Release: Friday, March 6, 2015
Written by: Neill Blomkamp; Terri Tatchell
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
The nonsense that is Chappie makes one sorely nostalgic for the days of Elysium and awkward Jodie Foster performances. At least in that semi-disappointing spectacle we were teased with the notion of leaving behind a civilization that Neill Blomkamp clearly despises. Here, no such escape is possible.
Six years ago there spiked an irregularity in the heartbeat of the contemporary science fiction flick. District 9 represented a revolutionary leap forward, in its case coming damn close to confirming the notion that we are not alone in the universe. While the framing device wasn’t exactly revolutionary — documentary-style footage of the conflict between mankind and alien life — the Johannesburgian director’s blend of visual panache with hard-hitting themes such as apartheid and political corruption reestablished a healthy pulse for the genre. Sharlto Copley’s descent into madness as he found his body evolving into that of a ‘Prawn’ following his contact with the aliens’ biotechnology remains unquestionably Blomkamp’s most emotionally engaging story to date. It is unfortunate that within the span of three admittedly unique films Blomkamp’s ability to inspire and provoke meaningful conversation is trending in a similarly ugly way.
If you don’t consider yourself much of a student of pessimistic filmmaking then it’s perhaps best you don’t attend the school that Blomkamp has established. I certainly wouldn’t advise the more optimistic to check out his latest lecture, Chappie, a punishing and unenjoyable lesson in how human beings are really terrible creations and that artificial intelligence should be regarded as an improvement. Granted, this is a director who has grown up in a part of the world that hasn’t exactly given him reason to champion our species, but the cynicism on display in his latest is tough to justify. At the very least, the marketing campaign touting it as a relatively uplifting experience is an exercise in false advertising.
Chappie pivots around the notion that a robot can reflect the best and worst of mankind if exposed long enough to the elements. Not exactly the most novel concept if we want to consider things like RoboCop and Terminator, but the titular character here is nevertheless compelling. What surrounds him, then, manifests as a metaphor for how variations in one’s upbringing ultimately impact the individual as an adult.
A discarded police droid is “brought to life” by tech genius Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who sees an opportunity to instill consciousness in a machine. He brings his newly-created Artificial Intelligence software to his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, in a role/performance reminiscent of Foster’s Delacourte) who of course shoots down the idea to install it in the defunct machine. With a middle finger aimed at his superiors, Deon goes behind her back and creates what will soon be dubbed ‘Chappie’ by a pair of thugs (South African rap duo Yo-Landi and Ninja, collectively known in our reality as Die Antwoord). The former is quick to establish quasi-maternal instincts while the nasty Ninja’s loathe to treat the thing as an intelligent form of life, putting it in harm’s way every chance he gets.
After all the mocking and physical suffering Chappie endures — he gets lit on fire and his arm sawed off in a scene that impressively makes us cringe — which parental style is going to have the most profound impact upon him? What’ll happen when Chappie’s metaphorical balls drop? When he is able to fully tap into his own consciousness? The narrative hits its fair share of high notes as a notable change within the droid redirects it away from its heretofore abusive upbringing, sending Chappie out as a black sheep amongst a field of hungry wolves in a quest to find out why he is what he is. But the characterizations of everyone, including Chappie’s well-intentioned creator, lack inspiration. In fact the most interesting way to describe the majority is having a cold metal block where a heart ought to be. It’s not that the performers fail to live up to the characters; it’s vice versa.
And Hugh Jackman’s sadistic Vincent Moore couldn’t get out of the picture fast enough. Hell-bent on controlling the robotic police force that is in turn responsible for controlling citizens, he is one brute force who has no real motives and a terrible haircut to boot. He’s most representative of Blomkamp’s disregard for coloring people in shades of grey. There are no shades of grey in Chappie; people are vile and that’s just the way it is. Jackman’s is twice the caricature Copley’s outrageous but much more enjoyable rogue agent Kruger was in Elysium. He’s the type of villain who hints at a climactic gunfight from miles away. His prized possession is a gigantic remote-controlled robot goofily named ‘Moose’ that makes its sole appearance in the film by blowing everyone away with ease.
Regarding the kind of performance art he and his counterpart have been creating over the years, Ninja believes “people are unconscious, and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone. They’ll just keep asking, ‘Is it real? Is it real?’ You have to be futuristic and carry on. You gotta be a good guide to help people get away from dull experience.”
Recommendation: 2015 represents a low point in Neill Blomkamp’s career, but even with Chappie‘s ability to repel through unlikable characters and a consistently oppressive tone, one can do a lot worse when it comes to contemporary science fiction. There exists a level of intelligence in his films that shines through in Chappie but it shines the weakest in this one, there is no doubt. If you are a fan of his previous work you probably should see this but give the theater a skip. Rent it at home where you have the power to pause and return to it later.
Running Time: 120 mins.
Quoted: “I’m consciousness. I’m alive. I’m Chappie.”
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