second act of Chappie learning things, but that these scenes were judged too boring.  Look, it’s funny to watch Chappie commit various carjackings while thinking he’s taking back Ninja’s many stolen cars, but if you then want me to believe he learns how to transfer both human and AI consciousness to different bodies after a simple internet search, well, you better write a damn better screenplay than this one.

I’m 1,000+ words into this review and I haven’t even mentioned the character of Vincent (Hugh Jackman).  Vincent is a religious former-solider turned engineer who has moral issues with Artificial Intelligence.  Think Chris Kyle is Kyle were smart enough to become an engineer and not dumb enough to take someone with PTSD to a gun range and get himself killed.  Vincent has created a different robot to rival Deon’s police droids, and while Vincent’s robot is a giant, expensive behemoth more apt for military missions than civilian control, Vincent remains jealous of Deon’s success.  The behemoths, called the Moose in the film, are extremely derivative of the ED-209 from “Robocop” and its recent remake. Since the Moose is completely operated by a human (it’s done remotely through a headset that lets a human’s neural pathways do the work) this was an opportunity to make a comment about drone warfare, or about the increasing militarization of civilian police, but the film decides not to do that.  The police force repeatedly refuses to purchase the Moose, Tetravaal is only barely interested in it, and in the film it is really only used for Vincent to exact his personal revenge on Deon, Chappie, and the like.  No real, social comment is made.  Even the lackluster “Robocop” remake at least had that one delightful scene of ED-209s walking down the streets of Iraq saying “Peace be upon you” to the citizens.

Similarities to “Short Circuit” and “Robocop” aside, this film is extremely derivative of other films. When Chappie’s technology is used to make characters switch bodies, we’re getting into films as recent as “Transcendence”.  When Chappie, who only has a battery life of 5 days, asks Deon “Why did you make me to die?”, that good line which could have lead to a discussion about birth, life, death, and any number of philosophical thoughts doesn’t, and we’re just left with ANOTHER film about sentient machines. Spielberg’s “A.I.” covered this material better 14 years ago.  There is nothing “Chappie” does that hasn’t been done earlier and better and, most importantly, smarter and deeper.  I suppose to transferring of consciousnesses could be a really strained Christ-resurrection metaphor, especially since Yolandi talks to Chappie about the soul and dying meaning you go to “the other place”, but it’s a stretch. We see Vincent wear a cross throughout the film, and drop to his knees to cross himself once or twice, but the film only casually dips its toe into any religious discussion.  Ninja kneels before a yellow machine gun and crosses himself too, so what are we really to make of this?

This film was directed and co-written by Neil Blomkamp (the other writer is his wife, Terri Tatchell).  It is becoming clear, after three films, that Blomkamp needs to stop writing his own screenplays.  “District 9” was quite good, and operated as a decent metaphor for Apartheid-era South Africa, but its third act devolved into meaningless action, and for some reason that film started off as a fake documentary and then switched to a straight ahead movie with no rhyme or reason.  It was smart movie that still could have been better.  Then came “Elysium”, which Blomkamp wrote on his own.  That was a film that set itself to talk about two important issues: economic inequality and healthcare.  The film’s set-up, however, left it so that there was literally no reason why the rich wouldn’t provide their magic healing machines to the masses except for pure, unrealistic evil.  Even at the end of the film, when the people of Earth now have free healing, they are still stuck on Earth to work as cheap labor. Wealth as not been redistributed, and a healed population just means you have healthier workhorses.  In fact, it almost makes LESS sense for such an unequal society to keep its population so sick since sick people don’t work as well as the healthy.  Oh, and the illegal immigration aspect of that film was kind of lost, as it doesn’t appear much of the Earth citizenry would, at the end, be allowed to emigrate to the Elysium space station for capacity reasons if nothing else. Also, it was the second of his films that sets up smart issues, and then just says “fuck it” and becomes a soulless action movie in the third act.

“Chappie” now shows a pattern. Blomkamp is capable of coming up with dystopian or near-dystopian stories that give lip service to serious issues and political commentary, but then become lazy action films in the third act. Characters are not always given proper motivations and character development in total is often weak.  Blomkamp is good with special effects and can direct effectively (I have no real issues with how any of his films look or are shot) but a good screenwriter, Oscar nomination of “District 9” aside, he is not.  If Blomkamp wants to, next time, come up with a story and let another screenwriter flesh it out, he may have one hell of a movie on his hands.  “Chappie” had a bit less going for it because, come on, even “Iron Man 2” covered the droid soldier angle, but “Elysium” especially had potential for greatness.

“Chappie” is not a bad film, though. Sloppy screenplay aside, the direction is suitable, the score is pretty damn good (Hans Zimmer’s score recalls the original “Terminator” theme and is often more dramatic than the film itself), and Chappie himself is pretty likeable. A lot of credit goes to Sharlto Copley, who voices the robot and whose movements were motion-captured for him.  Copley has been Blomkamp’s go-to actor, the Deniro to Blomkamp’s Scorcese, but he also did interesting work in Spike Lee’s compromised but still underrated “Oldboy” remake.  Chappie, while not being a well-written character, is largely funny, likeable, and endearing because of Copley and the little touches he brings to Chappie.  Chappie is the star of this thing, and he’s the only character we really like in this thing.  Even Deon irks you for no reason, Yolandi’s penchant for attention-getting shirts is grating (for poor gang members, these guys seem to have an excellent and fast shirt supplier…Ninja makes a shirt with Yolandi’s face on it in, like, hours, and Yolandi makes a Chappie shirt in a day), and Ninja barely exists as a cohesive character.

Chappie is a good but derivative character, flagged by a good but derivative score, with good direction and good special effects, stuck in a movie called “Chappie” that’s saddled with a wasted, empty, and sloppy screenplay.  It’s entertaining, but maybe 20 minutes too long, its junk science is too ridiculous even by science fiction standards, and the experience of watching the film ultimately results in frustration. C+

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