I have to hand it to “Chappie” director Neill Blomkamp. He certainly doesn’t skimp on the lofty, elevated concepts. However, like “Elysium” before it, “Chappie” fails to live up to Blomkamp’s heavy-handed messages and subtext.
It’s a shame because it’s a visually breathtaking film, which does boast some characters that have eclectic and unique personalities. The biggest problem with “Chappie” is that it never seems to get out of the design stage. It just flounders at a surface level while introducing more and more peril to situations, but Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell don’t address why these characters are stuck in the situations in the first place. It’s sort of akin to an unfinished musical track – one where the instrumental is laid out, but there’s no vocalist to complete it. In the case of “Chappie,” let’s just say that the instrumental is laid down by a young Dr. Dre, but before Eminem ever got the opportunity to bless it with his vocals.
It’s a shame, because Blomkamp had such a promising debut with the Oscar-nominated “District 9” This brilliant, 2009 sci-fi classic was a mouth-watering combination of sweet and salty. On one hand it was dripping with sentiment and oozing with underlying tones of racism and governmental oppression. On the other hand, it was a perfectly-paced, creature feature with outstanding performances and mind-blowing special effects. This was especially surprising considering its modest budget ($30 million) and the fact that it was the first time Blomkamp stepped behind the camera for a full-length feature, which was based on his 2006 six-minute short “Alive in Joburg.” I, for one, loved “District 9″ and thought it was an amazingly poignant and important film. I was extremely excited to see it receive a Best Picture nomination (even if it WAS the first year the field was expanded from five nominees), as well as three additional nods; including one for Blomkamp and Tatchell in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
Needless to say, I anticipated his second film, “Elysium,” immensely, but ended up being extremely disappointed in this drab, flat sci-fi/action miss starring Matt Damon and Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley. When I first viewed it, I found it barely tolerable, but it’s slowly gotten MORE tolerable during the several times I’ve seen it since. I’m hoping the same thing happens with “Chappie,” as it happens with a number of films I watch. I’m a firm believer that a film MUST BE viewed AT LEAST TWICE or else you don’t get the full brunt of what the director and/or screenwriter(s) is trying to convey. I’m fairly positive that this will be the case with “Chappie” and I’m sure I’ll end up liking it way more than I did upon my initial viewing, but I can’t say I’m going to be putting it on any “top ten” list anytime soon.
But, who knows? I have to say, I strongly disliked “The Avengers” the first time I saw it and now it’s one of my favorite superhero flicks to come
out in the last decade. Go figure. I never said movie watching is a science. In fact, it’s quite subjective. In other words, one man’s fave is another man’s flop. I’m pretty sure that’s why the position of movie critic was invented in the first place. The same can be said about websites like Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s ALL about ratings, percentages, and numerical value. The thing is, numbers don’t ALWAYS tell the truth like the old adage says.
If the critical “numbers” favoring “Chappie” end up being higher than those against it, which looks like it’s going to be the case, it won’t be because of any below-the-surface (well, slightly below-the-surface, anyway) social commentary about familiar Blomkamp themes like nature vs. nurture, man vs. machine, racism, and lower vs. upper class tendencies. Although these themes (and a few unnamed ones) are very prominent throughout the film, it’s the humorous stylings of Chappie himself that steals the show. He’s a lovable character who’s a cross between Johnny Five from the “Short Circuit” franchise and a life-size model of Bugs Bunny. Chappie also sports a funny, computerized version of a South African accent. Copley – who’s made quite a career for himself since making his feature-film debut in “District 9″ – provides the voice for Chappie, but never actually makes his physical appearance felt onscreen. Even though this effectively takes half of Copley’s immeasurable charm away, he still manages to give a stellar performance as the big-hearted (if that’s even possible), child-like police robot who grows into a “man” right before our eyes.
Here’s the story of “Chappie” and it’s a fairly simple premise when you break it down.
