‘CHAPPiE’ is the 3rd major film from Johannesburg-born, Vancouver-based writer / director Neill Blompkamp…and there is no denying that this is one of his films. As most readers will know, Blompkamp came to prominence with his debut feature film ‘District 9’ (2009); an excellent examination / metaphor of South Africa’s horrible ‘apartheid’ era; substituting the impoverished and victimized black community with an unfortunate race of suffering alien beings. Blompkamp hit it out of the park with that film (in nearly every way), and suddenly became a director to watch out for. Then his next film ‘Elysium’ (2013) hit the theaters and people were…underwhelmed. While I thoroughly enjoyed SOME aspects of that film, I can readily admit that I found the narrative choppy, some of the characters and dialogue poorly executed (surprisingly, personal fave Jodie Foster was the weakest link IMHO), and the overall story felt incomplete. Blomkamp himself has recently emerged as admitting to the short-comings of the futuristic Matt Damon vehicle, taking responsibility for honing in on “cool concepts”, rather than a satisfying narrative and more defined character motivations. I applaud the man’s honesty. It seemed that he was determined to get his next film right and not make the same ‘story’ mistakes that plagued his second feature. Which brings us to ‘CHAPPiE’.
‘CHAPPiE’ takes place in the near future, once again in the wildly unattractive city of Johannesburg, South Africa. In this time, a major robotics company named ‘Tetravaal’ has nearly perfected it’s use of drone police officers and have effectively reduced crime though out the city with their relentless and calculating methods of law enforcement. Within the company itself, a young, brilliant programmer named ‘Deon’ (Dev Patel) is on the pioneering threshold of creating a fully functioning ‘artificial intelligence’ program. His somewhat celebrated position in the company has put him at quiet odds with a fellow employee, a former Australian soldier-turned-weapons designer named ‘Moore’ (Hugh Jackman). ‘Moore’ had developed a neural-controlled weapons platform named ‘MOOSE’ that’s in danger of being cut financially due to the success of the ‘Scouts’ (the robotic cops). As this dynamic is being established, we are also introduced to 3 low-life pieces of shit named ‘Ninja’ (Ninja, of the South African hardcore rap duo ‘Die Antwoord’), ‘Yo-Landi’ (Yolandi Visser, the other half of Die Antwoord) and ‘Amerika’ (Jose Pablo Cantillo). These violent goofs are armed bandits who get abruptly ambushed by the robotic police force during a transaction with a barbarian-like gangster named ‘Hippo’ (Brandon Auret). After a harrowing escape, ‘Hippo’ gives the crew one week to come up with the money that they owe…or they’re dead. During the explosive gun battle, one of the robots, the seemingly cursed ‘Scout 022’ takes an RPG round to the chest and is rendered pretty much useless by the resulting slow-motion blast. This comes to ‘Deon’s attention just as he achieves success with his A.I. experiment. After the CEO of Tetravaal, ‘Michelle Bradley’ (Sigourney Weaver) refuses his request to use the smashed body of ‘Scout 022’, he goes ahead and steals the to-be-crushed robot to test his theory anyway. Unknown to him, the nasty trio of criminals have their own plans for him…and his perceived control over the drone police force. Intercepting him after his theft of the ruined droid, ‘Deon’ is taken prisoner and forced to activate the remains; using his newly discovered A.I. program. And thus ‘Chappie’ is born. From there, the story follows the infant-like machine as he begins to learn, mostly under the misguided tutelage of ‘Mommy Yo-landi’ and ‘Daddy Ninja’. They naively feel he can be the answer to raising the money needed to clear their potentially fatal debt to ‘Hippo’…only they find that ‘Chappie’ has some obstructive ideas regarding the concept of morality and the value of human life, instilled by his Maker, ‘Deon’. Naturally, this leads toward a violent and tragic showdown with the revenge-minded ‘Moore’, who is out to prove that his mind-controlled ‘MOOSE’ program is the Way of The Future for law enforcement and military applications.
Before going into this one, I’d checked out a couple of the early reviews that were floating around on the InterWebs, and found the critiques to be something of a ‘mixed bag’. I wasn’t able to nail down a specific direction that the movie-going public might go in, with their overall opinions of this one. That intrigued me. In a weird way, it set me up with something of a ‘clean slate’ for when my girlfriend and I (along with a couple friends of ours) parked our asses in the darkened theatre today.
I was (mostly) pleasantly surprised by ‘CHAPPiE’. Maybe I’d set my expectations unfairly low, but I found a lot of entertainment and, dare I say it, mild enlightenment from this interesting (and violent) sci-fi film. I was never bored by what I was watching. Which is NOT to say that it was a flawless piece of instantly classic cinema. ‘CHAPPiE’ is a good movie. Plain and simple. But it’s a good movie with problems. Before I get into THOSE, I need to mention some cool aspects.
