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Film Review: 'Chappie'

Jeremy Fuster |
March 6, 2015 | 1:23 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

'Chappie' is a techinical triumph, but Neill Blomkamp fails again to turn his big ideas into a coherent social message (Sony/Columbia Pictures)
'Chappie' is a techinical triumph, but Neill Blomkamp fails again to turn his big ideas into a coherent social message (Sony/Columbia Pictures)
When I encounter a movie or a TV show that evokes in me an opinion about it that deviates from the masses, I try my best to understand why other people may feel different about that creative work than I do. But there are some trends that just elude me, and one of them came in 2009, when Neill Blomkamp was suddenly anointed as the savior of science fiction.

By the end of last decade, sci-fi fans were so desperate for a big studio to get behind something within the genre that wasn't based on a popular IP. That's when Blomkamp came dashing in with 'District 9,' a sci-fi film with a premise fueled by symbolism and stamped with a seal of approval by Peter Jackson. Because it was a small-budget film that didn't directly insult the audience's intelligence and teased at a deeper message about South African apartheid through the suffering the aliens in its story suffer, Blomkamp was hailed as the antidote to the Camerons and the Lucases of the world.

Funny thing is, from the moment he first exploded into the mainstream, Blomkamp has been suffering from the same problem that people have accused George Lucas of having since the 'Star Wars' prequels came out: he comes up with grand ideas but has no idea how to execute them. He wants to his films to be both explosive spectacle and contemplative allegory, which leads to them failing to be either. It happened in the overrated 'District 9,' when he tried to make us think about the inhumane things we do to our fellow man through the abuses of the alien apartheid, only to drop the idea in favor of reveling in gory, nihilistic violence that escalates to a splattery climax by the end. It happens again here in 'Chappie,' a schizophrenic tale about artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness and parenting and South African rappers and a bunch of other half-baked ideas.

Through exposition delivered via an Anderson Cooper broadcast (Blomkamp loves setting up his stories through news reels), we are dropped into a Johannesburg filled with dozens and dozens of robots that serve as the city's police. When one of them gets damaged during a crime ring bust, the robots' designer, Deon (Dev Patel), hauls him away without his boss' permission to test out a new AI program that is capable of sentience. That's when he's pistol-whipped and dragged off by three gangsters (rap duo Die Antwoord and Jose Pablo Cantillo), who demand that he give them the robot to help them settle a debt. They name the robot Chappie (voiced by Blomkamp's right hand man, Sharlto Copley)  and train him to be a macho gangster while Deon fights to get his creation back.

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Chappie himself is actually very interesting and indicative of the one thing Blomkamp has going for him: he knows how to make a CGI character. Just as 'District 9's prawn protagonist Christopher lit up the screen every time he was on it, Chappie is constantly engaging. Using the same motion capture techniques that made Andy Serkis a star, Copley does a magnificent job showing Chappie's evolution, starting with tentative crawls and childlike jumpiness when he is first booted up and changing to an assured swagger as he develops.

But any messages Blomkamp wants to make through Chappie's growth are never fully developed. It starts out with robots replacing police. Is this going to be a film about how robots are replacing humans in the professional world? OK, no, he's not expounding on that idea. Maybe Chappie's impressionable programming is a meditation on parenting and how children can become a product of their environment. Wait, no, now it's discussing death and the possibility of immortality if we reach the Singularity and find a way to upload our consciousness onto a computer. No, scratch that, now it's just Hugh Jackman blowing shit up with a giant mech while the heroes blast him with machine guns and scream at the top of their lungs.

The narrative that bobs and weaves through all these themes is also let down by a cast of monotone humans that make Chappie look like the only character with any sort of depth. Blomkamp wrote this story specifically for Die Antwoord to star in it, but that ends up being a huge mistake. Yolandi, the female half of the rap duo, is only there to serve as Chappie's doting adopted mother and never budges from that role from the moment the robot comes online, even though we see before then that she is just as much of a hardened criminal as her male compatriots when she comes up with the idea to kidnap Deon in the first place. Die Antwoord's other half, Ninja, is even worse, yelling and sneering his way through the entire film. In the first two-thirds of the film, all he does is whip out his gun and yell at everyone; so when he suddenly becomes a noble hero who puts his companions before himself in the climax, it's a character shift that feels unearned.

The professional actors don't fare any better. Patel plays a lame poindexter who spits out corny lines like "Don't let this barbarian ruin your creativity, Chappie!" Sigourney Weaver's talents are totally wasted as a robotics company CEO who does nothing except making executive decisions that allow the other characters to drive the plot along. Jackman, meanwhile, is called upon to play a scenery chewing brute that will put anyone in harm's way for professional success. It's a brand of evil that is remarkably dull.

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If you just want to see an engaging CGI robot fight it out in a bunch of dramatic action sequences, 'Chappie' will provide that for you. If you want a coherent social message to go with it, Blomkamp isn't your man. The film's tone when depicting Chappie's interaction with all these people who want to push him in different directions is very inconsistent. It seems to side with Deon when he laments Chappie's fall into crime and violence, only to cheer Chappie on when seeks violent revenge on the bad guys. When Ninja first tries to teach Chappie how to shoot a gun, it's treated like a tragic corruption of a innocent soul. Later, when Chappie gets blinged out and starts loading guns and jacking Nissan GT-Rs, Hans Zimmer's intense electronic score in the previous scenes gets replaced with Die Antwoord rap songs that turn Chappie's crimes into a ludicrous spectacle for the audience to laugh at.

Blomkamp's desire to be both Ridley Scott and a Rated-R Michael Bay is crippling his ability to execute his big ideas. No one really noticed these problems when 'District 9' came out, because everyone was amazed that Sony agreed to green light a film with such ambition. Now his sheen has worn off, and it's become clear that his next film -- a new 'Alien' installment -- would be much better served if he sticks to directing and lets someone else write the script.

Reach Staff Reporter Jeremy Fuster here. Follow him on Twitter here.



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