Neil Blomkamp besides being the scourge of the South African tourism board is widely recognised as one of the most promising science fiction directors working today. His ability to marry exciting action with real-world issues (apartheid in District 9, immigration in Elysium) has placed him firmly on my ‘must watch’ list. So I was saddened to find CHAPPiE so inaccessible.
The story in a nutshell; in the not too distant future police robots have all but taken over Johannesburg. A scientist develops true AI and installs it on one of the robots who is then raised by a colourful yet violent street gang. The robot then learns to walk like a gangsta and wears bling. Yes this shit is bananas.
CHAPPiE throws heaps of themes and big ideas at the wall hoping that some stick. Artificial intelligence, militarisation of police forces, abusive parenting, the gap in socioeconomic class, free will, drone warfare, love, death, consciousness, fear, I could go on. Unfortunately tonally the film is all over the place, one scene we are supposed to be questioning the nature of what it means to be human, the next laughing as Chappie robs luxury cars, the one after that horrified as he encounters death for the first time. Watching this movie is akin to walking into a restaurant; ordering a three-course meal and having the chef blend all three courses together into a big pot and handing you a ladle.
The other major problem is the characters (or lack thereof), as there don’t seem to be any, instead we get archetypes. Sigourney Weaver plays the cold corporate executive that only cares about the bottom line, Hugh Jackman (and a mullet on the back of Hugh Jackman’s head) plays an ex-military hard-ass bully, Dev Patel plays the scientist. It’s a shame that all the characters are so generic, as all of the actors give it their best and put in solid performances.
The only characters that have any real personality is the real life hip-hop duo Ninja and Yolandi Visser. I honestly have no idea what to think of these two, it’s like I’ve been told the punchline of a joke without the setup. “It’s 3:30 in the morning you Irish bastard!” – there now you know a punchline without the setup, not a nice feeling is it?
I know I’m picking on CHAPPiE but there are some great scenes in this movie, one where Chappie pats a stray dog is beautifully sad, the opening action scene is one of the best shot of recent time. But the constant changes in tone and story that jumps all over the place ultimately lets the film down.
Honestly for the first time since it was announced that Blomkamp is directing the new alien movie, I’m worried. His constant need to put theme before good film may be his downfall, I have this horrible feeling that Alien 5 will be all but screaming to audiences: “The marines being sent into hostile territory without adequate intelligence or equipment is a metaphor for the Vietnam War.” Or even worse “Ripley kicks ass and she has a vagina, SHE IS GOOD AT KICKING ASS AND HAS A VAGINA!” Still that would probably be better than a new Alien film from Ridley “I should be in a retirement village” Scott.
I have no doubt that with some better written characters, tighter editing and focus on one or two key themes CHAPPiE could have been a great 90min action film, as it stands however it is just too schizophrenic to recommend. The only thing I’m sure about after watching this film is that I don’t want to live in Johannesburg.
<rant> Oh and SONY can you fuck off with the obvious product placement? Every time I see a SONY laptop placed in the center of the screen or they build a computer out of PlayStations, it breaks my immersion in the film and makes me want to buy your shitty products even less. </rant>
Walking out of Chappie, I experienced what was quite possibly the most bizarre sensation that I can recall in almost any film I’ve seen in recent memory. As I scrolled through my mental database, trying to make sense of this baffling curiosity, I caught my face in the bathroom mirror and instantly recognised it for what it was, and it formed itself into but one simple phrase; WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST WATCH? I don’t know where to begin with Chappie. SO much potential. A director, who in his debut and sophomore films has landed himself in the Hollywood top tier, a blank cheque from the studio, and complete creative control. What do we get?
It truly pains me to say, but unfortunately despite the massive themes, brilliantly staged action, and jaw-dropping performance by Sharlto Copley in the title role, I am reduced to sheer incredulity based off one, somewhat minor fact;
Die Antwood are in the movie.
Yolande and Ninja.
Well not really themselves, but how they probably wish they were, but really themselves. Using their real names.
The set decoration is covered in Die Antwood merchandise (no, they don't attempt to disguise it).
THE SOUNDTRACK PLAYS THEIR SONGS DURING THEIR SCENES.
I feel like I'm taking crazy pills here. What was Neil Blomkamp thinking??? This goes beyond service to his home country of South Africa (as if you couldn't tell) into borderline parody, except the joke is on the audience to bypass this bizarre mind-fuckery. Alas, I digress.
Anyway so Chappie is set in Johannesburg, 2016 (apparently an army of robot policemen will be announced any day now), where the introduction of said robot police has demolished the crime rate exponentially, but the creator wants more. MORE GODDAMIT. So naturally, in a Red-Bull fuelled all-nighter in front of a keyboard (contrary to popular belief, this is not how I spend every night. Most, not all, and certainly not doing something creative), eventually (because montage!) cracks the code to true, sentient Artificial intelligence. But, considering he is just a pleb in some government funded robot agency and because reasons, Ellen Ripley says no to him installing said AI in a robot chassis damaged in the (actually quite brilliant) opening action sequence. So, because drama, his rival Wolverine (you thought Hugh "The Drover" Jackman was hilariously dinky-die Aussie in "Australia", wait until you hear some of the strayanisms he drops here) does everything he can to further his own creation, a human controlled flying gunship that's design is surely stolen from another film, seemingly because he's a bit miffed that Chappie’s creator Dev (Dev Patel), is more successful than him.
Gangsters (Die Antwood and some other guy) from the start of the movie hijack Dev's car, threaten him at gunpoint to assemble the robot, and install the AI so they can train him to be an invincible robot for a heist to pay back a mob boss who demands 20 million from them in a week.
Sound convoluted yet? You have no idea, and it gets worse.
I like Neil Blomkamp, I really do. District 9 is a modern sci-fi classic, I was one of the divided audience who liked Elysium, and the trailer for this made me think I was in for some nek-level, human existential themes. You get there in the end, but you have to wade through a whole 45 minutes of crap in the second act to get there. Why he couldn't have just kept the film focused on the creator vs. his creation vs Hugh Jackman's character boggles me. The end product reeks of a director starting to believe his own myth and follow what he feels the audience expect of him, and perhaps that’s the real tragedy to come out of Chappie, especially considering (despite my previous rant), there are a lot of positives. As previously mentioned, Chappie (Copley) is an astounding creation, and truly holds the film together. Patel is quite sympathetic and serviceable as his creator, even if his story is predictable. Jackman, whilst borderline moustache-twirlingly villainous, definitely is an engaging antagonist and the themes do hit right in the feels, especially towards the end of the third act. However, by then it’s just too late, and your brain is gone.
Overall, the film just overlaps too heavily with District 9 and Elysium to be taken seriously in its own merits, and that's a damn shame because this film is exploding with incredible, yet frustratingly unfocused talent and potential. However, I still hold high hopes for Blomkamp's entry into the Alien franchise...although this does make me slightly waver.