It takes place in present day Johannesburg (again) and it seems that there’s a great deal of civil unrest in the city (I don’t mean to be rude, but what else is new?). There’s an ongoing struggle between the “cops and the robbers” – the film’s words, not mine, mind you and, apparently, things have gotten so violent that police officers are now targets. Everyday, cops are being injured, maimed and even killed. There’s no two ways about it, things have got to change in Joburg.
This hard steel, industrial corporation makes weapons and is headed by the callous, fiscal-minded Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) who’s bottom line is how much money the company will make and not necessarily how safe everyone can be. Even though Bradley sports an American accent (I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice or if Weaver couldn’t master the accent), Tetravaal employs thousands of hard-working South Africans, but their most important employee is a designer/programmer/developer named Deon Wilson (played wonderfully by Dev Patel). Deon has designed/invented a line of slim, sleek-looking “robocops” called Scouts, who have been effectively joining the human police officers in their attempts to keep the peace on the streets of Joburg. In fact, they’re so successful that the police department has just ordered Tetravaal to provide them with 100 more Scouts. Of course, this makes Bradley very, very happy and, in turn, she is extremely ecstatic with Deon and his practical, yet effective peace-keeping contraptions. After this great news, you’d think everybody would be good spirits around the Tetravaal offices, right?
In a corner cubicle, about 100 feet from Deon, sits a brooding, mullet-sporting, musclebound programmer named Vincent Moore (a bearded
Hugh Jackman). See, Moore is NOT happy with the fact that Deon’s Scouts are now the talk of the Tetravaal town, so to speak. With every Scout that the police order, this means that they won’t be ordering any of his invention; a gigantic, menacing, yet cumbersome war machine called The Moose. Seriously, if you want to know what The Moose looks like, all you have to do is put on the first “Robocop” and check out the ED-209. If you’re thinking, “Wow, this is the SECOND time he’s mentioned “Robocop,” this is not a coincidence. The concept of “Chappie” is VERY similar to that of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi/action cult classic. Even the voice of the Scouts sounds like Peter Weller’s; who portrayed the titular character in the the first two “Robocop” films. Although Weller is NOT credited, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if this is the case.
Okay, back to Moore and his jealous hatred of the successful Deon. Moore wasn’t always a designer at Tetravaal. He used to be a soldier himself. In fact, he’s nowhere near as talented as Deon is, but he’s quite a bit more ruthless and will stop at nothing to get his Moose design in every Joburg precinct. So, when the police chief tells him that things will “have to get a hell of a lot worse” for them to even CONSIDER using his design, Moore kind of flips… just a tad. He decides that the only way to get his way, so to speak, would be to sabotage Deon’s Scout units, which will therefore make everything quite a bit worse for the police AND the citizens of Joburg as well.
Uh-oh, Deon and his Scouts are in trouble.
Meanwhile, Deon’s having problems of his own. It seems that Deon is a bit of techno geek. He lives alone in a modest apartment. However, he has filled his flat with dozens of small robots who are equipped with a rudimentary from of artificial intelligence (AI) in order to help him around the house. Think Uncle Paulie’s giant love robot from “Rocky IV,” but waaay smaller and much less creepier. This is Deon’s true passion – to create a primitive life form from scratch. Just when Deon thinks he’s cracked the code, he gets turned down by Bradley who tells Deon that there’s no place for a robot who can think for itself and write poetry in a company that makes weapons.
Uhhhh… haven’t I seen this kind of thing before? Oh yeah, in Blomkamp’s OTHER movies.
Anyway, Deon is obviously angry and disappointed. After he glances at an inspirational cat poster on his desk (hey, I’m not kidding), he decides to ignore Bradley’s ball-breaking orders to abandon his AI project and go ahead with his experiment. So, he steals a few necessary components from the Tetravaal factory floor, including the mangled leftovers of a Scout that was destroyed while on-duty, which was scheduled to be crushed in the compactor. Deon also manages to steal a very important computer chip called the “Guard Key” that is used to store a robots “personality,” if you will. Of course, this is so Deon can load his AI program into the reassembled Scout, but this is also the chip that Vincent needs to pull of his plan to sabotage his way into the good graces of Bradley and Tetravaal.