The single most effective thing, for me, was the portrayal of ‘Chappie’ by Blompkamp favorite (and overall damn fine actor!) Sharlto Copley (‘District 9’). He brought the child-like robot to Life and managed to get me to invest some genuine sympathy for the bipedal mass of steel, Kevlar and plastic. ‘Chappie’s an ‘innocent’…and Copley sold that shit like a pro! As with ‘District 9’, I liked the grimy and bleak urban wasteland that Blompkamp created to populate the backdrop of this story. Blompkamp is also a very cool ‘tech’ designer for his films, which likens him (in my mind) to James Cameron (‘Avatar’)…an opinion that reinforces how appropriate Blompkamp is to helm the recently green-lit ‘Alien 5’ film (or ‘Alien 3 Revisited’, if you want to look at it THAT way). The robots, weapons and vehicles all feel tangible; used and dangerous. That’s a ‘consistent’ for all 3 of the director’s flicks, and one that I love. It’s like Ridley Scott films. Even if the particular movie is shit…you know it’s, at least, going to look damn pretty (take THAT, ‘Prometheus’!). In Blomkamp’s case, even if the story is subpar, at least the tech designs will be cool. It’s just a ‘given’, at this point. I also think that the narrative played out at a fairly even pace, despite a couple eyebrow-cocking moments when the editing got noticeably choppy (looking at YOU, ‘Sudden Anarchy in the City’ scene!).
On the not-so-good front…why Die Antwoord?! I didn’t know much about this vile-looking rap duo before this, having been subjected only to a couple of their messed-up music videos in the past and, as a result, having to admit “Hey…I actually don’t like these two freaks”. Now, I like some fucked-up music (I’m the first to admit it), but Die Antwoord just grate on my nerves with the inherently nasty ‘flavor’ to their crass presentation. Unfortunately, THAT ‘flavor’ carried over to this film. My girlfriend quietly admitted, on leaving the theatre, that she hadn’t really liked the movie, mostly due to the fact that it feels tonally unpleasant at almost every turn (while still maintaining a good handful of genuinely amusing scenes). I completely understand this opinion. And I completely understand Die Antwoord’s constant presence contributing greatly to it. It’s bad enough that Ninja and Yolandi are supremely unattractive people with questionable artistic ‘talent’ in Real Life, but the amount of Die Antwoord product placement was unreal! They seemed to be sucking their own dicks everywhere! Their brand was SO in-your-face (on clothing, background graffiti, soundtrack etc) that my buddy n I theorized that this must simply be the true story of what happened after Die Antwoord’s musical career inevitably crashed and burned 10 or so years from now, after the RoboCops have taken over. Which reminds me: I swear that the Scout’s ‘Command Presence’ voices were stolen directly from Peter Weller’s 1987 portrayal of ‘Robocop’. They sure sounded similar! But anyway, Die Antwoord did NOT need to be in this movie. That being said, however, I will admit that most of their ‘acting’ was…serviceable…even somewhat effective. I love Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman as actors, so it was a lil disheartening when they weren’t given the chance to flesh out their respective characters. They were there to fill spots in the script and in my opinion, suffered a lil bit for it. Especially Jackman. ‘Moore’ could’ve been a VERY compelling villain…instead of an ‘animated’ cardboard cut-out, with a questionable mini-mullet. There are also some uncomfortably similar narrative flourishes used in this movie, very reminiscent of ‘District 9’s faux documentary aspects. When ‘CHAPPiE’ began with ‘archive’ footage of people talking about tragic past events, which would then go on to become the ‘meat’ of the story, I got worried that MAYBE Blomkamp WAS a ‘one trick pony’. But then cool stuff happened…and I just went along with the story he trying to tell. There were some other minor things, but I’ve now covered my most glaring ‘bitchings’.
All in all, I admittedly enjoyed ‘CHAPPiE’ more than I thought I would. It’s a well-shot, gritty R-rated sci-fiction flick with some actual heart lurking just below it’s dirty, battered metal skin. I feel it would’ve been more effective if actual actors had occupied certain key roles; actors whose Real Life ‘branding’ wasn’t being wiped in our faces like so much dirty underwear in every other scene. But as annoying as I found Die Antwoord (more the concept of their presence than their actual presence), they did their part to propel the core story of the infant-like A.I. trapped in the body of a damaged police robot, while being manipulated toward a morally-questionable existence. A cool flick in a theatre setting…that will probably be just as enjoyable on it’s Digital Media Home Release. It’s not a perfect movie…but it is a solid one. I think the sputtering Alien franchise may be in good hands, under this director’s seemingly capable direction. Fingers crossed.
*’CHAPPiE’ is a movie that I would be VERY interested in seeing a Director’s or Extended Cut of…I think it would benefit from a little added ’tissue’.
**Combined with last night’s viewing of ‘Big Hero 6’, there was a weird robot / A.I.-oriented theme that emerged this weekend. Maybe I should check out ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ now. Just saying.