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Sunday, March 8, 2015

‘Chappie’ Is A Reject (Movie Review)

CHAPPiE: 2 out of 5

Yolandi: It’s more than just a machine!

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s latest big screen project is a film that tackles the ideas of artificial intelligence and the big questions that come from creating a machine that thinks.  It is set in Johannesburg, a few years in the future, and finds the lead characters dealing with robots and their effectiveness in a world where criminal activity and the lines between beings that are different from each other very much matter.  It is basically another Blomkamp movie, which should inspire more good faith if one were to only judge him off of his ambitious first film, District 9, the 2009 Best Picture nominee that twisted an apartheid allegory into a sci-fi/thriller.  Unfortunately, after the step down that was Elysium, a film that dealt with economic turmoil and healthcare, wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi/thriller, Chappie feels like another step down.  The film has some ideas and certainly looks good (as one would expect), but is all over the place and lacks much coherence, beyond honest intentions.


The problems start pretty quickly, as the film opens with an unnecessary flash-forward that calls to mind District 9 in terms of the cinematic approach.  Once we head back in time though, one can easily see where things are going just by the setup of three key characters.  Dev Patel stars as Deon Wilson, the wiz-kid robot engineer, who just wants to do good by way of experimenting with AI programs.  Hugh Jackman is Vincent Moore, the opposite of Deon, who wants total human control of his big bad robot design.  Then there is Sigourney Weaver as Michelle Bradley, the owner of the company responsible for these robots, but acts as a gullible politician siding with whatever sounds best, as far as profit margins and credibility goes.  These are all capable actors and they try, but the writing by Blomkamp and Terri Tarchell (who both shared credit on District 9, as well) undercuts so much here, among other areas in the film.

This brings us to the other side of the story, which features Ninja and Yolandi, members of the South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord, who apparently star as hoodlum versions of themselves.  They are smashed into this film as criminals, along with their friend ‘America’ played by Jose Pablo Cantillo, who need to pull off a big heist to get themselves out of debt with another criminal.  It should be noted that all of these criminals have the most impressive hair of the film, even more so than the mini-mullet that Jackman’s character has.  Regardless of the various hairstyles of the future though, Die Antwoord and America hatch a plan to kidnap Deon in an effort to make him turn off his robots, only to find something much more intriguing.


I think it can be argued that Chappie is a much looser tale than Blomkamp’s previous films, but even with that in mind, he still seems to rely on a lot of the same sort of material to make his point.  This would not be a bad thing if the film did not feel like it was in such a rush to tackle so many ideas at once or had a better idea of how to tell a story, without resorting to violent South African gang warfare yet again.  Unfortunately, while taking ideas that are uniquely one’s own is one thing, having us follow along unlikable/questionably acted characters and throwing out neat ideas only to abandon them or take huge leaps in logic is another.

The heart of this story is Chappie (voiced and performed via motion capture by Blomkamp’s lucky charm (?) Sharlto Copley), an experimental robot assembled by Deon, who has uploaded a software update that allows for Chappie to learn, think, feel, and react on his own.  It is sentient and the film very much wants us to appreciate that.  The film also wants us to have fun with seeing Chappie ‘grow up’ under the tutelage of gangsters, as we watch it learn to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Chappie only has a short term life span though, based on the robot body its ‘brain’ is connected to, so it affords it the opportunity to ask the big questions like what the meaning of death is.


There are lots of ways to deal with Chappie, but Die Antwoord was simply too far out of an idea and takes this film down routes that were far less interesting to me, compared to something less aggressive.  There are moments of fun, as the ‘robot is a fish-out-of-water’ concept led to two Short Circuit films after all, but it comes at the expense of following some weird characters.  The professional actors do not fare much better either, as this is a film that somehow makes the very charismatic Hugh Jackman into a one-dimensional, unlikable jerk, which is not an easy feat.  There are so many strange choices made as far as seeing these characters react to news surrounding Chappie and the nature of the robots these people are working with, it ends up making it very hard to care about much that takes place in the story.

I can imagine some would say the saving grace is the visuals and the action that takes place, as well as the strong score by Hans Zimmer.  Well, the score is good, yes, as are the visuals, but it is hard to give credit to aspects that you know are going to be quite strong to begin with.  Sure, the visuals look great for a film that works on a modest budget, given Chappie’s scope, but Blomkamp has proven to be a solid visual director.  At this point though, it is time for Blomkamp to work on his approach to storytelling, as Chappie not only heads in multiple directions in an attempt to get its points across, but feels incomplete by its end, utilizing unearned character transitions and a clichéd final shot as a means to suggest closure with an ellipses, because why not…


Chappie was disappointing.  Shift around or remove some elements and there could be either an interesting look at the effect of AI on a world that is continually dealing with the notion of drones (which basically describes nearly every recent Hollywood action blockbuster) or a goofy dark comedy about a robot that learns to love from the perspective of nogoodniks.  As it stands, this is a good-looking film with entertaining moments and is generally engaging for most of its 2 hour runtime, but continually stumbles, has smart characters do a lot of dumb things, and has little in the way of understanding what makes for a proper story.  The ideas are there, but the film settles for much less.


Ninja: It’s time to pump up the jam!

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