Chappie ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Sharlto Copley (voice), Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Sigourney Weaver
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
The furor and my personal excitement surrounding the announcement of another Alien film may have had me biased towards director Neill Blomkamp’s latest film Chappie. I admit that I fawn over his gritty, real-time visual style, and his big ideas. I also don’t shy away from his too-obvious social commentary, either. That being said, I was still prepared for an incomplete experience- after all, he had four years to bring us his District 9 follow-up in Elysium, and that offered little in the way of enjoyment, other than the idea. Chappie, is a slightly more developed film, on both the ideas and execution front. Even Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner-esque score works. Sure, it is something of a mess at times, has some unnecessary gore and two characters that cinema and the world can do without; but I liked the mess, especially as it plays as an earnest mess.
Chappie (the robot) is an incredibly likable character, and never ventures into silly “Johnny 5” territory. His naiveté, eagerness to please, and hyperactive behavior embody an endearing and fascinating look at what a manufactured intelligence might actually do, how quickly it would develop, and what lengths it would go to understand itself and humanity. Chappie is almost literally thrown into the fire with humanity, and in the process gets a crash course in understanding us. That the robot can even function with the chaos surrounding it is remarkable, and Blomkamp frames his experience well. Also boosting the character is Chappie’s design- his chassis is conducive to allowing for fluidity with the CGI, as well. Not once did I doubt that Chappie was a tangible, real being. Even the designs of the computer programs used to upload firmware, etc, are believable and grounded, unlike most tech films. The science and the science-fiction behind the A.I. ideas in Chappie are is better than anything films like Transcendence, and dare I say even Terminator 2, have to offer, which I suppose is more a commentary on how poor Transcendence is than the quality of Chappie. The film gives us (maybe a bit too obviously) clear examples of how humans can be so inventive and yet so destructive. I’ve come to the conclusion that Blomkamp may actually prefer robots and aliens to humans, or simply enjoys using them as a tool for self-reflection. In his dealings with supposed lesser beings, we see how his filmmaking is possibly a reflection of his own upbringing, and his way of covering social injustices or opinions. Is it overdone and a bit ham-handed? Possibly. If you’re looking for that, you’ll find it.
Sharlto Copley (Elysium, District 9) is Chappie. The best of him as an actor comes through as he only voices the role, and the worst of him is left out. Hugh Jackman is actually pretty great as a frustrated, foolish, lonely man with a mullet. He’s the embodiment of every middle-aged conservative that believes their patriotism should automatically result in fortune and glory, or that the sword is always mightier than the pen. You know the type. Dev Patel brings a believability to the role, even if he’s not all that charismatic. On the other hand, Die Antwoord (Ninja and Visser), for all the odd, shrieking rapping talents they may have, took far too much of the spotlight. We get it, Neill, you like their music, but they needed to tone it down- or go away. I vote for going away. Are they an embodiment of post-Apartheid South Africa, and that’s why Blomkamp chose them? Are they perfect match for him? He may have started down the road of possibly casting them, then figured it worked for whatever image of urban Johannesburg he wanted. Weaver, as she has been for some time, is lost here, constantly moving her head oddly about, but never grinding her teeth. It pains me to say that I long for the scenery chewing of Ellen Ripley, or even the demanding of respect as the first lady in Dave. Now we get the random and ill-conceived Avatar role, or lacking the leadership she should exude here.
It’s no mistake the film invokes the term ‘black sheep’; this film knows it is different, or an “acquired taste” if you will. Look beyond that to find the heart of it, and may just see it. As I see it, Chappie is simply the red-headed stepchild of Blade Runner. Obviously, I liked Chappie, and the glimpses of creativity we see from Blomkamp are such a wonderful breath of fresh air. I’m just a blogger, though. Most professional critics have lined up to swat at this film like a proverbial pinata. They want to hate this film, and from what I’ve read, many of them have. Many have resorted to lazy puns in describing the film, such as “Chappie is a scrap heap of regrettable storytelling”*, or in multiple places ‘crappy Chappie‘. Sigh. In one breath, they’ll praise the aforementioned Blade Runner because it’s artsy, and in the next breath they’ll decry this, the more direct film. I saw through the noise, and understood Blomkamp’s intention. Am I giving him the benefit of the doubt because I want him to be good? Sure, but as my review for Elysium stated, I have no issue blasting him, either. I liked Chappie in spite of what I’d like to change about it.
The sum of Chappie opinions show a clear critic/audience divide, and I think it warrants further examination. Chappie is the best “fan film” you’ll ever see- made by a geek with an excellent eye and a nice budget. I’m a geek, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I gathered that Blomkamp isn’t a master filmmaker, but there are certain parts of this film that spoke to the unrealized, undeveloped, yet creative young geek in me. Critics, on the other hand, lack the wherewithal to see this, and they refuse to respect geek material and/or culture. It’s why superhero films and comics are sometimes loved, but usually loathed, and have blanket opinions on the quality, or even an acceptance of their existence, thrown on them. If The Dark Knight comes along, then of course it’s a sheer miracle that it is good. It’s a superhero, or simply a geek film, not just a film. I’ll take a stand here and say that bias prevented others from enjoying the majority of Chappie– but it won’t prevent me from recommending it.
*Fanboy Nation, 3/6/15