I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t impressed with District 9 when it came out. I had some problems with its plotting, themes and underdeveloped ideas. It’s brilliant from a technical standpoint, given the budget limitations, but I was not on the Neill Blomkamp bandwagon. I actually enjoyed Elysium more, despite having problems with that as well. Having recently rewatched the two in preparation for the long-awaited Chappie, I was surprised at how my reactions changed from my original viewpoint. Elysium is a lot dumber than I remembered as well as being thematically incoherent with severely underwritten characters. It’s honestly kind of terrible the second time around. District 9 actually held up much better, I was more engaged and more invested in the characters. The one thing that makes District 9 far and away the better film is in its honesty. You can tell that the material is coming from experience, from a very personal place in Neill Blomkamp’s heart, and that connection is palpable. Elysium doesn’t have that. It shares his technical wizardry for sure, but lacks the beating heart and soul that made District 9 blow everyone away in 2009. I still hesitate to call is a masterpiece or a modern classic, but it came out at a time when we needed a film like that in sea of generic blockbusters. Chappie has been talked about and reported on for a long time and I’ve been curious about it…despite the trailers.
Taking place in the not-too-distant future Johannesburg, South Africa, where the police force have commissioned a new line of robotic police officers called scouts, which were developed by Tetravaal engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Despite their use, Deon is more interested in creating genuine artificial intelligence, robots that can think and feel just like a human being, but his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is not interested in wasting company time and money on it. So, he instead steals a recently totaled scout to take home and experiment, but he is cut short when he gets taken by a group of gangsters who hope to use him to help get them money to pay back a ruthless drug dealer. The gangsters consist of Ninja, Yolandi Visser (the two of which are played by the rap duo, Die Antwoord, literally playing themselves) and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo). This ultimately captures the attention of Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who is blinded by the jealousy of the success of Deon’s scouts over his robots, the big bad monstrosity called “the moose.”
Being completely honest, I was practically ready to tear the film to shreds. A lot of it had to do with the trailers, which I found completely trite and moronic. The word-of-mouth and reviews also added to that, as well my recent turnaround on Elysium. Having now seen the film, the writing is a mess. There’s no two ways about it. There’s a lot of really, really dumb things that happen, characters’ motivations were odd and confusing, character development was a bit sloppy, and there’s a lot of ideas being thrown around, with only few paying off in any substantial way. Yes, the film has a ton of problems that do detract from the overall quality of the product…which makes it even more surprising that I ended up kind of loving the film.
First, I’ll bring up the problems that the film has. The screenplay by Neil Blomkamp and his wife, Terri Tatchell, is deeply flawed. The plotting relies on a lot of gaps in logic and stupid decisions by the characters and plot developments that make no sense. As I mentioned in the synopsis, there is a scene where Deon Wilson is basically telling Michelle Bradley that he has created real artificial intelligence that could theoretically create and even judge art, and she brushes him off saying that they are a weapons manufacturing company not a company that makes robotic art critics. So, she essentially ignores the fact that he has created life. There’s also a recurring convenience of Deon and Vincent walking in and out of Tetravaal in the middle of the night and taking whatever they need with seemingly no problems with security whatsoever. Oh and how can I forget that the name of the file that is basically the coded framework that makes up Chappie’s mind created by Deon is called “consciousness.dat.”That’s the kind of dumb that we’re talking about here and it does happen a lot. Characters will make very questionable decisions that feel either rushed, out of nowhere, or not very well thought out. Even Vincent’s character doesn’t seem to really work, and as the film goes along, he becomes incredibly two-dimensional and unrealistically evil because…well, just because. The character development for Ninja was a solid arc that, while I found ultimately effective, still does a sloppy job at going through those necessary character beats to get that journey going. The screenplay also suffers from something that Neil Blomkamp’s films almost consistently have a problem with, and that is he throws so many ideas into one film that only a few come out properly explored, while others are either dropped or underdeveloped. There’s material in Chappie that could cover three films, but it’s all streamlined in one clunky narrative. Not helping is the fact that there is a lot in the film that does feel incredible derivative, taking ideas not just from Blomkamp’s own District 9, but also films like Robocop, Short Circuit (both of them), Bicentennial Man, Iron Giant, etc.
So, this is where I attempt to defend it. Here’s the thing, I don’t think this was necessarily meant to be this serious, contemplative, sci-fi film for adults. I would argue that Chappie is actually more of a children’s film, which just happens to be full of bloody violence and constant swearing. I found Chappie to be so engaging on an emotional level, that I ended up looking past it’s many flaws and getting genuinely invested in the characters and the drama ensuing. It engages emotionally through techniques that you often find in films that are for kids. I really don’t mean this in an insulting way. Chappie is the first film in 2015 that made me cry, and I saw Paddington (a much better film, mind you, but it didn’t make me cry). I can easily see kids absolutely loving the hell out of Chappie.
