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CHAPPIE (2015) review

March 9, 2015

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written by: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
produced by: Simon Kinberg
directed by: Neill Blomkamp
rating: R (for violence, language & brief nudity)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: March 6, 2015

 

Neill Blomkamp’s third feature film “Chappie” finds the director returning to the near-future Johannesburg setting of his previous two films, the creative “District 9” (an Academy Award for Best Picture nominee) and the clunky “Elysium”. Gone are the prominent social-political messages of those two films and instead Blomkamp, who re-teams with his wife and co-writing partner, Terri Tatchell, amps up the action even more with a heavy lean on gang-related crime and graphic violence. As much as sci-fi fans may want Blomkamp’s return to the genre to be a successful one, “Chappie” is another slip down his spiraling filmography. The audience is unfortunately given a protagonist with stock characterization in a movie with laughable acting (intentional or not) and a repetitive and predictable storyline that is tedious to sit through.

Set a year from now, making this one of the nearest near-futures ever, where violence has risen to an all-time high in South Africa, resulting in the creation of a line of militant police robots (like a mashup of Battle Droids from the Star Wars prequels and Robocop) to protect citizens and clean-up Joburg of amoral criminals that resemble extras from “The Road Warrior”. They’ve become a success – cleaning up the city to the satisfaction of the authorities.

 

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Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the designer of the robots works for weapons manufacturer Tetravaal, run by corporate head Michelle Bradley (a wasted Sigourney Weaver) and is the source of contention for competitive rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackson), a ex-military man hell-bent on having his ED-209 robot knock-off MOOSE take over Deon’s work.

The big difference between Vincent’s bulky MOOSE and Deon’s humanoid-designed bots is that in order for a MOOSE to work, a human must control it by wearing a neural skull cap, whereas the police force are a semi-A.I. design, preprogrammed to respond, protect and enforce. Vincent sees the need for a more hands-on approach, while Deon believes his creations can think for themselves even more independently than they already are. In fact, his latest software upgrade will give his robots the ability to experience emotion and reason as well as offer opinions.

Vincent and Deon have one thing in common though, both of them have been turned down by Bradley. She doesn’t see the need for Vincent’s hands-on human controlled brutality, nor does she care to see Deon’s nearly-human robot. That’s fine, but we never really find out her reasons for shooting them down. Nevertheless, both of these designers are undeterred and each move forward with their own avatar of choice. Unbeknownst to his employer, Deon takes home a robot that’s about to be discarded to tweak his programing and find out what a consciousness will do for the robot, while Vincent tracks every single step Deon makes, determined to acquire the device that controls all the police robots. If he can shut them down and incite mass chaos, what better time for his MOOSE to fly in and rescue the city from itself.

Before Deon is able to do anything with his discarded hunk of junk, he’s kidnapped by a trio of gangsters, Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones aka Ninja), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who are also intent on shutting down the robot police force. This desperate trio aim to pull off a heist so they can pay a debt to another gangster and are convinced getting the robots out-of-the-way will give them an edge. When they see that Deon has a robot with him, they force him to reboot the robot to serve them, providing even more of an edge. They send a reluctant Deon running and are left with an awakened childlike robot they name Chappie.

 

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That’s right, it takes this long to get to the titular character. That’s because this naive robot is more of a supporting character in his own movie. The poor moldable fella is then taught by Ninja, whom he calls “Daddy”, to hold a gun all sideways like an O.G., swagger like a punk and steal vehicles. On the flip side, Yolandi, his “Mommy”, tries to provide some nurturing for Chappie and help him find his own path. Due to the nature of his nurture, Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley, who also provides mo-cap work) soon finds himself struggling between his streetwise gang-banging thug side and the no-kill “you can do anything you set your mind to” side that his “Maker” (Deon) tried to instill in him. Inevitably, Chappie is caught in a violent battle for power, money and ego, as the screenwriters hope we feel for this aimless, soulful (??) creation.

Not quite. If anything, we wind up annoyed by Chappie and his unoriginal cartoonish characterization. This lost robot is supposed to be a Stranger in a Strange Land, but winds up feeling more like a hip-hop Number 5 (a “Short Circuit” reference) instead of a vessel for examining the definition of consciousness. Sharlto Copley has already become one of the most annoying overactors on-screen (save for his work in “District 9” and “The A-Team”) and I was hoping that only hearing him in this role would prove to be a tolerable experience – sadly, the gnawing sound of the actor’s shrill voice wore me down. We’re constantly subjected to his “Chappie can do that! Yes he can!” or “Chappie is smart! Chappie is invincible!” Ugh. Chappie shut up! Although the design work and movement of Chappie is just as functional and convincing as we’ve seen in Blomkamp’s previous films, but as a protagonist he’s unfortunately presented to us in such a heavy-handed, recycled and nauseating manner, that it’s extremely hard to feel for this manipulated and used robot.

Blomkamp really misses an opportunity to delve into what it means to be conscious and alive as well as the difference between body and soul or the struggle of good and evil. Any potential intellectual sci-fi study is drowned out by ridiculous drama, insane havoc and excessive violence. It doesn’t help that “Chappie” has absolutely zero actors/characters to get behind.

 

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By having Ninja and Yolandi, the South Africans of rapper group Die Antwoord, basically play themselves in such prominent roles, the movie cannot be taken seriously. Maybe that was the plan. If so, it worked. These two are oft-putting from their introduction and their awful non-acting annoyed me at every turn. Their line readings, their look and overall presence was comical in the worst sense.

But the most comical aspect of the movie, be it intentional or not, is seeing Patel and Jackman in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game. If this were a Looney Tunes production (and often times it felt like one), Patel’s Deon would be a mashup of Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner and Jackman’s Vincent could easily be an amalgam of Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote. Seeing a bearded Jackman give Patel a glaring stinkeye across the office from his cubicle while sporting tight tan shorts, a polo shirt and a mullet, offers bizarre laughs. Such scenes and characterization add to the realization that none of this can be taken seriously, but it’s unfortunate when you realize that there is potential to take some of these topics quite seriously.

Just the idea of transferring a dying human’s consciousness into a robotic body – that right there is rife for some existential sci-fi soul-searching. Not in this movie. The idea of consciousness is indeed vital to “Chappie”, but the life of the movie is as dwindling as poor Chappie’s fading power battery. Now who’s looking forward to a Blomkamp helmed “Alien” sequel?

 

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RATING: * 1/2

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 9, 2015 12:28 pm

    It’s a strange movie, but it’s one that actually worked for me. Which is to say, that it wasn’t perfect, but I appreciated what it was at least trying to do. Nice review David.

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