Uh-oh, now Deon and his newly-built, AI-laden Scout are in REAL trouble. Right?
Yes, you’d be correct. Vincent does decide to go after Deon and attempt to bully him into giving him the Guard Key, but that’s not his only
problem. It turns out that there’s a group of strangely-dressed hooligans (with even stranger haircuts) who are also after Deon. They want to kidnap him so he can reprogram one of the Scouts so it can help THEM with a “heist.” It seems as if these weirdos owe some other weirdo named Hippo (Brandon Auret) A LOT of “moneys” (as they put it). It just so happens that they decide to carjack Deon AS he’s on his way home from his Tetravaal thievery. How convenient! THIS is how Chappie comes to be. Deon reconstructs the broken Scout for this three-person criminal team – who individually go by the name of Ninja, Yo-Landi and Amerika – and agree to let them keep it, as long as he can visit it once a day for the next five days. The reason he has only five days is that the battery only LASTS five days and….
I know, I know. I originally wrote that the story of “Chappie” was simple and straight-forward and as I was watching, it seemed as if it was. However, the more I try to explain it, the more I realize that this an extremely layered story. It’s just that the layers aren’t made of anything substantial. It’s all candy-covered fluff and not too much of it holds any nutritional value. In fact, “Chappie” is like a Little Debbie snack cake. It looks appetizing and it seems like it will fill you up, but it’s really just an artificial-tasting glob of empty calories. “Chappie” is essentially the same thing. It seems like it will all fit together in the end, but, just like it’s titular character, it’s hastily constructed and has ZERO lasting power.
Blomkamp and Tatchell certainly do mean well when it comes to their script. They do manage to touch on some interesting topics. For example, they ask the audience to decide what they believe to be acceptable when it comes to raising children in harsh environments, as well as asking them how far is too far when it comes to the field of AI. But it’s not enough to cover-up the flaws in the fantastically paper-thin characters.
This especially goes for the three thugs, who really serve no purpose but to finally give Blomkamp’s buddies Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er (who together form the strangely hypnotic, South African, techno-rap Group Die Antwoord) a role to play in one of his films. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s awfully hard to take your eyes off their striking features when they’re onscreen, but these characters aren’t developed in the least bit. Basically, they both (along with third member Amerika played by Jose Pablo Cantillo) play thugs who love to carry guns, love to wear ridiculous clothing, and love to rob people, but you don’t know WHY they love to do these things. At least it lends itself to some comic relief as Chappie attempts to learn the ways of the “world” from Ninja, as Yo-Landi represents Chappie’s mother figure. Simultaneously, Deon refers to himself as “Chappie’s maker.” I guess this plays on the whole “God vs. parent vs. environment” argument, but it’s never really explored TOO much. In fact, there isn’t much that’s REALLY touched upon and explored. It’s like they prepared the meal, but they never had the time to actually cook it. So, the audience is left with a raw product.
This is a great way to describe Blomkamp and his work so far – raw. He displays brilliant tendencies and his films are definitely one-of-a-kind
and utterly thought provoking at times. However, he can’t quite put it all together to create a tangible, finished product. Let’s hope his next project, when he tackles the next entry in the popular “Alien” franchise, will be more of a complete puzzle and won’t be missing SO many pieces.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how pretty the picture is OR how great the artist is who painted it. If it’s missing some key pieces, you’re left with a beautiful tapestry of work… with giant holes right in the middle. Maybe it’s our responsibility, as audience members, to place these missing pieces in the product ourselves. The truth is, it’s impossible to know after just one sitting. Even though it wasn’t exactly a GREAT film the first time around, chances are I’ll most likely being giving “Chappie” a second viewing at some point in the near future.
I think I owe the ultra-talented Blomkamp at least this much.