A lot of this is obviously credited to the character of Chappie himself, who is basically what you get when you cross Robocop with a baby and a puppy. It’s hard not to be charmed by his innocent nature. It’s the one aspect of the film that Blomkamp goes all the way with, and I truly bought it. Not just with the incredible effects, but also Sharlto Copley’s wonderful performance. He’s an incredibly well-realized character that sticks with you way after the film is over. Just thinking about scenes like him crying “mommy” after being nearly torn apart by the “bad man in the van” (Vincent), even though he said “please, stop” just breaks my heart. I hear a lot of people saying that they found the gangsters who essentially raise Chappie as being very unsympathetic. I had a different reaction, but I can understand given that they are criminals and they are basically raising Chappie to be a thug. Again, from an adult perspective, we can see that what they’re doing is wrong. However, thinking like I would if I was younger, I probably would’ve been into those characters. They were fun, goofy, colorful and just weird enough to have an appeal that a kid would gravitate toward. Kids don’t see anyone around them as a bad influence. They simply go for whatever looks cool to them. So, a kid watching Chappie probably won’t have much of a problem with those characters. I also thought the film did a decent job in getting us to understand their situation. At the end of the day, the three gangsters are just two-bit thugs who are stuck in a situation with a much bigger criminal. I saw them as people who are making the best of a bad situation while living in a place that does not offer many opportunities. This isn’t some first-world nation we’re talking about. This is Neil Blomkamp’s slightly exaggerated version of Johannesburg. He doesn’t present it in a particularly nice light. I saw flawed people doing what they see as necessary to make do in that world. At least, that’s what I was able to get out of it, so I didn’t have a really hard time getting attached to the characters.
While I’m on that, the whole stunt casting with Die Antwoord, I’m not sure what to make of it. I watched a few of their music videos a couple days before seeing the film to see what they’re like and they are not for me, but I guess I can see the appeal. I didn’t realize that they were literally playing themselves, to the point of actually wearing their own merchandise, and even listening to their own music in the background. I’m really not sure what the point is, but I really don’t have much to complain about since I thought their performances were fine. They’re playing themselves, so the film definitely plays to their strengths. In regards to the other cast members, it’s nice seeing Jose Pablo Cantillo in the film. I always considered him one of the more underrated character actors around, and I like seeing him get work. It’s his second appearance in a Neil Blomkamp film after Elysium, so I’d really like to see him show up in his future projects. Dev Patel does great work in the film as the earnest engineer with a bit of a god complex. He hits all his beats really well. Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are the two that make the least impact, mostly due to flat characterization. Hugh Jackman acts as a generic tough guy for most of the film before going full mustache-twirl in the final act. Sigourney Weaver is just there, mostly to spout exposition or to get the plot rolling along and that’s about it.
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of ideas being thrown in the film, so I’m gonna address the ones that I felt the film gave the most focus and attention to. One of the biggest themes in the film is the parallel of robotic programming and parenting. A lot of time is spent on how Deon, Ninja and Yolandi each have a different method in raiding Chappie. Deon is an idealist, a pacifist, someone who wants Chappie to have all the opportunities imaginable. Ninja is the one who wants Chappie to be a tough guy, someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he needs; even at one point asking Chappie after visiting a super sketchy underground facility where a dog fight took place, and asks Chappie whether he wants to be the dead dog or the living dog. Yolandi simply wants Chappie to be himself without any force or judgment. I also really liked how the film portrayed Chappie coming to terms with his morality, with one especially great scene with him and Deon that is basically man confronting God. There is even an interesting and surprising transhumanist element to the film that brings to question what it means to be alive and what could be considered a soul or consciousness. It would require spoilers to get into detail, since it heavily plays into the ending. I’ll avoid that since I loved the ending and I’d like people to experience it without knowing in advance because I found it oddly radical and progressive. It’s with these moments that I wish the script was given another round or two of rewrites to polish out the storytelling.
If anyone saw Short Circuit 2 and wished it had more scenes of people getting chopped in half, then you got your wish! Chappie is, unquestionably, an incredibly flawed film, but it’s also very sincere and has a visceral emotional core that rings more true than everything else in the film. It worked on me, but I’m aware that I’ll be in the minority. It does have an absurd amount of logical gaps, bizarre character motivations and messy plotting. Your ability to tolerate or forgive these elements versus how invested you are with the characters will be the determining factor for your enjoyment of the film. I found it to be one of the most emotionally satisfying films I’ve seen so far this year, and I think it’s practically destined to be a future cult classic by the next generation of kids who grew up watching it. It says a lot for the film that right after seeing it, I went online to see if there are any action figures available (by the way, there might be soon). Really, my only disappointment with the film is that the sequence where Chappie watches and mimics He-Man: Masters of the Universe doesn’t pay off in anyway, oh well. When I said earlier that Elysium missed that sense of personal connection that Neil Blomkamp had with District 9, I think that connection is back with Chappie, and it shows. Chappie is not necessarily the next great sci-fi that some might have wanted, but for me, it at least offers an incredibly enjoyable and visually spectacular experience that feels ever so human on the inside, and that’s really more than I could have asked.
Side Note: Given how it’s pretty much all Neil Blomkamp is talking about, I might as well address his recent gig for an Alien film (seriously though, first he talka about how he screwed up with Elysium, how his skills might be better utilized in other fields, and now pretty much talks zilch about Chappie while it’s being torn apart by critics and audiences, jeez buddy have some integrity and defend your work). I’m honestly not sure what to think of this. Before he clarified his statements, I was initially upset when he said he was going to ignore Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. I actually like these movies (don’t judge me, I like the dark and unforgiving bleakness of Alien 3, along with it’s fitting end for Ripley’s story and I think Alien: Resurrection is just a really fun movie). What I like about all of the Alien films is that each of them presented things differently in their own way with interesting ideas and themes, while also moving things forward. I’m not exactly sure what Neil Blomkamp is bringing to the table that could really add anything new, aside from a whole lot of graffiti. I think it will ultimately depend on who will pen the script. I think it’s about time Blomkamp is given a story to work with rather than writing his own.